Old Man with a Stick

One of the outcomes of my previously reported fall, resulting in multiple fractures, now mostly healed, is that, even on the shortest of journeys – round the block, say, to Cinnamon Village for my morning coffee and croissant – I can be seen walking with a stick. This, in part, is at the recommendation of the Fracture Clinic at the Royal London Hospital, reinforced by my GP, the reason being that it will help my balance and ward off any such future falls. And it’s true: without the stick as my companion I would have come a cropper on at least two recent occasions; the result, as much as anything, of inattention together with wonky paving stones.

So far then, so good.

The side-results are interesting. Once you start using a stick regularly, applying a certain amount of downward pressure with every other step – and the smooth and carefully designed handle of the stick encourages this – it affects your posture. You’re leaning just a little to one side and bearing down, no longer as straight-backed as before. Slower, too – no bad thing in itself.

Something else happens. Other people – passers-by, passengers on public transport, even friends – see you differently. While it’s true that for the past decade or more, it hasn’t been unknown for thoughtful folk on the Tube to stand and wave me into their seat, nowadays, and on buses especially, fellow travellers who’ve settled themselves into those downstairs seats marked for pregnant women and, yes, men with sticks, jump almost guiltily to their feet, leaving me no alternative, even if I’m only travelling a few stops, to nod my thanks and take their seat. It’s much the same, if less obvious, in shops and on even slightly crowded pavements. People notice and give way, for which I’m grateful.

Grateful, too, for the occasional conversations one strikes up with fellow stick-users when sharing the designated seats on the 134, say, the 390 or the 88. The latter, stopping as it does, outside Tate Britain, can be an interesting source of such conversation, most recently a discussion of the overall gloominess of Walter Sickert’s canvases currently on display in the gallery. Frequently, of course, things don’t get far beyond a brief exchange of ailments, their cause, symptoms and treatment, though I was treated recently to an interesting if overly detailed – we kept getting stuck in traffic – account of a recently undertaken and troubled – it’s the infrastructure that’s buggered – train journey from Wilmslow to Euston via Crewe. Perhaps most surprising of all, an informed discussion of Seamus Heaney’s poetry while travelling on the 134 between Camden and Tufnell Park. As my friend, Graham, who lives in a village outside Lincoln, might say,’ It’s another world’.

Overall, the stick business, how do I feel? Safer, certainly. Slower, for sure. My partner says, and I’m sure she’s right, it changes not only the way I appear to others, but the way in which I see myself. An old man. An old man with a stick. Going forward, as we both hope I am, not altogether a good thing

On the Mend

Some months back I described the results of an unfortunate fall – flat on my face on the pavement in the centre of London – which resulted in a number of fractures – nose, ribs, wrist, neck – the most potentially worrying being to the C1 vertebra at the top of my spine. Staff at UCLH set my arm and wrist in a cast, fitted me with a supportive collar and, after a series of ex-rays, passed me over for further care to the Fracture Clinic at the Royal London Hospital.

Now, more ex-rays, plenty of healing time and a CT Scan later, I am virtually collar-free, the C1 fracture all-but-healed. The restorative powers of the body, even an ageing body like mine, being little short of miraculous. There are exercises to do and, if I feel the need, for short periods the collar can be set back in place. Both the clinical nurse specialist at the hospital and my GP have advised me to walk with the aid of a stick to help guard against any future falls.

So here I am: not exactly a new man, more a slower, more cautious version of the old one …

Early Summer: Reading John Ashbery while walking on Hampstead Heath

Out on Hampstead Heath earlier this morning, the first time this week; bright, strong sunshine – a tad too strong for my personal taste, too warm – and clear skies. When I first enter the Heath from Millfield Lane – a good vantage point close by the men’s swimming pond – I can see less than a dozen people, all walking, mostly with dogs, save for one man sitting on the wooden parapet overlooking the pond itself.

At the next pond over – historically called the Boating Pond – my dad and I once proudly sailed our yacht there, only for it to be marooned close to the centre, waiting for a wind – I sit a while and watch the occasional ripples caused by fish rising close to the otherwise calm surface. Some walkers, making a circuit of the pond, nod their head or mumble a greeting, others stride on in steady concentration.

