My Christmas manifesto

Regular readers of my blog will be well aware that Christmas isn’t exactly my favourite time of the year.  Have a read of ”It’s the most wonderful time of the year’ (erm…)’, if you’re wondering about the reasons for this.  Therefore, with the 2019 election just days away, I recently found myself declaring to my partner in crime* as I carefully navigated my way down hideously bedazzled streets, ‘If I were in government I’d pass a law to make everyone who puts up Christmas lights liable for MASSIVE taxes!”  After further discussion of this idea, we reached the conclusion that, actually, it would probably be better to pass legislation to require that all Christmas lights must be powered by a government-owned Christmas Electricity Company, with electricity charged at a premium rate.  Vans would be dispatched across the country to monitor properties displaying Christmas lights and check that the correct electricity supply was being used… a bit like TV licence vans.  Anyone found to be using the incorrect electricity supply would be liable to stump up hefty fines.

This led to further discussion of other ideas, resulting in the following manifesto which I sincerely hope that all my eye buddies will support me on when I stand for parliament…

  1. Free eye tests every two years to everyone under the age of 40, and every year to everyone above the age of 40.
  2. Unlimited free eye pressure checks at optometrists for all retinal detachment and glaucoma patients.
  3. Introduction of an Umbrella Licence.  Anyone wishing to use an umbrella will be required to pass an Umbrella Handling Exam before being permitted to use such apparatus.  The aim of this is to avoid eye injuries caused by umbrella spokes as a result of dangerous handling.  There will be a requirement to re-take the exam on an annual basis in order to maintain an up-to-date licence.
  4. 500% VAT on Christmas jumpers.
  5. £1 per page tax on ‘The Sun’ newspaper.  Revenue generated as a result of this tax will be spent on education and will therefore be allocated to schools and universities.
  6. Legislation will be passed which requires all copies of ‘The Daily Mail’ to be published in German.  This includes both print and online versions.
  7. There will be a strict ban on the flashing of car headlights as a method of thanking other drivers.  Instead, front and rear windscreens of all vehicles will be fitted with a series of green lights denoting a thumbs up symbol to indicate thanks, operable from a switch on the steering wheel. The lights will not be of unnecessary brightness.
  8. Free pizzas for all on the first Monday of every month, but a blanket ban on all novelty pizzas – for example, Christmas-themed pizzas.
  9. An on-the-spot fine for anyone mentioning Christmas outside the month of December.  The fine will be heavier the further away from December that the word ‘Christmas’ is uttered.  Therefore, this offence will result in fines as follows: January-March – £100 fine; April-June – £75 fine; July – September – £50 fine; October – November: £25 fine.
  10. Food labels on all items measuring 10cm square or above must be displayed in at least 11 point text size.  Magnifying glasses must be available in all supermarkets at the end of each aisle.
  11. Stobe lighting at gigs will be strictly limited to accompany no more than three tracks per gig, with a warning to be clearly given from the stage before any track incorporating stobe lighting is performed.
  12. Black, navy, and dark brown suitcases on wheels will be banned.  Instead, they must be brightly coloured and fitted with reflective strips.
  13. A ban on all shoes with lights fitted in the heels.
  14. A Works Christmas Dinner Tax will be introduced, in which partakers of work Christmas meals must pay a tax equal to the food and drink which they consume.  Revenue generated via this means will be used to combat the problem of homelessness.
  15. An on-the-spot fine of £500 for anyone complaining about having to wear glasses.  This money will be used to fund sight-saving research.

Let me know if you have any further ideas and all will be considered with due seriousness and added to the manifesto if they are felt to be fair and reasonable.  In the meantime… if you’re in the UK, don’t forget to vote on 12 December and mind those ghastly bright Christmas lights on your way to the polling station!

*No crimes were actually committed during this journey, although there was some discussion of wire-cutters.

I’m voting for the NHS… again

On Wednesday 16 October, I got home from work and proceeded to carry out my usual routine of putting the kettle on for a cuppa whilst hitting the biscuit tin with enthusiasm.  (When I say ‘hitting’ the biscuit tin, I don’t mean that literally.)  Whilst waiting for the kettle to boil I had a quick skim through The Guardian on my ‘phone and read the following article with growing horror: ‘NHS doctor banned from coming back to UK over visa mix-up‘.  Now, this would be bad enough regardless of the medical specialism involved, but this case was particularly pertinent to me as it related to an ophthalmologist specialising in retinal conditions who had worked at Moorfields Eye Hospital and left when he was offered his first post as a consultant at the Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading.  He was refused a new visa to allow him to re-enter the UK and take up that post after he made a small mistake in his application.  As you’ll see if you read the article (and please do read it!), he blamed his error on “misleading and confusing advice” on the Home Office website.  As the article points out, this happened days after the NHS’s shortage of almost 10,000 doctors in England alone led to doctors being added to the UK’s shortage occupation list of professionals needing priority in being granted working visas.

