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Saturday, 7 April 2018

Enjoyment, Disaster, Reminiscences

I would consider myself fortunate to have been born in the early 1950's. Yes, rather fortunate indeed. One of the Baby Boomers, that generation who had to endure a childhood growing up in a culture where "you are seen but not heard", educated at a Secondary Modern school, sometimes referred to as the "Academic Trash Bin" by the more snobby Grammar school pupils and maybe their staff as well. And those were the days when many a male teacher and staff member had a cane in his desk drawer, ready to be whacked across the palm of anyone singled out for misbehaviour - an offence even small enough as talking whilst walking through the corridor to get to the classroom from morning assembly.

Having failed the eleven-plus, my destination to get my hands dirty in a vocational, non-academic factory job was already predetermined even before my first day at secondary school. And their predetermination came to fruition in 1968 when I joined a local all-male family-owned furniture-making factory, where my very first task was to sweep the workshop floor. But I ought to be thankful for one small matter. That is, unlike most other school-leavers with me, I did not have to make tea for the entire workforce. However, on just one morning during that five-year stint, I was told to make the teas. Innocently enough, I poured almost a third of an entire Brooke Bond packet of tea leaves into this very large industrial aluminium teapot, much to the shock of the governors, who always made the other boys use no more than half a teaspoon, which is even less than I use to make a single cup at home. It was no surprise that I was not allowed near the kettle again, although I can honestly plead, hand-on-heart, that there was no malicious intent. Thank goodness for the later invention of tea-bags!

As I see it, these initial five years of my working life as a dogsbody has never been considered harmful, bur rather beneficial in the process of adolescence, that stage in life slotted in between childhood kindergarten and an adult adapting to the brutality of the real world. And if a constant stream of swear-words and the most low-level smut contributed towards this way of growing up, so be it. At least I never had to be under this modern-day "helicopter parenting" when even unsupervised playground activities are now considered "risky". Like the case I read in today's newspaper, in which the staff at one school in Surrey have petitioned for a century-old Sweet Chestnut tree located in the schoolyard to be cut down because, "during Autumn the fallen leaves can be rather slippery". Oh dear! Elf 'n' Safety off its rocker again.

As a result of this start to life, more than once I was looked upon as "brave" - just because I had, and still have - an itch for lone independent travel, which is something I have always enjoyed immensely. A dream indeed fulfilled. Yet, how could I ever forget, for example, when preparing to hike the Grand Canyon in 1995, the "dire warnings" I received from my well-educated and well-meaning church friends, all still unmarried, about rattlesnakes, coyotes, and other forms of wildlife which can pose a threat to my well-being whilst in the desert. I replied that if I was to think this way, I might as well stay at home, even feeling too timid to step out of the front door. At least throughout my childhood living, when Mum sent me out on my own to buy one or two items of grocery, I had never developed agoraphobia.

And independent travel opened my eyes to the this big, beautiful world outside the coastline of the UK. And this is not about package hotels on the Spanish Costa, but the need to bed-hunt as I travelled from one destination to the next, particularly throughout the 1970's. Back then I wasn't aware of hostels until 1985 - traditional youth hostels that is, as backpacker's hostels were of a later development. Instead, when it came to looking for a hotel, mine was always the case of "off the street" instead of pre-booking. That is, to walk into a hotel, approach the reception desk and ask whether there is a room available. I started this towards the end of my teenage years here in the UK, but from 1973 onward, I had no trouble with overseas off-the-street bed-hunting whilst travelling through Italy, Israel, Canada and the USA. Especially across North America in 1977 and 1978 when the first thing I did after stepping off the Greyhound bus was to look for a nearby hotel, walk in and ask if there was a vacant room. And in every case I was offered a room with no qualms. 

Also to note that I stayed clear of luxury five-star establishments. Instead, with such a limited budget for every trip, I always went for one to two-star, which is a basic bedroom with shared bathroom facilities. Back in the seventies, some of these hotels, such as in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Los Angeles, the hotel I chose to stay in was within view of the Greyhound Bus terminal, therefore making bed-hunting so straightforward. Like the morning in 1978 when I exited the bus terminal in downtown Los Angeles to see the imposing Hotel Cecil directly across the street. (However, if you consult Google Earth for verification, you will see big changes having taken place over the years. For example, although Hotel Cecil in downtown LA is still there, opposite where the bus station once stood, the site is now a car park, the bus station having moved to East 7th Street, I believe, to save on site rental.) 

By the nineties I have gotten fully used to hosteling. With former traditional HI youth hostels metamorphosing into backpackers accommodation in order to remain in business, I had no trouble with off-the-street bed-hunting whilst in Israel, the USA, Singapore and Australia. Oh yes, there was just one occasion after stepping off the train at Katoomba Station in New South Wales. The hostel of my choice had turned me away with an apology and an explanation that all the beds were taken by a group of students who had just arrived for field work at the nearby Blue Mountains National Park. So I had to walk around town to find an unaffiliated private hostel, and sure enough, when one appeared, I was offered a bed upon entry.
All this reminiscence on hotels and hostels and how easy it was to get a room for the night or for several nights. And so was I in for one heck of a rude shock on Easter Monday! This what happened. A good friend, Andrew by name, a doctor and geneticist to boot, accompanied us for a day trip to London to visit the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The train journey was uneventful, not suffering any problems or delays, and we arrived at the museum in good time. We had a fantastic afternoon there. I allowed Andrew to wheelchair Alex slowly through the galleries while I sauntered behind to study the exhibits on display.   

