Surviving Chernobyl


Billy Bunter’s Big Blowout

Recently I went to a party where there were lots of old friends I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. It was lovely to see them after lockdown, and there was so much of them to see. They were, well there’s no other way of putting this, fat, but dare I use that term? In my opinion it’s a cancelled word that needs re-examination. Men and women can get fat – it’s not a pejorative; that’s in the way you choose to use it. Or the way you skirt around it.
HATTIE JACQUES: I think I’ll knit myself a sweater.
TONY HANCOCK: Well that should solve the unemployment problem in the wool industry.
Instead I got this at the party (I’m paraphrasing):
Student: As a privileged white male you no longer have the right to express outmoded opinions. The term ‘fat’ is judgmental and a feminist issue that does not involve you.
Me: Oh, I thought it was a non-gendered part of speech denoting the opposite of thin in the same way that a bough of a tree may be described as thick without denigrating the tree.
Student forgets agenda long enough to tell me I’ll ‘be gone soon anyway’ before going back to her friends. She’ll get straight A’s when she leaves school because everybody does in Boris’s Britain, even the really dim ones. Oops, cancelled again.
You reach an age where none of this well-meaning but essentially pointless ephemera touches you. It’s the twittering of birds on a burning tree. Stop worrying about whether everyday conversation requires trigger warnings and concentrate on the climate catastrophe, you blancmanges!

‘The Honesty of the Lower Orders’

My friend Roger is a Falstaffian figure who loves to travel. (For their honeymoon he offered to take his wife to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.) He especially loves Iceland. Every time he visits that delightful country (Reykjavik to London is roughly the same as LA to Chicago) someone rings him and thinks he’s in Iceland, the frozen food store. After the prohibitions of the last year he can now fly there again and stop feeling like a prisoner here.
I understand now why prisoners draw bundles of chalk marks on walls and cross them through with diagonal lines. For the last year and a half my world was reduced to the point where getting out of an armchair became an adventure. I had to stop exercising and eating healthily, and my body changed very quickly. Signs of chemo quickly became visible, and just as quickly vanished, although everything was subtly altered; hair, skin, nails, even my handwriting changed, and the way I walk. I felt as if I had survived Chernobyl while knowing I would still soon die. I needed cheering up, so I went to get my hair cut.
MY ALBANIAN BARBER (A somewhat un-PC gentleman in his sixties): Why you no been to see me? Where you been all this time? Oh I see, you been ill, you got Cancer Hair, thin and fluffy like inside of cushion, we sort that out, one haircut two haircuts back to normal. I can’t do nothing about the cancer, you will still look like you got that, like my father, may he rest in peace. You need to eat more, there’s nothing of you.
This is what my father called ‘The honesty of the lower orders’. I don’t mind people knowing. I’d like anyone suffering mentally from this challenging disease to feel a bit better after talking to someone else in the same boat. I occasionally go to the Maggie’s centres. There are around thirty outlets of the charity, including three international ones (one in Barcelona!). They are largely self-funding and free to use.
They are also beautifully designed, RIBA award-winning buildings and very open, calming spaces, usually with a variety of therapies on offer. They don’t dispense solutions – that’s not something anyone can do – but provide plenty of balm for the soul. My local Maggie’s (above) is in Bart’s right beside King Henry VIII’s gatehouse and London’s only statue of Henry VIII. It is also virtually impossible to find.

The Return of the Homunculus

I am writing again. With the effects of chemo fog starting to recede a little, my handwriting has changed back to normal and my grasp of language is returning. In Barcelona I was able to conduct a conversation in Spanish but here I forgot the word for ‘pencil’.
But the mind-mist has not completely lifted. It hovers in wisps around the cool edges of the day. My keyboard skills are badly eroded. I was never a touch-typist; after writing thousands of pages I still cannot remove my eyes from the keyboard. Now I type like a child and leave a bigger trail of dropped consonants than a taxi driver.
In the pandemic I rigged a writing desk-cum-reading table around an armchair and made do with it as a work space. My shoulders were hunched, my neck folded forward, like a vulture waiting for something to die. A novel is a long sprint that you have to train for. It demands a straight back and a suitable distance between eye and screen. Instead I am a homunculus, but what to do? I’m back in London where the outside is as hospitable as the terrain in ‘Alien’.  Yet other people venture out there; they gather, exercise, imbibe, convivulate (is that a word? It is now) and stand in downpours at super-spreader music festivals.
But I’m a writer from Central London; we don’t do outdoors. To quote Fran Leibowitz, the outdoors is the bit between the taxi and the restaurant.