Needless to say, the article put me right off my chocolate biscuits and I slurped mouthfuls of scalding tea between spitting out equally fiery mouthfuls of expletives to express my indignation that such an outrage had been allowed to occur.  I was SO ANGRY (note the return to angry, shouty capital letters) that I broke my rule of ‘no computers or TV after a day at work spent in front of a screen and dragged out my laptop to divert my fury into an email to my MP, as follows:

‘I have just read The Guardian’s article about the ophthalmologist, Dr Chan, being banned from re-entering the UK to take up a consultant’s post at the Royal Berkshire Hospital (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/16/nhs-doctor-banned-from-coming-back-to-uk-over-visa-mix-up).  I am appalled by the inhumane treatment of this surgeon, and it also clearly demonstrates this government’s utter disregard for patients in this country who are being treated under the NHS.

I have been a patient at Moorfields Eye Hospital since December 2014.  I have had five major surgeries for multiple retinal detachments in my right eye, as well as treatment to mend retinal tears in my left eye.  I have waited hours in Moorfields A&E and various packed clinics and have always been grateful for the excellent treatment I have received there.  I have, after rushing to A&E at 7am one morning and spending many hours waiting, been given the news that I needed emergency surgery but then sent home to await a call to return the following day, because there was not the capacity to treat all the retinal patients that day.  I was not deemed to be a priority case as my prognosis for a good visual outcome was poor.  I have had three check-up appointments postponed at the last minute, and the reason cited was that there were not enough doctors.  Dealing with serious eye problems is bad enough, but being unable to access treatment when needed or having appointments postponed also has an extremely negative impact on patients’ mental health.


It is well known that there is a current shortage of doctors in the UK. Meanwhile, the number of people experiencing eye problems is rapidly increasing.  According to the RNIB, in 2013 there were an estimated 1.93 million people living with sight loss in the UK, and this number is set to double by 2050 (https://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/knowledge-and-research-hub/research-reports/general-research/economic-impact-sight-loss).  I owe my current vision to skilled ophthalmologists such as Dr Chan.  I am therefore genuinely upset and horrified to read this news report.  Could you please urge the Health Secretary and the Home Secretary to consider his case urgently and enable him to return to the UK.’

I also sent the same email to the Health Secretary and the Home Secretary, with a slight amendment to the final sentence.  Needless to say, I did not receive a reply from either of them.  I did, however, receive a response from my MP in the form of a copy of his letter to the Home Office in which he noted that the accompanying email and supporting article sent to him by his constituent (i.e. me) was self-explanatory.  He went on to state that this was not the first case that he’d found it necessary to consider relating to the refusal of the Visa and Immigration Services to afford entry to necessary and qualified medical practitioners and noted that he believed it was important to review and revise policy in relation to such cases.  In due course, a Home Office response to his letter was forwarded to me via email.  Unfortunately, by this point we were well into election campaigning and so it was pretty vague and insubstantial (much like many of the PM’s promises, come to think of it).

Fortunately, I had already read in a follow-up article by The Guardian that the decision to refuse Dr Chan’s a visa had been overturned: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/17/home-office-overturns-nhs-eye-doctors-visa-refusal.  This article quotes Dr Rinesh Parmar, a spokesman for the Doctors’ Association UK, as saying: “This is yet another case which demonstrates the nonsensical Home Office hostile environment strategy, which is at complete odds with attempts by the NHS to recruit international doctors. Since March 2018 the Doctors’ Association UK has had to intervene in numerous cases of NHS doctors facing deportation or prevented from working in the the NHS due to bureaucratic decisions made by the Home Office. We call on the Home Office to review their processes and handling of these cases as the NHS can ill afford to lose a single doctor.”

For me, this is just one more reason not to vote Conservative in the forthcoming General Election on 12 December.  Unsurprisingly, the reasons I gave for not voting Conservative in the General Election of June 2017 in my previous post at that time, ‘I’m voting for the NHS‘ still stand and are equally as relevant today as they were two and a half years ago.  Of course there are also a myriad of other reasons not to vote Conservative and I won’t go into them all here as I’m likely to use up my WordPress allowance of free space.

However, on a final note, let me encourage all my UK readers to please, please, PLEASE vote with the NHS in mind on 12 December.  If you’re thinking of voting Conservative please watch this video first: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLYTIBllQd8.  And for those people who may be rolling their eyes at me banging on about politics again… this stuff is important.  It’s important because the government we elect will affect our lives for the next few years.  It’s important because when people need healthcare, they should be able to access it free of charge at that point regardless of whether they’re rich or poor.  It’s important because people shouldn’t be in the position of having hospital appointments cancelled or emergency surgeries postponed because there aren’t enough doctors.  So please… read beyond the headlines and use your vote wisely.

Behind the scenes at Moorfields Eye Hospital

I had a check up appointment at Moorfields last Monday.  As always, I’d spent the previous night tossing and turning as various scenarios were presented to me by the incredibly unhelpful and irritatingly omnipresent Mr Pip: ‘what if the area of detachment in your right retina has increased?’, ‘what if the oil has emulsified?’, ‘what if your pressure has skyrocketed?’  Or – horror of horrors – ‘what if they find another retinal tear in your good eye?’.  I was so relieved when my alarm finally went off at 6am that I immediately got up and read a few articles about the impending General Election just to calm myself down.  It comes to something when you find yourself reading about the continued chaos of your country as a method of distraction from your internal torment.  I briefly contemplated whether I could add, ‘Is Brexit bad for ophthalmology?’ to my usual list of pre-prepared questions to ask my consultant, but decided this might be bad form as he was probably like the Queen and had to remain impartial (in clinic at least).

