Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Vasectomy - The Good, The Bad and The Swollen

The fundamental lesson I learnt whilst going through the process of having my tubes sheared, was that blokes are arseholes.

As I watched my wife suffer the physical rigours of four pregnancies, one of the things that buoyed her throughout was the support of her friends. Lots of women who’d experienced the same pain were there with a kind word or reassurance about the imminent trauma of childbirth. Despite everyone knowing that levels of pain would be encountered that were more commonly experienced by people getting hit in the face with a cricket bat, conversations were steered towards the positive parts of the process. Even the necessarily horrific details always had the caveat attached, ‘But of course that won’t happen to you.’

Men, it seems, aren’t like that. When I mentioned to anyone that I’d checked myself in for a vasectomy, the response was uniform. They’d pull a massively over-the-top Kenneth Williams face and then relate a clearly fabricated story about something that happened to ‘their mate’.

This person, who would always remain unnamed, principally because he didn’t exist, suffered the consequences of his folly to such a degree, that anyone would be a fool to follow his course of action.

My personal favourite from this encyclopaedia of pain, was the ‘mate’ who elected to have the procedure done under local anaesthetic during his lunch break. After a trouble free operation, he went back to work……on his bike. Unfortunately, he didn’t notice that he was sat on one of his numbed plums all the way back to the office. When he dismounted, he discovered that while his left testicle was still of normal proportions, his right resembled a purple volleyball. Like a doomed prisoner awaiting the noose, he just had to wait for the anaesthetic to wear off and the pain to kick in.

After the rueful relating of this or one of a hundred other horror stories, my friends, unsnipped to a man, would suggest that this was reason enough to cease the treading of such an idiotic path.

I couldn’t find anybody prepared to relate a good news story. It went from claims of infections so catastrophic that medical science was just about capable of bringing ‘their mate’ back from the brink, to a tale of a ‘mate’ who was so disfigured by the subsequent swelling and bruising, that he was left with what looked a one twelfth sized bust of John Merrick.

Of course, the actual experience was a little more prosaic. The operation, done like the melon-balled anecdote victim, under local anaesthetic, was unpleasant but not particularly terrifying. The ‘most pain I’ve ever felt in my whole life,’ needle wasn’t very nice but didn’t see me pinned to the ceiling like the time my dentist touched a nerve (by that, I don’t mean that he was unkind about my clothes or haircut). There was a distinctly unsettling feeling that something inside me was being pulled around, but within fifteen minutes I was back outside on a bed, having a brew and wondering if I’d now be able to reach higher notes in the shower (no).

Opting for local seemed like a bit of uncharacteristic bravery on my part, but it was entirely self serving. I bowed to the logic, that surely if I was awake and aware of my surroundings, the consultant (conveniently named Mr Payne) would be a little less likely to lasso a nurse with my vas deferens or make impolite but accurate knob jokes.

The only significant trauma around my vasectomy occurred three weeks earlier at my pre op consultation, where I was steered into a room with Mr Payne for, ‘just a quick chat.’ I’d been concerned about the necessary fondling by another man, so was quite pleased that pocket billiards were no longer on the menu. He then asked if two medical students might observe the conversation. Now relaxed enough to smile nonchalantly, I replied,

“No problem.”

Two girls then came in and sat on the bed, both looking extremely young and embarrassed. They were first years and clearly uncomfortable. I remained in the chair whilst he asked me a few questions, directing his answers first to me and then to the two girls who were as determined as I was to avoid all eye contact.

“Right, Mr Bell, let’s have a look then.”

He’d stitched me up, three weeks prior to physically stitching me up.

I had no alternative but to stand up and let him massage my goolies whilst explaining basic bollock anatomy to two poor girls who looked like they’d only just left a nightclub and wished they were back there. To add insult to injury, fear and embarrassment had caused acute retraction to kick in. I picked a spot in the middle distance and wished for it to end, praying with all my might that he wasn’t going to get them to join in.

He spared me that, but made one of them ask me a question.

“Er……how many children do you have?”


The next question remained unasked, but the inference hung around the cubicle like a bad fart.

“What? With that?”

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

My Debbie Harry Crush

Trying to explain a schoolboy crush to young children is a tricky thing to do.

I was on the sofa with all four kids (12, 10, 8, 6), just before their bedtime. There’s always a bit of competition about the tv in the last hour before teeth brushing and bed, but Casey (10) got his own way last night. He loves his music and has been educated in the ways of David Bowie and The Beatles, so he flicked round until he found something he liked. It was a compilation of tunes from the late 70s/early 80s, which was right up his street. Love Will Tear Us Apart was on and they all sang along to it, cheerfully.