Marine Gallery, Natural History Museum, taken April 2, 2018

It was when we were on our way to Earls Court Underground station that Alex began to suffer back pain of great intensity, leaving me in a panic and Andrew bewildered. Right opposite the station entrance, Alex slipped out of her wheelchair and squirmed on the sidewalk, attracting some spectators. It was then that no other option but to call for an emergency ambulance.

I must have had a bad phone signal. Because the Ambulance Controller kept asking me to spell the name of the station we were at:

"Earls Court Station. E-A-R-L-S  C-O-U-R-T," I said.
"Can you repeat that?"
"E-A-R-L-S  C-O-U-R-T," I shouted above the din of traffic.
"I didn't quite get it. Can you spell it out again?"
"E!---A!---R!---L!---S!    C!---O!---U!---R!---T!"
"There may be up to two hours before the ambulance arrives. I'm so so sorry, but we're very busy."
"I'm very sorry."

However, one of the bystanders also phoned the Ambulance Control Centre soon after getting through myself. About fifteen minutes later, whilst helplessly watching my wife squirm in agony, and could only give her some useless reassurance and comfort, the welcoming wail of the ambulance siren could be heard through the din of traffic down the busy street. When the vehicle momentary appeared then disappeared behind a bus, I went to the middle of the street to wave the driver's attention.

It took a while for the crew to settle Alex in. With an oxygen mask and a good dose of morphine, Alex began to settle as the ambulance made the short journey to Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. There she was detained for several hours on a course of morphine and Diazepam. At the start of this period of time I dismissed Andrew from the hospital A&E ward, allowing him to return home by himself.

By 23.30 hours Alex, who was feeling a lot better except from a mild ache, was ready for discharge. All I had in mind is to find a hotel for the rest of the night before boarding the train homeward the next day. Reminiscing on the past, I felt assured that, being the end of the holiday weekend, there should be plenty of empty rooms awaiting occupancy. As I wheeled my wife out of the hospital into the dark deserted street, I felt under compulsion to turn back into the A&E Reception. Two staff members were behind the screen, a middle-aged Englishman and beside him, a younger Mediterranean or Asian-looking fellow. As I spoke to the older gentleman about whether there are any hotels nearby, he just shook his head without saying anything. But the younger fellow immediately left his seat and approached us, asking whether we have booked a hotel via the Internet.

"No I didn't, because I have no present access to the Internet. Surely there must be plenty of unoccupied rooms." I reasoned.

Then the young fellow explained: Not a single hotel in London would accept us without an Internet booking. Do I have a mobile phone or tablet? When I explained that my mobile isn't connected, he then offered to book a hotel room for us, using his own mobile phone. Or else we are left to wander the streets of London all night. After a couple of moments searching, the young man suggested a Travelodge about seven minutes away by taxi. When I accepted his suggestion, he made the booking for us via his tablet and I had to pay there and then. Then we waited for the arrival of the taxi, which he also booked, which then took us to the hotel.

Alex at A&E, shortly before discharge.

All this goes to show how stuck in the past I have always been. Believing in the easy and casual life I have always known, how was it ever possible that heightened security has made living without technology virtually impossible? It is a very sad situation - the need for Internet booking before arriving at a hotel in the middle of the night. Oh, how I long for the good old days of the seventies!

And how is my perception of God throughout all this? It is very tempting to think God loves some people much more than others! For example, it looks to all the world that most Christians I know personally are in good health, middle class, financially secure, are in good jobs, able to raise ideal families, and can have anything they want. Basking in God's love. As for us, although we were looking forward for a Eurostar trip to Marseilles on the south coast of France later this year, I have decided that because we live on a constant knife-edge, it's now considered way too risky to make the trip. The chance of Alex going down in severe pain whilst overseas would be catastrophic, believe me!

Why does the Lord allow all these things to happen? And why us? Why was it Alex, my beloved wife, who was squirming on the sidewalk outside the station, among a high city population of reasonably healthy individuals? There are more questions than answers. But this I determine: My faith and loyalty to God will never fail. I will always trust him and his wisdom. I am thankful that if Alex is destined to have a "downer" as I call it, then I am thankful that it occurred on the street next to a known landmark rather than on board a train where the pull of the emergency cord would have disrupted the entire line from Waterloo to Reading.

Or what, for that matter, had she gone down with severe pain whilst on board the Eurostar halfway between London St Pancras and Marseilles St Charles? Yes, what then? Indeed, the situation would have been much worse. True enough, the London incident was bad enough, but who knows, it might have just saved us from impending catastrophe with a five-digit hospital bill to follow.


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