I headed to the station with my sister and we were both pleased not to have to shell out the ‘milk the commuter’ fare as my appointment was late morning.  Nevertheless, the train was still rammed, although thankfully it wasn’t as bad as our last venture up to Moorfields, as related in the post ‘Sardines and stitches‘.  We arrived to a packed clinic and settled down for the customary long wait.  Before long, it was time for visual acuity and pressure checks (all fine – yay!), followed by dilation drops – ouch, ouch, ouch!  A nurse once told me that they sting more in tired eyes, and this certainly seemed to be the case that day.  More waiting followed until eventually I was called through by a pleasant Fellow, in two senses of the word.  (I had to explain all about medical Fellows to a friend recently, who was confused as to why I’d suddenly started speaking like Jacob Rees-Mogg… [pauses to shudder].)

After a thorough slit-lamp examination, the aforementioned Fellow pronounced that everything was still stable, and I felt the muscles in my neck relax slightly.  He then asked if anything had been discussed about trying to get the oil out, and my shoulders shot up to my ears as I explained the situation: multiple surgeries, PVR, retina keeps detaching, etc etc.  He nodded understandingly and said, ‘Ah yes, so it’s better to leave things as they are for now’.  My shoulders lowered slightly as I noted that even if my retina could be made to actually remain attached, I’d been told that my vision in that eye won’t improve now.  He agreed, and after cramming in a few more questions we headed out of the clinic and up to the incredibly hot cafe for lunch and a celebratory cuppa.

Ironically, we then had about three hours to kill before we were due to attend an event put on by Moorfields Eye Charity, entitled, ‘A day in the life of a clinical trial’.  This was held for members of Moorfields Visionaries Circle, a new group recently set up for people who have left a gift to Moorfields Eye Charity in their wills.  After finally getting around to doing just that (you can read about this in my post ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way‘), I had been delighted to receive a letter inviting me to join the group.  My enthusiasm was mainly because the letter explained that members would be given opportunities to attend certain ‘behind the scenes’ tours and talks.  As a person who always wants to slip behind doors marked ‘private’ in National Trust properties, and obviously with my obsession with optics in mind, this was far too good an opportunity to miss.  So when I realised that one of the first events was to take place on the afternoon of my appointment, I leapt at the chance to sign up.

We spent the three hours wandering through freezing streets to cool down after the hot cafe before finding an alternative cooler cafe and then returning to the hospital to explore some of the corridors and admire some tactile artwork displayed on the walls.  Upon doubtfully questioning my sister about whether we should really be wandering around the hospital corridors she replied casually, ‘Oh, I do this all the time when you’re in surgery!’, which of course explains why she always seems to know exactly where to go as I confusedly stumble after her with dilated eyes.

Fortunately, the morning’s dilation drops had subsided by the time the event began.  We were met by staff from Moorfields Eye Charity as well as a team of researchers.  To our surprise, there were only eight of us as visitors to the event, so it was much smaller than we’d expected!  There were some introductory talks, and we were told that we were going to have a whistle-stop tour of what a patient taking part in a clinical trial might experience.  We were told that ten patients had attended on that day, and they underwent over sixty tests altogether.  It was explained that the process was very different from that of attending a clinic as there wasn’t the same amount of waiting around, although patients were given breaks between tests.

We were split into two groups of four, with a mixture of researchers and Moorfields Eye Charity staff in each group, and we were told that the aim was for us to experience ‘a day in the life of a clinical trial, from bench to bed’.  One group would start at the bench; the other group at the bed.  Personally, I think ‘Moorfields Russian Dolls’ may have been a more accurate description, due to the smaller and smaller rooms we were shown into, to observe live demonstrations of various machines.  In each case, one member of the research team acted as a human guinea-pig while the other explained how it all worked.

The first room contained various OCT scanners.  Having undergone an OCT scan in my local high street at my recent eye test appointment (have a read of ‘The surprise OCT scan‘), I think my optometrist would leap up and down in excitement if he were to enter that room.  (Perhaps in my next appointment I should encourage him to consider leaving a gift to Moorfields in his will…)  We were told that the OCT scanner used in the demonstration was top of the range.  Apparently, OCT scanners are a bit like mobile ‘phones in that new and improved versions come out all the time.  This one was able to produce an image of the retina which previously was only possible by injecting dye into the patient’s arm and waiting for it to travel through to the eye.  So of course the benefit was that the data could be produced much more quickly and without having to faff about with needles and dyes.