42 comments on “Surviving Chernobyl”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    More later (per usual..) but first about that encounter with the student: you neglected to say whether you called her fat (unlikely), someone else within her earshot (also unlikely) or she overheard a conversation you were having. In any event, as this whole business of cancel culture has entered the mainstream , it has gotten so far removed from its original core concern by the Black community for meaningful accountability, that is now almost exclusively about how we communicate within a binary, right versus wrong framework.

    The hyperbolic rhetoric primarily from the right is at one end of the spectrum whilst at the other end, is a knee-jerk, sanctimonious pietism among many on the left. ‘You can’t,’ has literally become ‘cant.’ Certainly pejoratives and slurs especially are to be discouraged, whatever the intent behind them. But context or environment is what matters. And btw — as a “privileged white male” — and especially and older one — you do have the ‘right to express (certain) outmoded opinions.’ It’s what differentiates you from younger, unprivileged white males.

  2. Brooke says:

    Greetings and salutations. Pencil…don’t worry about forgetting the word …like typewriter, it’s a lost hardware technology, along with its software equivalent, cursive writing. Hoards of people under 20 don’t know the word and soon no one will.

    Re your DIY writing desk. Why not try a moveable, adjustable height laptop table and ergonomic chair–the nurses and therapists at my doctor’s office and rehab center use them, as well as my graduate student friends who were having migraines until they figured it out. Thinking and wrting are hard enough without making yourself uncomfortable.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Apart from slurs for which there are no appropriate contexts, the setting for the use of other loaded or emotive terms should certainly be considered. And while we’re fond of euphemisms today, not sure corpulent or adipose work for ‘fat,’ even as they may more elegantly roll off the tongue. We know they mean ‘fat.’ The next time you’re taken to task for using the word (so long as you’re not directly shaming someone), simply point to the positive historical meaning of the word — In the 1600s, for example, a fat person could be ‘wealthy’ or ‘affluent and that excess weight was very often a symbol of prosperity while the general population struggled with food insecurity. Your accuser will either turn on their heels in a huff or drop from boredom. In any event, you will be reproach free once again.

  4. admin says:

    Welcome back, Brooke – I’ll have you know I’m legendary for my cursive script! The pencil will always survive, though not the typewriter. Although I still have my foldable reporter’s typewriter. Oh, and when we’re all fighting each other for food (seven years apparently) and there’s no power the person with the HB pencil will still be able to write.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    Now — on to Albanian hair-cutting. Nor sure, of course, when your barber found his way to London but, chances are he may well have learned his craft during the reign of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha (1945–1990). During this time, if an Albanian male wore what was considered a western hairstyle or even grew a beard, the police could stop him, cut his hair right in the middle of the street and shave his beard. After this he would taken to the police station and thrashed for his effrontery. A display of ‘western culture’ was so prohibited that there was always a barber at Tirana airport who would cut the hair and beard of those few foreigners who could enter the country. In fact, the Celtic F.C. were not allowed to enter the country because all of the players had beards, causing the Albanian team to lose by forfeit.

  6. Andrew+Holme says:

    Stu, I’m sure there’s a linguistic felicity lurking in your last post about Hoxha’s bearded son being the heir apparent not facing any punishment despite there being hair apparent. Let me think about it.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    Correction: Enver Hoxha ruled Albania from 1944-1985 and @Andrew+Holme, I think it was his daughter who had the apparent beard — although not the heir apparent.