When I move on, it is up a well-trodden incline, thankfully none too steep, that takes me onto the meadow opposite, rich with buttercups. A hundred yards or so and the land has levelled out and I’m within sight of the tumulus, pleased then to find that one of the benches that surround it is free. The view south-east is towards the Olympic Park and beyond; due south and hidden by the trees, the centre of the city will be silhouetted against the sky. After some moments I take from my pocket a new book, purchased just yesterday: Something Close to Music – a selection of John Ashbery’s writing about artists such as Joan Mitchell and Jane Freilicher, together with some of his own poems and several playlists the editor has made from the two thousand records, CDs and cassette tapes that were in Ashbery’s collection.

The music is mostly what would have been classified, I think, as Contemporary Classical – John Cage, Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, Arvo Part, John Adams – maybe it still is – with a few outriders thrown in – Bernard Herman’s soundtrack for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports; John Zorn; Bill Frisell and Evan Parker playing Gavin Bryars. The writing about artists’ work is detailed and generous – a good number, such as Freilicher, were close friends and an integral part of the New York Poetry & Painting scene held together (loosely, but held nevertheless) by Frank O’Hara.

The book, as a whole, is a small delight; one of a growing number of well-designed, easily pocketable collections of writing about visual art published by David Zwirner Books, and available, as far as I can see, wherever good books are sold. I bought mine at the London Review Bookshop, though had I been in Nottingham I would have bought it, doubtless at Five Leaves Bookshop.

Sometime in the next few days, I’ll post a listing of the music I was listening via my MP3 player during the final third of my walk …

After the Fall

When I mentioned it to my friend, Jennifer, as a reason for postponing our meeting – coffee and catch-up in the upper floor café at Foyles bookshop – she was briskly solicitous. “A fall, was it, or a FALL?”

I knew what she meant.

When my father first fell, really fell, he was getting off the bus outside where he and my mother lived, a small council block where the road levels out across from the reservoir on Dartmouth Park Hill. Bag of shopping in one hand, the other touching the railing of the bus briefly before stepping clear, he could as well, in that moment, have been stepping into space. Nothing until he landed heavily on one side, the few bits and pieces from his bag spilling out – sugar, tea, a small Hovis, frozen peas – his hip broken.

The ambulance took him to the Whittington, a little higher up the hill, and though he was treated and in time discharged – discharged too soon with a walking frame he rarely used – it was the slow beginning of the end. Within those moments he had begun the journey from being a physically confident elderly man in his 70s – he still talked about getting back on his bike – to someone whose movement and memory were increasingly uncertain, who was never the same again.

My first serious fall (or FALL) occured ten years or so ago, when I was in my early 70s. My partner, Sarah, and I were amongst the crowd hurrying away from White Hart Lane, a bustling thicket of mostly Spurs supporters spreading across Tottenham High Road on their way home. We were hurrying more than was safe, more than was necessary, stepping off and on the kerb into the road and back again. I saw the coil of orange wire before I could react to it, before my foot snagged inside it and the force of my movement sent me crashing to the ground. Some people stepped around me; others stopped to help. Somehow Sarah manoevred me towards the nearest shop – a women’s hairdressers – and asked if I could sit down while I recovered. One of the customers was a nurse, who, after a cursory examination, said we should phone for an ambulance: she thought I had dislocated my shoulder. 

Not so many minutes later, or so it seemed – I think I might have been moving in and out of consciousness – I was strapped in the body of the ambulance, Sarah holding my hand while I gulped down gas and air and the driver used his siren to get us through the crowd and on our way to Whipps Cross Hospital.

An ex-ray proved the off-duty nurse to have been correct in her diagnosis; the doctor on duty gave me a choice of local or general anaesthetic while my shoulder was reset; without hesitation I chose the latter and around an hour later I woke up in the recovery ward with my shoulder back in place and an appointment with the physio department at the Whittington Hospital. Yes, that Whittington Hospital.

Since then, a minor fall some five years back when I failed to negotiate a kerb correctly, resulting in a minor fracture in my right hand – more trips to the Whittington, more physio – the occasional stumble out walking on Hampstead Heath – nothing serious, and then, two weeks ago, two weeks ago today, as Sarah and I were walking at a perfectly resonable pace along Goodge Street in Central London, on our way to see an exhibition of Caroline Walker’s paintings at the Fitzrovia Chapel, Sarah inadvertantly trod on one of my laces which had come undone, and I was pitched forward onto the pavement, face first. 