One machine we were shown took up most of the room – a huge, black, foreboding-looking monster of a machine.  Again, this produced scans and pictures of the retina – in particular very detailed images of the macula area and the different layers within it.  The researcher demonstrated how it was possible to see the network of tiny blood vessels in incredible detail, and even individual cells themselves.  We were told that the reason the machine was so huge was that it had originally been used in astronomy and had a number of mirrors inside it to eliminate atmospheric ‘noise’ on the images.  Cold War spying was also mentioned in relation to its history, which I found immensely intriguing.

We were also shown alternative eye charts.  One of these was set out so that the distance between the letters was equal in proportion to the size of the letters, meaning that there was more space between the letters as they went down the chart.  The aim of this was to cut out distortion created as a result of the disproportionately smaller gaps between the letters on the Snellen chart.  Another chart had a greyish background colour, to reduce the glare of the white surround, which certain patients (e.g. those with cataracts) find more difficult to focus on.

After the final demonstration of a visual fields machine in the tiniest room of all, we were led through a maze of back corridors (there were jokes about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to find our way out) to a boardroom containing tea and biscuits… the perfect finale!  There, we were given the opportunity to chat to the Moorfields Eye Charity staff and researchers, which was really interesting.  There was a short talk from one of the researchers working on artificial intelligence, who asked how we’d feel – as patients – about the prospect of a computer diagnosing us and sending us off as ‘ok’ or referring us for further investigations and/or treatment.  He wanted to know whether we would feel comfortable with this or would want the human element of an actual doctor there as well.  The general feedback suggested that people were uncertain.  I feel that it depends on what tests the computer is doing… for example, if it’s testing eye pressure or visual acuity, perhaps this is easier than checking for retinal tears?  Ultimately, I know it’s already been proven that there are huge benefits to artificial intelligence (e.g. robots performing retinal surgery can eliminate the risk of tremor in the hand of the surgeon and thereby reduce the amount of inflammation caused).  I guess how patients respond is largely influenced by what we’re accustomed to, but I’d argue that our response can also be influenced by clear education on the potential benefits of artificial intelligence in certain situations.

To end, I just want to say thank you to Moorfields Eye Charity and the researchers for such an interesting, informative, and thoroughly enjoyable event.  Also, to encourage anyone who hasn’t yet written a will to just go and crack on with it – it’s really not as bad as you think!  And please consider leaving a gift to Moorfields Eye Charity!  You can find a few tips and hopefully useful bits of information about making a will in my post, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way‘.  Now maybe I can ask them to consider some research into PVR next… 😉

 

The surprise OCT scan

The time came around for my yearly eye test at the optometrist’s (or optician’s, as they’re generally but incorrectly known here in the UK) a week or so ago.  A couple of people quizzed me on why I couldn’t just get this done at my imminent appointment at Moorfields Eye Hospital, and I carefully explained that although they do test my visual acuity at Moorfields, my appointments there are specific to my retinas rather than overall general eye health and determining my prescription.  So off I went, and was delighted that my appointment was with the friendly and knowledgeable optometrist with the fun sense of humour, whom I’d seen a couple of years ago.

‘So’, he declared with purpose, peering at my notes in front of him, scribbled on a small card, ‘how are your eyes?’  ‘Hmm, okay, I hope!’, I answered with a nervous note of caution as I watched him continuing to scan my notes before raising an eyebrow.  ‘Ah yes – multiple retinal detachments, I remember.  Any flashes or floaters?’  ‘No more than usual’, I replied truthfully.  He shot me a sharp glance and proceeded to relate the standard drill which I should have been told years ago when my floaters were first noted: that if they increase, or if anything changes in my vision, get it checked out immediately.  ‘Don’t worry’, I assured him, ‘I know to go straight to Moorfields if there are any changes.’

He listed off my various diagnoses and treatments, which I helpfully continued for him when he began to falter, reciting, ‘silicone oil in the right eye, lattice degeneration, PVR…’ ‘Ah yes – what is PVR?’, he enquired, looking at me in some confusion.  ‘Proliferative vitreoretinopathy’, I informed him, wondering whether I should refer him to my blog post, ‘The curse of PVR‘ which answers precisely that question.  ‘It’s basically where cells from one part of the eye get into another part of the eye where they shouldn’t be, and they proliferate and cause scar tissue which then causes traction and pulls the retina off again’.  He nodded but still looked a little bemused, proceeding to ask me if it was hereditary.  I explained that no, it’s a complication of retinal detachment and only occurs in 8-10% of cases so I’m just massively unlucky.  I really should have referred him to that blog post.  However, as I was his last customer of the day, time was short and we had to move on from discussions of PVR to testing my visual acuity.

He covered my left eye and asked me to tell him what I could read of the Snellen chart using my right eye.  I proudly declared the top letter with confidence and shifted my eye back and forth until the two letters below became visible enough for me to be reasonably sure of what they were.  Next was my left eye, and I rattled off the line of letters at the bottom of the chart with ease.  ‘Am I still 6/36 in the right and 6/5 in the left?’, I asked him for confirmation just for peace of mind.  ‘Yes’, he said, ‘but 6/36 with A LOT of effort.’  ‘Alright!’, I replied indignantly in my head, ‘Don’t relegate me to 6/60 in my right eye again, after I’ve practised so hard to read the chart!’  Out loud, however, I merely observed that I was using eccentric viewing in order to read the second line down, at which he nodded with approval.  (You can read an explanation of eccentric viewing in ‘It’s not odd, it’s just eccentric‘, if you’re interested.)