  8. John+Griffin says:

    Nice to see your conclusion about the twittering of birds. Had the same type of exchange with a person about the ludicrous trans/feminist aggro, while the planet burns. Priorities.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    First, allow me to apologize for trying to bully you into writing another novel. I will accept a novella. And a few more from Fran Lebowitz:

    ‘Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine’

    ‘Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying’

    ‘In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra’

  10. Brooke says:

    ” when we’re all fighting each other for food…and there’s no power..” 33 viruses that are over 15,000 years old have just been discovered in melting Artic ice caves. At least one of them thrives by consuming paper. Your HB pencil pushing hero is useless. Mankind is lost.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    What a striking, welcoming building Maggie’s Centre Barts is — and especially considering what must have been space limitations, design constraints and in a location with what looks to have little light and no views. I was particularly taken with its glass facade which has colored inserts organized horizontally—like a music staff—inspired, I understand, by the ‘neume notation’ of medieval music. ‘Neume’ originates from the Greek word ‘pneuma’—meaning vital force A beautiful touch for a wonderful concept.

  12. Frances says:

    One man’s insult is another man’s compliment. In the high Andes to tell someone they are looking fat is to say that they are doing well as they have plenty to eat. Those multiple skirts which make the women look like tops (as in spinning) often hide woefully thin bodies. The First World is not the centre but just one end of the spectrum.

    Also, on a different but similar note, we have been having avocado on toast for breakfast and tea for generations in South America. Though the thought of putting a poached egg on top is disgusting.

    That student needs to travel.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I like the sound of your barber. There are not enough blunt speakers about any more. A great many of the wishy-washy, namby-pamby folk today could do with a good, no nonsense, blunt talking to. Yes, they’d feel insulted, but they need to see real life occasionally. Hope your brain fog continues to fade, Chris. My late mum found that to be the most distressing part of having chemo.

  14. Erik Deckers says:

    You write with a pencil? I’ve never been a fan of pencils. They lack commitment and dedication. A pencil lets the user hide their mistakes and change their mind. They can put on a false front of perfection and everything-is-alrightness.

    A pen, on the other hand, is for the morally brave and strong. We pen users strive boldly forth on the page, shouting our declarations and when we make errors, we scribble them out so the scars are visible to everyone who follows us.

    Also, I like the pretty blue color.

  15. Roger says:

    Irish friends use say “You’re looking very prosperous.” to say you’re fat, Brooke.

    I used to do the Times and Guardian crosswords with a pen. Someone asked “Is that confidence or arrogance or both?”, Erik. Somehow, I don’t think there’ll be the same pleasure chipping the answers in on a clay sheet.

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    I’ve made some ink from white hydrangea blooms. It goes on invisible and turns a sort of yellow brown as it dries. That is an ink that requires great confidence to use.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    For those of you sneering at the humble pencil, I refer you to a quote from pencil historian Henry Petroski (‘The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance’):  “Ink is the cosmetic that ideas will wear when they go out in public,” he writes. “Graphite is their dirty truth.” And if you think ‘courage’ is writing with a biro or doing crosswords with one, I suggest using a fountain pen would put that self-delusion to rest. Real men/women use a fountain pen (and a pencil).

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin And here you tried to divert or distract us in a previous reply by poking fun at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), when it’s obvious you’re a CSIS steganography specialist. But never fear, your double life secret is safe with us.

  19. Roger says:

    I began doing crosswords dedicatedly when newspapers doubled up as blotting paper, Stu-I-Am, so a fountain pen presented problems.
    As for a quill…

    Incidentally, Admin, you could test a graphologist by seeing what they deduce from your varying hand-writings without knowing they belonged to the same person. I did that after my handwriting changed as a result of a fractured skull and buggered-up co-ordination and they were adamant I’d had a personality change as well when I revealed the truth.

  20. Jan says:

    I learnt touch typing @ skool. Always have touch typed but having this tablet has completed eroded my touch typing skills. Now although I still get the QWERTY layout when confronted with a proper keyboard I tend to stare at it and not confident do proper touch typing any more! Weird.

  21. Ford says:

    There’s a wondeful quote from Wildwood by Roger Deakin, “The pencil whispers across the page and is never dogmatic”

  22. Peter+T says:

    Madame, your waist measurement may exceed the distance from London to Sydney, but you are not at all fat. Your BMI is considerably greater than 40, which makes you class 3 or severely obese. You are advised to consult your health care provider. But, most certainly, you are in no way fat.