Blood was gushing – yes, really – gushing from my nose and the back of my neck hurt like hell. People came running out of the adjacent restaurant with tissues, ice & offers of help; a passing London cabbie stopped and offered to take me to the nearest A&E, which he did, refusing a fare.

After due examination, I was admitted to the Acute Medical Unit at UCLH with a nasal bone fracture, a fractured wrist, two fractured ribs, and, most worrying, a spinal fracture at C1 (the top of the spinal column). After six days, various ex-rays and an MRI, I was discharged. My nose and ribs have been designated “self healing”, my wrist and lower arm are in plaster, and for the spinal fracture I have a neck collar – the fancifully named  Miami J – to be worn 24/7 for twelve weeks. Fortunately pain is minimal, though sleep doesn’t come easy, and friends have stepped up to help Sarah remove and re-fit the collar every couple of days, for neck cleaning and general maintenance.

I’m wary about walking without assistance and it’s only the last couple of days that I’ve made it to the coffee shop around the corner without hanging onto Sarah’s arm. We both understand the importance of getting beyond that as soon as possible.

So … a fall or a FALL?

Time will tell.

Balance at our age is everything:

Like a perfect sentence depending
on that all-important semi-colon;
that comma,

Everything up to and including
the final full stop.

from Summer Notebook, John Harvey 2021

September Playlist

Another set of tracks thrown up by my excellent little Victure MP3 player on my morning walk on Hampstead Heath – warm this morning, without being overwhelming, and not an ominous cloud in the sky, unlike Friday, when they darkened, circled and finally unleashed a downpour that half-drowned me.

  1. Stars Fell On Alabama : Billie Holiday
  2. (If They Asked Me) I Could Write a Book : Ella Fitzgerald
  3. P. F. Sloane : Rumer
  4. My Next Thirty Years : Tim McGraw
  5. Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore) Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
  6. Late For the Sky : Joan Osborne
  7. Guitar : Tracey Thorne
  8. Hard Promises to Keep : Kimmie Rhodes & Willie Nelson
  9. She’s Got You : Rosanne Cash
  10. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison
  11. Old Time Feeling : Guy Clark
  12. Alison : Elvis Costello
  13. Boulder to Birmingham : Emmylou Harris
  14. So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines
  15. What’s New : Louis Armstrong w. Oscar Peterson
  16. As Long As I Live : Rosemary Clooney w. Scott Hamilton & Warren Vaché
  17. For Everyman : Jimmy LaVave
  18. Central Reservation : Beth Orton
  19. Runaway : Bonnie Raitt
  20. Talkin’ at the Texaco : James McMurtry

July Playlist

Setting off on my Hampstead Heath walk this morning, the rain was falling quite strongly – but not strongly enough to prevent me calling in at the Lido Café for one of Allesio’s excellent flat whites – and by the time I was close to half way round my usual Sunday route – three miles or so in total – and passing Kenwood House, it had more or less ceased.

I don’t know what it is with these algorithms, but the third song that shuffled its way into my headphones and out of my MP3 player was Creedence Clearwater’s Who’ll Stop the Rain ? … Spooky.

  1. Body & Soul : Lester Young w. Oscar Peterson Trio
  2. Across the Border : Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris
  3. Who’ll Stop the Rain? : Creedence Clearwater Revival
  4. St. Olav’s Gate : Tom Russell w. Shawn Colvin
  5. In the Ghetto : Elvis Presley
  6. Old Chunk of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver
  7. You Win Again : Mary Chapin Carpenter
  8. Daniel : Elton John
  9. Hard Livin’ : Martha Redbone
  10. L. A. Freeway : Guy Clark
  11. I’ve Got It Bad & That Ain’t Good : Thelonious Monk
  12. American Tune : Allen Toussaint

Chilterns Ramble: in the footsteps of the Ashridge Drovers.

The weather looked promising on Sunday, if a tad on the chilly side, and with the Chilterns no more than thirty minutes or so away by train, Sarah and I made our pack-up, filled our water bottles and the thermos, and were on our way. Euston station was very well organised with more than usual staff ensuring that people kept, as far as possible, out of one another’s way. Everyone in the concourse was wearing a mask, as they were on the 12 carriage train, and we were able to sit with no one facing us or even particularly close. The surprise came when alighting at Tring station, when the platform was suddenly awash with ramblers, sixty of them at least, two organised groups and the remainder in dribs and drabs like us. And a further surprise, the majority oƒ them seemed to be aged 30 or younger. Not the kind of rambling groups we’re used to walking with.