Next came eye pressures, and a sigh of relief when they were okay, followed by the slit lamp examination.  As always, I began to worry when he started focussing on one portion of the inside of my eye in particular, as was made clear by his instruction, ‘look left again’, ‘look up and left’, ‘now left again’, and hesitating for longer than previously.  Fortunately, everything was okay, but after checking various lenses and determining that my prescription remained unchanged, he then freaked me out by declaring, ‘Now, I’d just like you to have a scan if that’s okay?’  ‘What kind of scan?’, I asked, assuming it would be digital retinal photography.  ‘OCT scan’, he replied, adding with a hint of pride that the practice had obtained an OCT machine about a year ago.  I looked at him in alarm, which he obviously clocked immediately as he patted me gently and said reassuringly, ‘Don’t worry – everything’s fine; I just want to do this for my own interest.’  I stared at him doubtfully.  ‘Really’, he confirmed, ‘it’s fine, don’t worry!’

Off we went into the OCT scanner room, after I’d paid for my eye test first as the receptionist was about to go home.  ‘It’s just payment for the test but not the OCT scan’, he instructed her as I sent up a prayer of thanks in the knowledge that OCT scans aren’t exactly cheap.  ‘Now, just pop your chin on the rest there and keep looking ahead at the blue cross’, he instructed, as I struggled to locate the blue cross with my waffy right eye.  Once scans of both eyes were completed, he decided to go for a wide angle one of my left eye as well, before showing me the results on the screen.

For those readers who don’t know what OCT scans are, let me explain a little.  OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) is non-invasive, and uses light waves to take cross-section pictures of the retina, thereby showing its multiple layers and assisting in the detection of any issues.  These particular scans were macular scans (3x3mm) so I knew they wouldn’t pick up any of the issues in my peripheral retinas.  I was therefore somewhat perplexed as to why he wanted to do them.  When I asked, he said that it was because I only have useful vision in one eye and so he wanted to check the state of my better retina.  ‘Alright!’, I exclaimed in my head again, ‘No need to rub it in!’.  I suspect he was also simply curious and wanted to try out his fancy new machine on an unusual case.

Happily, despite my nervousness that he must have seen something to worry about, all was fine.  He proceeded to show me various images and explain them, noting the complete lack of foveal dip in the scan of my right retina.  I gazed at the image sorrowfully and asked him if that was because my first detachment was macular off.  ‘Yes, that’s right’, he replied, adding cheerfully, ‘They did a good job on the surgery but there’s no way they’d be able to get that back.’  I wanted to ask more questions about this, but time was ticking on and we’d already clearly overrun my allotted appointment time.  With several more assurances that yes, everything was fine, he showed me out of the now deserted shop and I emerged, blinking, onto the high street with a sigh of relief.

‘Super Saturday’ – a visual guide to ‘the will of the people’

After attending my first ever proper shouty protest back in March this year (have a read of ‘A great big BOLLOCKS to Brexit‘), I was keen to make the most of another opportunity to express my indignation at volume.  Happily, this opportunity arrived in the form of the People’s Vote March on 19 October, which also turned out to be christened ‘Super Saturday’.  Now frankly, I didn’t see anything particularly super about a myopic government attempting to shove through the most important piece of legislation in my lifetime in the space of a few hours without allowing proper time for scrutiny, but there we go.  My excitement at the prospect of once more being able to yell ‘BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT!’ at the top of my voice without anyone telling me off turned to dismay when my fellow first-time follower of shouty protests and old uni friend messaged me to say that she’d hurt her back and wouldn’t be able to make it.  After sounding out a few anti-Brexit friends to no avail, I put out a slightly desperate plea on Facebook: ‘Is anyone going to the anti-Brexit march in London on 19 October?’ 

Happily, I received some replies, including one from the couple my sister and I had met on our first Eye to Eye walk in 2016, and another from a staunch anti-Brexit couple whom I know via my sister.  The latter were planning to meet at Waterloo with some friends and were happy for me to tag along, so as this was fairly straightforward for me to get to, I went for it.  At the crack of dawn on Saturday (yep, insomnia strikes again!), I donned my anti-Brexit t-shirt, stuck my EU flag into my backpack, and  set off for the station.  Again, I’d decided not to attempt a placard due to the danger of potentially causing myself or someone else a head trauma.  (My second surgeon’s advice, ‘Don’t get a head trauma!’ will forever ring in my ears.)

I met my fellow marchers under the clock at Waterloo – a nice easy place to find.  There were six of us altogether, so I figured it should be fairly easy for us to stick together.  I’d reckoned without taking into account the agility of the most senior member of our group.  At 83 years old and fuelled with fury regarding the devastating effects of Brexit, he was determined to make it all the way to Parliament Square so that he could hear the speeches which were due to start at 2pm.  As soon as we attempted to join the march, it became clear that we were never going to achieve this goal.  A densely-packed mass of humanity covered the wide road, and march organisers tried to direct a portion of them back towards the end of the march via another route, warning of bottlenecks.  Our 83-year-old team member was not to be deterred.  He edged into the crowd and then ducked and shimmied his way into the centre, leaving the rest of us no option but to follow.