I love it that they pay no attention to the meaning of the lyrics in a song and just take pleasure in knowing the words. No matter how dark or tragic the content, my lot’ll trot it out like a nursery rhyme and it always makes me smile. It can be a bit unsettling at times though. Listening to a 6 year old belting out the line, “Whhhhhoooooaaaaah ho!! YOUR SEX IS ON FIRE!!” is a little alarming.

After Joy Division, there was a quick advert followed by the opening bars to a tune that instantly transported me to a point, two weeks before my own tenth birthday, in January 1979.

There was a brief aerial tour of New York before the camera took us into Studio 54 and a vision, with a beautifully scruffy hairdo and an asymmetrical dress started singing to us.

When I first saw the video, I remember it being a little bit hard to get my breath. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Everything around our telly faded away for 3 minutes 54 seconds. The camera flicked away from her occasionally, to watch the rest of the band arsing around with disco balls and telephone cables, but never for very long. She sang in a way that looked like she couldn’t really be that bothered with the whole thing.

I was instantly smitten with Debbie Harry. I had this poster on my wall for a few years but had absolutely no idea who Andy Warhol was.

She was the first bit of truly vibrant colour to enter my life and the impact of my first sight of her has always stayed with me. I was a bit too young to think that there might be a sexual attraction. I never daydreamed about her being my girlfriend or sharing my chips. I just loved the fact that every now and again, she’d appear on my tv screen and I could adore her.

The kids noticed me sigh and smile as I watched it and began to quiz me.

“Do you like this song?”

I said yes and then started on a long meander in which I tried to explain what a crush was. It was like trying to convey to someone who can’t whistle, how it is that you can whistle. They had no terms of reference. None of them, particularly the eldest two were confessing to having ever had such feelings so I floundered completely.

“Did you really like her?”

“But she wouldn’t be your girlfriend if you were little and she was a lady! That would be silly.”

“Did you tell her you liked her?”

“Why is it called a crush? Did you try and squash her?”

“Does mummy know you liked her?”

I hid behind the stock defence of telling them that, hopefully, the same might happen to them one day. It might not be a Debbie Harry type character. My mate Steve had a crush on a girl he saw at a bus stop, every school day for three years. He never spoke to her, just loved having the crush. Speaking to her might have ruined everything. I suppose that’s the beauty of having a crush. You never set yourself up for disappointment, there’s no risk.

When I asked a girl out at a youth club in Moss Side five years later, she said no, in front of all my mates. I’d only got up the nerve to ask because her best friend said it was a certainty. The back of my neck still goes red at the memory. Debbie Harry never let me down like that.

A quick spat about remote control ownership distracted the kids for long enough for me to get off the hook. I hopped off the sofa and left them to argue about the relative merits of the Boomtown Rats and Peppa Pig whilst I went into the kicthen and thought about being 9 again.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Jason and the Argonauts

I love Jason and the Argonauts but my son nearly spoiled it for me.

When I was a kid, it knocked spots off all the competition. The Sinbad films were good and we’d troop along to the cinema to see white British actors, browned up to play middle eastern sailors. With their minotaurs, troglodytes and sabre-toothed tigers, there was plenty to be amazed by, but it wasn’t Jason and the Argonauts. Clash of the Titans came along a bit later as well. It was alright, but the trainer out of Rocky 3 as a Greek scholar and playwright was a bit hard to swallow and it wasn’t Jason and the Argonauts.

The person connecting these films was, of course, Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was the stop-frame animation specialist who was personally responsible for making my childhood a little bit more colourful. Jason and the Argonauts was his crowning achievement. Made in 1963 for a million dollars, it was a complete mishmash of a variety of Greek myths and it worked brilliantly. By the time I first saw it, in 1978, it had bathed in fifteen years of adoration by British kids.

It was the one film capable of stopping everyone in their tracks. As soon as there was word on the grapevine that Jason and the Argonauts was going to be on telly, the countdown would begin. A good hour before it started, the streets would clear of children. Tellys, unused to being switched on on a Sunday afternoon, would be powered up so that we could all jockey for the best seating position around them. Fifty pence pieces would be stacked in preparation so that there was no chance of it conking out mid film.

When the action began, it was non-stop. I can still remember being staggered when Talos the giant first comes to life. That metallic shriek as he turns to gaze on Hercules and Hylas is sealed forever in my memory. The trapping of the Harpies, the slaying of the Hydra and the final, terrifying swordfight against the skeletons that spring from the Hydra’s teeth were simply astonishing. I’d never seen anything like it and the pleasure it gave me ensured that it had a place in my heart from that moment on.