Most of the other walkers seemed to be heading towards Ivinghoe Beacon – a fine circular walk marking one end of the Ridgeway [Britain’s oldest ‘road’, beginning some 87 miles away in Wiltshire], but a few miles longer than the Ashridge Drovers Walk, which would have us following in the footsteps of farmers and cattlemen of former times, who used the paths to drive their cattle between the villages of Pitstone, Ivinghoe and Aldbury. [Think an Ealing Comedy version of Howard Hawks’ Red River.]

Not far from the beginning of the walk, a long and steep climb (and I do mean steep) takes you up to the Bridgewater Monument [dedicated to the third Duke of Bridgewater, known as ‘the father of inland navigation’] and thence into attractive ancient woodland which, after progressing a mile or so northwards, curves eastwards and joins the Ridgeway, bringing you back over Pitstone Hill (steep, but not nearly as steep as before) and eventually down towards Tring Station. An easy and enjoyable six miles in all. And, if we hadn’t missed the Euston train by minutes, a perfect end to the day – as it was, we had a deserted platform on which to sit, suitably distanced, and eat our sandwiches. [Since you ask, Co-op’s Finest Mature Somerset Cheddar with banana and hot mango chutney, followed by chunky peanut butter and raspberry jam with yet more banana. Do we know how to treat ourselves or what?]

Anniversary Ramble …

In ordinary times (remember those?), often with my partner, Sarah – and when a Notts County game wasn’t within easy reach – I would devote my Saturdays to walking with the  North East London Ramblers. Most of their organised walks are between ten and twelve miles in length and begin and end within an hour or so of Central London by train: relatively easy access, therefore, to the Chilterns, the North and South Downs, the Kentish Weald, the chalk escarpments of Bedfordshire, the Thames Estuary and the windswept flatlands of Essex.
Earlier this year, the various effects of ageing suggested it was time for me to draw the line at a ten mile maximum – preferably, and possible in the shortened days of winter, a mere eight.
Already avoiding rambles involving several steep climbs, an embarrassing incident in which I found myself becalmed half-way over a stile and in need of someone to lift my trailing foot across and over, meant scanning the walk description carefully for mention of an over-generous number of stiles and similar obstacles en route.
The virus, of course, put a stop to all that midway through March, and it’s only recently that group rambles have resumed, albeit with reduced numbers.

A walk which Sarah and I have done several times on our own follows a stretch of the Chess Valley in Buckinghamshire. Seven or eight miles long and taking in a section of the Chiltern Way, it winds along river meadows, lightly folding fields to one side and above the escarpment on the other, a rich foray of trees. The midway point is conveniently marked by Holy Cross Church and the Cock Inn.
Here, the graveyard provides several comfortable benches on which to rest and eat our packed lunch – usually, cheddar cheese on wholemeal bread with sliced banana and mango chutney – after which we cross to the pub garden and relax with a half of bitter (Sarah’s) and a bottle of ginger beer (mine), before using the facilities and setting off on our return journey.

With our daughter, Molly Ernestine, for company, Sarah and I did this walk again yesterday as a way of marking our 24th anniversary. Despite the previous day’s rain, it proved to be mostly easy-going, the pleasant sunshine interrupted only by a blurring of distant cloud and the occasional sharp shower – a metaphor if ever I saw one!

Version 2

Version 2

Rambling … the Chess Valley

Lovely little walk this: Metropolitan line north to Chalfont & Latimer and the edge of the Chilterns, pass a few suburban rows of Tudorbethan houses and you’re out in open country, soon making a small detour to the village of Latimer, where we take advantage of the bench on the village green to sample the coffee from our Thermos and share a KitKat, then we’re back on track, following the river past the watercress beds until, with a short climb, we reach Holy Cross Church close to Sarratt, where the cemetery benches provide the perfect lunch spot [cheese, banana & mango chutney on wholemeal seeded, since you ask] after which we cross the road to the garden of the Cock Inn to quench our thirst and use the facilities. In the past, we’ve made a circular walk of it, past the village of Chenies and through woodland, but this time, on the principle that things look different when approached from another direction, we go back the way we came.

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