We very slowly made our way through the sea of people and once we’d turned a corner the crowd began to thin out slightly.  By ‘thin out slightly’, I mean that I was no longer in danger of treading on someone’s toes whilst shuffling forward.  The welcome foot of personal space we’d achieved was reflected in the general mood of jubilation, with people waving flags and placards as they shouted and cheered.  Every now and then, a huge roar would erupt from the front of the crowd and travel back, with everyone joining in at the top of their lungs.  One positive aspect of moving so slowly was that we had plenty of energy to join in with various chants of ‘Bollocks to Brexit!’, ‘Stop Brexit!’, ‘What do we want?  PEOPLE’S VOTE!’, and, what I suspect was my 76-year-old team-mate’s personal favourite: ‘Bollocks to Johnson!’, which she shouted with much gusto.

After a few minutes of slow marching, our senior team member had clearly checked his watch and calculated that we needed to crack on, for off he sped through the crowds, without a backward glance at his wife, calling despairingly after him to ‘Wait a minute!’.  She later explained to me that he had a blocked ear, but I suspect the problem could well have been something my Gran was prone to suffering from: SD, or Selective Deafness.

On we marched, past ‘Grannies for EU’, ‘Rave for Europe’, a couple of golden labradors sporting EU flags, a load of students clutching a huge banner, a troupe of Morris dancers, a collection of drummers, and a group of classical singers with a placard pointing out the importance of free movement for musicians.  We saw old people, young people, middle-aged people, children, babies, people in wheelchairs, black people, white people… all marching together to clearly indicate OUR will: STOP BREXIT!  ‘Are we not ‘the people’ too?’, I asked myself.

Finally, we made it to Parliament Square, through crowds which seemed to be growing more dense with every step.  We followed our determined leader, who was still forging ahead, somehow managing to squeeze through all the people and around the outside of Parliament Square, until we found ourselves confronted by… a wall.  The wall was just below waist height for me, and I think I was the tallest member of our group.  People were crammed in everywhere, including rows of them sitting on the wall itself, but there happened to be a small gap upon it which our 83-year-old team member made good use of as he sat down and swung his legs over, almost toppling into the bushes in the process.  Once we’d all made it over the wall, we quite literally squeezed ourselves through even more people until we could go no further.  Fortunately, this spot afforded us a distant view of the stage, and so at last we stopped to listen whilst I wailed internally due to the fact that my precious foot of personal space had shrunk to the size of a fingernail.

First up on the speeches front was Patrick Stewart, the greatest Prospero ever to grace the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stratford stage, giving a rousing defence of democracy and inclusivity.  Ironically, at this point the weather turned tempestuous, with dark clouds drifting across and spots of rain beginning to fall just before the results of the Letwin amendment vote were announced.  The mood became tense and people glanced anxiously at the skies, wondering if the change from bright sunshine to thundery grey was a symbol of impending doom.  But no… we were shortly informed via the stage that the vote had passed, whereupon Parliament Square erupted into huge cheers, applause, high-fives, and renewed chants for ‘a People’s Vote’.  It was worth making the effort to go for that moment alone – the atmosphere was something I believe I shall never forget.  I just hope that this government will listen to that call, but sadly I suspect that they are suffering from an extremely bad case of selective deafness, among other maladies.

My uplifting day was marred only by a couple of louts who spotted my EU flag whilst I was struggling to read the departure boards in tricky lighting conditions at Waterloo East station, and swore at me loudly.  The expletive itself was bad enough; the venom with which they spat it out was worse.  ‘Is this really what our country has come to’, I asked myself sadly as I made the long journey home.

However, on a final more positive note, let me encourage all my UK readers to check out this link and consider adding your name to the letter: https://www.peoples-vote.uk/letter.  This isn’t about being a remainer or a leaver – it’s about understanding and consent.

Crowds of people carrying banners, flags, and placards, with one placard reading, 'The will of the people 2019: a visual guide', with arrows pointing to either side.

The will of the people 2019: a visual guide

 

Sight loss in literature: “The Truth About Julia”

We ran an office book group at my workplace a couple of years ago.  We’d each write our book choice on a piece of paper and they’d all be placed in a hat to be dramatically drawn out one by one, to determine the order in which we’d read them.  Then, once a month or so during our lunch break, we’d meet up to discuss the relevant book.  It all went rather well for a while but then gradually petered out, as seems to be the case with book groups.  Or perhaps that’s just my experience of them.  To date, I’ve been in one which – much to my irritation –  always ended up discussing everything other than the actual book; another which had a complicated voting system for selecting the next book, the results of which made it clear that my reading preferences were radically different from the rest of the group; and another which I unfortunately had to stop attending once my eye problems began due to difficulties driving in the dark.  But I digress…

To my surprise, my workplace book group was suddenly revived with enthusiasm when its creator dared to make the suggestion that the group email be deleted due to lack of use.  All of a sudden, the group was up and running again, requiring us to select our contributions and submit them into the hat.  After much internal debate about what to choose, I remembered an old article on the online campus news page about an intriguing-sounding novel by Anna Schaffner, one of our academics, which I’d carefully bookmarked but then promptly forgotten about.  Described as a psychological thriller, it wasn’t the sort of reading matter I’d usually go for, being prone to insomnia and nightmares.  However, the surprise revival of the office book group seemed an ideal opportunity to read something by one of our own academics.