    Pencils or pens? What makes a pleasing mark on paper? Good fountain pens and good pencils are top of the list. Fibre tips are useful for some art and design work and felt tips are fine for marking boxes, but not for writing. For drawing, I like Derwent pencils and colours; their Inktense are a brilliant invention. Automatic or propelling pencils are very convenient, especially Faber Castell Grip Plus or, of course, a vintage Parker.

  23. Oh dear, your young student is decidedly behind the times. She clearly doesn’t realise that Fat has been reclaimed. It’s the shaming of the person/body, not the size or shape, that is the issue. You can say “i/they got fat during lockdown.” That is simple fact. Her assertion that it’s a feminist issue and nothing to do with you is plain wrong too – men also get body shamed for fatness.
    She wouldn’t get an A from me if she had used that argument in my feminist studies class (which included a week on the politics of fatness).

  24. Stu-I-Am says:

    While I admit to having a collection of propelling pencils, there is something viscerally satisfying about sharpening a wooden pencil and then using it. Simple pleasures are to be celebrated wherever you can find them these days. I have even been known to combine whittling and sharpening by using a pen knife — after a good honing, of course. Simple pleasures.

  25. Paul+C says:

    Recently stumbled across a small publisher called Michael Walmer books (based on the Shetland Islands of all places) which is dedicated to the revival of forgotten old books. Mostly under £10 the choices include a novel by M R James entitled The Five Jars (no, me neither) and Yet Again – a dazzling collection of essays by Max Beerbohm.

    Well worth a browse…..

  26. JB says:

    Celtic did actually play in Albania, in 1979, including the bearded Danny McGrain.
    Partisan Tirana won 1-0

  27. Helen+Martin says:

    JB, I am pleased to learn that there was a game in 1979 since I had been puzzling over how a team could lose a match by forfeit when they were actually there. In the case described it would have been Celtic that would have forfeited the game. Immaterial if PT won the game that was played.

    I love the cedar smell of freshly sharpened pencils and use propelling pencils only if there isn’t a real one handy. The leads always run out in the middle of something and there is never a packet of leads around. There may be packets but only empty ones. I’ve been having trouble with my fountain pens, too. I even washed them all out to see if ink had dried in there but no, I don’t think so. Am going down to the Pen Shop to have them take a look and see what the new colours look like.

    Have finished LBFD and think it is right up there with the best of the series. The plot was certainly full of twists and unexpected bits. The deaths made me weep.

  28. Diane Englot says:

    I couldn’t live without pencils. Nice dark lead ones, sharp enough to be lethal.

  29. Peter+T says:

    Helen, The best ink for a fountain pen is matter of great debate. You definitely shouldn’t use calligraphy ink in a normal fountain pen as most often it’s a suspension of pigment rather than a solution of dye and rapidly clogs the system. Personally, I use only Parker Royal Blue and I make roughly every third fill a small one of distilled water. I’d avoid any ink other than Waterman or Parker and if it’s absolutely essential to use black, then only Waterman. Though they might offer tempting colours, I don’t trust artisan inks. An old fashioned pen shop I used to frequent favoured Pelikan, but I seriously suspected that was for the benefit of their repair business.

    Ink is to fountain pens as passengers used to be considered by a well known airline: a necessary nuisance to the operation.

    The following link may be helpful:

  30. Keith says:

    Leftiness unchecked. Media types all brainwashed in the Universities. Wokeness. TV just SJW box ticking. So tiring. Everything is broken.By the way the latest guff from the BBC declares the British countryside to be racist and points out that Dorset is 98% white and expresses amazement that George Floyd’s demise seems to have done nothing to change this but no doubt they will with their next rural drama featuring cider swilling yet dusky maidens being whipped and oppressed on the apple plantations. The UK now has no marbles.

    Sorry folks but sometimes everything seems to be going a little bit silly.

    For lack of more Bryant and May I’ve just started reading the Frey & McGray series, starting with Mr Muriel’s The Strings of Murder. Three-quarters in, the storyline is ok, but I’m missing the humor. What do others think? I’m desperately trying to find an alikeness, but I guess there just isn’t one. Long live B&M.

  31. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Keith Fortunately you have the ‘Mail’ and GB News to salve your wounded soul.