My kids are always asking me about my childhood, particularly my eldest boys, who are 12 and 10. In the same way that I liked (now and again) to hear about my dad’s five mile walk to the shop in 1940s Ireland, they wanted to know about the things that I did, that are now part of the past. They listened, open-mouthed as I told them about climbing trees, disappearing for entire summer holidays and scrapping with the kids from the next street.

I also used to tell them about Jason and the Argonauts. Not so much about the plot, more about what it was like to look forward to a film for a week, the anticipation killing you as the days ticked down and the frantic joy of the conversations in the street after, with everyone trying to say what their favourite bit was, at the same time.

So the ground was laid for this rite of passage. I didn’t buy a dvd of the film, but waited for it to appear, as it always does, just when you’re not expecting it. The kids were bored, it was a Sunday afternoon but it was too rainy to take them to the park. I flicked around and there it was. It had just started, so I got the lads sat down and welcomed them to a bit of my past.

And it was downhill from there.

To begin with, they were with it, but then they started noticing things. These kids are used to perfection in their animation. They’ve seen Avatar and Toy Story 3. They’ve played computer games that make you feel that you’re actually there. They, unlike me and you, have never had to overlook discrepancies and slight continuity faults in the films they love. Processing power has made them flawless. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but because I was with them, I started to watch Jason and the Argonauts with an eye that I normally reserve for Corrie (see my earlier blog!!)

The dodgy acting, a cast consisting of Nigels, Douglas’, Jacks and Garys playing Greek heroes and the obvious use of double screening to pair up the monsters with the actors, started to make my lads chuckle a bit.

Chester (12) administered the coup de grace. In one of the most famous scenes, Talos bestrides the bay, to stop the Argo from escaping.

Minutes later, Jason defeats him, by attacking his Achilles heel (mishmash, as I said). Chester casually pointed to the screen and said.

“I thought he was bigger than that.”
He was right, but I’d never noticed. Judge for yourself from the two pictures. One minute he’s as big as a block of flats, the next, it’s a maisonette at best.

I was a bit crestfallen, but subsequently took heart from the fact, that the film had worked such a magic trick on my childhood, that I unconsciously ignored my natural tendency to spot faults or inaccuracies.

I made them watch it to the end and was rewarded by the fact that they were clearly disturbed by the skeletons. Nearly 50 years on, the combination of those rictus grins, jerky movements and an ominous musical score was enough to unsettle the boys to the point where Casey (10) didn’t want to watch it.

Well done Ray, you’ve still got it.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Land of the Three quid brew

I’m not happy.

Was there a meeting a few years ago, somewhere in Britain, where we all agreed to move from the ubiquitous, ‘brew’ to a complex variety of hot beverages?

I stopped at the services near Lancaster on my way up to a meeting a few weeks ago. I was a bit parched and therefore gagging for a brew. Just a brew, tea or coffee, that’d be fine. Unfortunately I was greeted by a barista serving behind the counter of one of the big chains which have colonised the country. I often wonder if the coffee companies have pulled a fast one on their employees, by making their job title sound like they’re high flying lawyers, whilst paying them buttons.

With the pressure of a small queue behind me, I was forced to try and process the choices available to me before making a decision. With the hot and cold drinks on offer, plus their selectable sizes, there were over 50 permutations of a ‘cuppa’. You could times this by 3 if you’re fussy about your milk.
I know things have changed and I’m a divvy for expecting simplicity, but 150 choices at a brew counter is more than I need. Like the express lane at a supermarket, can’t they have a booth for Luddites like me, labelled, ‘Brew only’
At the Brew Only booth there will be someone like this waiting to serve you.

She won’t use Italian words to ask you how big you want your brew. She won’t give you a choice about milk. She won’t try and flog you a croissant or flapjack. She won’t even smile at you. You won’t even know if you’re going to get tea or coffee. Whatever she could be arsed to make is what you’ll be getting. If you ask her if there’s any semi-skimmed milk around, she’ll put her fag out in your eye. There’s only two sizes, cup or mug. Try any of that, ‘Primo’ ‘Medio’ ‘Massimo’ nonsense and you’ll get a molten teaspoon to the neck.

It all seems a bit medieval, I know, but until that meeting, sometime in the early 90s, that I wasn’t invited to attend, that was the hot beverage experience for us all. The baristas were known as brew blokes or brew ladies and the only garnish you could expect on the top of your cuppa was a bit of cig ash. What happened? A brew never used to cost the same amount of money as the food you had with it!

There’s a real danger that I’m going to become a person that I used to laugh at. The only people that seem to have it sussed are the ones that sit in the car park on wobbly, plastic furniture, necking tea out of a thermos. Yes, they look a bit daft, defiantly perched in a parking space as far away from the building as possible, but they’re just having a brew and no one’s going to make them shriek with a receipt that should be enough to procure a Full English.