Unfortunately, the book group never quite made it out of hibernation due to various time constraints, which seemed a bit of a poor excuse to me.  I mean, who doesn’t have time to read?!  [Pauses to gasp in horror.]  So once again, “The Truth About Julia” was pushed to a corner of my memory, until New Colleague Number One (who’s not really a colleague any longer so I should really think of a suitable new name for her) lent me her copy, which I was then compelled to read immediately.

The novel tells the story of Julia White, one of those irritating women who appears to be blessed with both intelligence and beauty… or perhaps she isn’t so intelligent after all, for in June 2014 she bombs a central London coffee shop, killing twenty-four people.  She turns herself into the police directly after the attack but refuses to speak to anyone – family, friends, legal representatives, or journalists – to explain her actions.  Her only utterance about her horrific crime comes via her ‘manifesto’, published the following day by newspapers across the country.  The reader learns about Julia through the investigations of Clare Hardenberg, a journalist who is writing a biography of her.  However, at the very start of the novel, we learn that Clare is incarcerated in a psychiatric ward, awaiting trial for a crime of her own.  So during the narration of Julia’s story, Clare’s story is also gradually revealed.

Towards the end of the novel, Clare learns that a survivor of the attack wants to meet her, having heard about the biography she’s working on.  The survivor is an elderly lady named Grace.  When Clare goes to meet her, she’s greeted by her at the front door of her flat and shown to a seat in her living room before suddenly coming to the realisation that Grace is blind.  Clare seems entirely unbothered by this new knowledge, whereas I gasped and flipped back a couple of pages, searching for signs of Grace’s blindness.

To be fair, there were some pretty broad hints, and my only defence for not having picked up on them during my first reading was that I was doing so at about 3am after a particularly frustrating few nights of insomnia.  Clare relates, ‘Her pale-blue eyes, however, never properly focused on mine – whenever I sought to hold them they flickered across my face and then glided downward, like tears’.  Later, when her granddaughter appeared, ‘Grace smiled and waved in her direction’ before asking Clare to pour the tea.  At this point, Clare noticed that ‘Grace’s hands were resting on a stick’ and ‘that her gaze was strangely directionless, constantly sinking to the ground like a limpet with weak suction sliding down a pane of glass’.  Grace proceeded to explain that she lost her sight as a result of the bombing.  She suffered other minor injuries and the doctors tried to save her sight, but without success.

Of course, this left me with all sorts of questions…  How exactly did the bombing result in Grace’s loss of sight?  Was it shrapnel from the blast?  The flash of the explosion?  How did the doctors attempt to save her sight?  If it was shrapnel, why was her sight loss not more visually apparent?  From the descriptions of her eyes, it didn’t sound as if she’d been fitted with prosthetics… or had she?  When she takes Clare’s hand at the front door of her flat, how does she manage to find it?  Or does she just put out her hand for Clare to take?  What’s the stick her hands rest on?  Is it just a walking stick, perhaps needed as a result of her other injuries?  My first thought was that it might be a long cane, but then common sense prevailed: this would have been a clear sign of her sight loss and surely she wouldn’t use a long cane inside her own home.

I messaged New Colleague Number One the following morning and excitedly informed her which point I’d reached in the novel, telling her, ‘I want to find out more about Grace and how it happened!  And I still don’t know what Clare’s supposed to have done!’  She sensibly but irritatingly refused to give me any spoilers but suggested, ‘Email Anna, she is a lovely lady and I’m sure she would be keen to talk about her book.  We can get a list of questions together! ;-)’.  I made a mental note to warn New Colleague Number One about my lists of questions – one such example being described in the post, ‘Money can’t buy me love‘.

I finished reading the novel and discovered Clare’s crime (shocker!), but questions about Grace continued to crowd my brain.  By a freak coincidence, the following week Anna Schaffner happened to email me about a work-related matter.  The threat of potential redundancy hanging over me and the risk of not having such an opportunity again made me brave, and so I emailed back with a select few questions before succumbing once more to the sea of student appeals as I sternly warned myself not to get my hopes up as she probably wouldn’t have the time to respond.