  32. Stu-I-Am says:

    @JB Right you are. Got my teams crossed. While McGrain was concerned about the Albania ban on beards (and apparently said he would have shaved it off, if asked), it was actually Ajax Amsterdam that got the official notice about hair length and beards.

  33. Keith says:

    Well Stu, watching and listening to CNN and the BBC you may have a point. Many US folk have to watch Sky News Australia for anything remotely resembling the truth. So you think the dems are fine cancelling what they don’t want to hear? Agree with the left or don’t speak.

  34. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Keith Funny how the ‘truth’ changes, isn’t it ? Then, of course, there are the facts.

  35. Keith says:

    Whatever Stu, there are facts and there are facts. And now for a cup of tea and a custard cream.

  36. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Keith It’s not a question of ‘cancelling’ anything, it’s an issue of presenting a cogent argument in opposition, not rabble-rousing and appealing to irrational fears about conspiracies. There are, of course, legitimate grievances but those usually make for poor TV and online forums, so you rarely find them discussed. I have no problem with authentic conservative points-of-view and, in fact, encourage them in any conversation. What I have a problem with is the ‘cult of mass hysteria’ attempting to masquerade as conservatism. And I presume you mean the same Sky News Australia suspended by YouTube for misinformation about the pandemic ? The same one favouring diatribes against Muslims, immigrants, climate science (science, in general btw), the ‘liberal’ media and gays ? Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

  37. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T & @ Helen+ Martin I swear by one of those newer ‘nanoparticle’ inks, the Platinum Carbon. No clogging or flow issues for well over a year so far (with regular maintenance, esp. cleaning nibs regularly). Good solid black but not the absolute blackest of the inks out there However, it works well for me in everyday writing as well as drawing and watercolours because of its high water resistance (supposedly instantly ‘waterproof’ but I always remain skeptical of that claim for every situation) and its ability to dry quickly (nib dependent, of course).

  38. Keith says:

    Actually I was responding to admins’ remarks about cancel culture. This is mainly the thing that bothers me, apart from perhaps Me Too (apt name for a self serving movement). I bet Bobby D can’t remember what he did 56 minutes ago. It’s a civil suit just to make money for the lawyers hoping for an out court settlement… but my mind wanders.
    The only hysteria I see comes from the left. These are definitely not the left I supported in Holland in the seventies. Yes I marched, I held an anti-nuke banner and had friends in the ‘squatters movement’ in Amsterdam in the 80’s. Yes I’ve been about a bit. Old age brings moderation. I don’t read the mail and we don’t get to see GB news here- (detecting a little flippancy in your tone there). I didn’t know Sky News was suspended either. Well at least twitter Twitter hasn’t actively banned Taliban accounts yet, but are merely “remaining vigilant.” Well hey, I guess that’s something.

  39. Peter+T says:

    Stu-I-Am, I guess that if Platinum make a pen for their Carbon ink, it should be OK so long as you use your pen daily with frequent refills and regular flushing. Even then, as it’s still a pigment, I’d still not use in pens that tend to clog, such as Mont Blanc fashion items, or ones with the complex feeds of many hooded nib types.

    Personally, I don’t like black ink for writing. Does that make me racist or anti-fascist or possibly both?

    Black is necessary for drawing, but then I’d use a drawing pen. From some of the things you mentioned, I think you’d enjoy the Inktense pencils, paints and blocks. They require a different approach from conventional water colour, but open a of possibilities.

  40. Helen+Martin says:

    The Inktense pencils call out for experimentation. Write a bit, water part to create a fade and then let the line come back to clarity – perhaps an interesting approach to narration?

  41. linda+ayres says:

    Alas we live in an age where conversation is full of potholes.
    Last year I was reported by a colleague for saying they were slender. It was said as part of a conversation and I would have preferred them to express their displeasure to my face. Would it have been better to say not fat?
    There is not a cat in hells chance of anyone using such expressions about myself so I hope I will never be offended by being told the truth.

  42. Helen+Martin says:

    Linda, I am trying to imagine a conversation in which “slender” would be offensive and can only come up with, “She has only a slender grasp on reality.” In a world where people are free to interpret a speaker’s words in any way they choose offense is bound to be taken at silly moments. I don’t think there is any defense against this, especially as English is full of words with multiple meanings. We inhabit a culture that is full of imagery.

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