I was surprised and delighted when an email pinged back a few hours later.  She explained that her aim had been to create a wise and forgiving character who had been badly injured and lost something very precious in the attack, but who wasn’t bitter about it.  She called her Grace as a reflection of her graceful character and explained that to a certain extent she acts as a counterpoint to Clare, as she bears her loss more gracefully and has values which connect her with good things in life and with other people.  She confirmed that she imagined Grace was hit by shrapnel in the attack, which damaged her eyesight beyond repair.  I found her comments really interesting, although I did have to stop myself from asking too many questions.  (Note: from a book group perspective, this novel contains A LOT of discussion points.)  She also gave me some suggestions for further reading material on the subject of sight loss in literature, which I’ve added to my rapidly expanding list.  Now, I wonder how many other academics in my workplace have written about sight loss…

Winning the lottery!

Things are a bit pants at my workplace at the moment.*  Money-saving exercises and restructures are of course necessary at times, but currently it feels a bit like me saving money by switching to an energy supplier which provides everything except electricity to the kettle, toaster, and upstairs lights; and a restructure in which I’m planning to move my bathroom from the first floor to the ground floor, but haven’t figured out how to turn the stopcock off or engaged the services of a plumber.  This situation isn’t exactly conducive to getting the best out of people, which seems highly ironic in the sense that one would think difficult times would increase the need to get the very best out of people.  It’s also had the unfortunate effect of creating an atmosphere of extreme anxiety and uncertainty, which quite frankly we have more than enough of already in the current political chaos of our country.  Such conditions are also ideal hunting ground for Mr Pip, who prowls around the corridors tormenting as many victims as he can get his bony fingers on.

As a result of all this, there’s been much talk of how we might escape from our dungeon of doom.  Naturally, the most popular solution among my colleagues is the entirely feasible one of ‘winning the lottery’.  The other day, my office buddy and I debated what we’d do with our winnings.  I’ll leave it to readers’ imaginations as to what came top of our lists.  Next on my list was, ‘Donate a large proportion to Moorfields Eye Charity, to be used for research into new treatments for PVR’‘That’s very specific’, observed my office buddy.  ‘Well yes, it needs to be specific from my point of view, even though that’s probably a bit selfish’, I told her.

I explained that there seems to be a lot of research into AMD (age-related macular degeneration), glaucoma, diabetes, and certain hereditary eye conditions, and obviously this is completely logical as the first three are leading causes of sight loss in the UK.  But unfortunately, this doesn’t help me, or fellow sufferers of PVR.  As PVR only affects 8-10% of RD patients, again, it’s completely logical that the efforts to find a solution aren’t on the same level as efforts for AMD, for example.  But it’s still frustrating.  Each time I attend a scheduled appointment at Moorfields, I ask hopefully if there’s any new research being conducted into alternative treatments for PVR, and each time my question is met by a shake of the head, swiftly followed by my own sinking heart.  (By the way, if you’re still blissfully ignorant as to what PVR is, have a read of ‘The curse of PVR‘.)

So, imagine my excitement last Saturday morning, upon receiving an email which declared, ‘You’ve won a prize on the National Lottery’, with instructions to log into my account to find out more.  I should note here that I only actually opened an account the previous Tuesday, as my friend had given me strict instructions to buy a EuroMillions ticket for the rollover draw, but a stonking headache that day meant that I couldn’t face calling in anywhere to buy one on my way home from work.  Anyway… I hurried to log into my lottery account whilst excitedly composing a resignation letter in my head, and finally managed to get in after a couple of attempts at dredging up my chosen password from the furthest corners of my memory.  I was met with the bold declaration: ‘You’ve won £11 on EuroMillions!’.

On the one hand, this was good news.  I’d made a profit, and it was more than I’d ever won before.  (Previous winnings consisted of a lucky dip or two.)  On the other hand, the grand total of £11.00 blatantly wouldn’t do much to progress the cause of research into PVR, and to add insult to injury I now had to mentally delete my carefully composed resignation letter.

This episode reminded me of a book I read recently, entitled ‘Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors’, by Matt Parker.  Now, numbers aren’t my thing at all so it was probably the allusion to the Bard which compelled me to read this, although admittedly I did skim through some of the more numerically baffling chapters.  However one chapter which stood out for me was the one which discussed the National Lottery.  The author states that the odds of actually winning it are so ridiculously high that the exact number made my good eye water just staring at the figure as I tried (and failed) to comprehend it.  The odds have increased dramatically by the introduction of additional numbers to the standard ‘lotto’ game.  He hilariously points out that this was marketed as giving consumers more choice in having additional numbers to select.  The slogan, ‘More choice, less chance!’ would seem to be an accurate one in this instance.

Of course, all of this really just provides evidence for a friend’s theory that the lottery is ‘a mug’s game’.  He occasionally delights in pointing this out to me, despite knowing that I occasionally partake in it when my desperation levels reach a certain point.  (In fact, I say ‘occasionally’, but that should read ‘increasingly frequently’ at the moment.)  Maybe I’d be better off saving my money each time I feel the need to buy a ticket, and depositing it in a high-interest account instead.  Ah, wait… I detect a fatal flaw in that plan, too…  Anyway, whilst I consider this conundrum, may I make a plea that if any mugs reading this are fortunate enough to win the lottery at some point, perhaps you could consider donating a portion of it to Moorfields Eye Charity for research into PVR?  I’m off to console myself with a giant mug of tea now…

*Understatement alert.