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Thursday, 3 June 2010

Back to the start

Bangkok 1988

Where does an illness start? In your genes? In your own lifetime? In your experiences? In your environment? It’s hard to know sometimes.

It’s 2010, Nottingham. I’m 53, white middle class, and mediocre.

I’m getting out of my car, making sure I have my pad of paper and a pen . . . glasses as well – yes I’ve got them - that’s good. I’m at my doctor’s. I’ve come to read my medical notes.

I am met by a wise looking woman who is very polite and professional. She is the practice manager. She asks me to sign in, and reminds me that my squiggle on the paper binds me to discretion; that I will not reveal names, places, and details of anything I may see or hear. So in what follows I haven’t.

I Squiggle; I accept.

She shows me to a computer and runs swiftly through the MS-DOS style screen that contains my notes. It seems that the electronic notes only go back to 2000. I’m looking for something way back in 1988.

With remarkable speed she presents me with a tattered and browning wedge of notes that go right back into my childhood. Medical records in thick brown manila, fading fountain pen script, letters written on manual typewriters, actual documents that go back as far as the 1960’s.

There’s a typewritten letter from a child psychologist that documents my meeting with her, the paper old like a leaf, but the typewriter impression still fresh. This hasn’t seen much light since 1965; The red letterhead at the top still sharp.

I shouldn’t really dwell too much on this letter, as it’s not what I’ve come to find out about. However it describes me as a fair-haired child, reasonable verbal intelligence, problems with writing, and as a consequence having “behavioural problems” due my frustrations at school. Dyslexic.

Aha! What’s this? I find a card that records a visit to my doctor. At the time I am 36. Many years ago, before I had guts ache.

I’m back in 1988, a small town in the East of England. A sunny spring morning. The Stranglers “All Day And All Of The Night” can be heard leaking from a tinny radio. Across the wooded park I can see the doctor’s. Never been there before. Bit nervous.

I always felt guilty visiting doctors. Never wanted to waste their time on my irrelevant problems. I’ve been brought up not to waste a doctor’s time unless it’s a last resort because there are many people with real problems.

It’s a Victorian red brick house, with a bit of a fake Doric column around the door. Inside a waiting room with a lino floor that had that smell and the usual selection of out of date magazines; dog-eared by a thousand fearful fingers and thumbs.

A cordoned off play area contained a garishly coloured collection of plastic toys. (Nowadays it would be some kind of infection risk I’m sure)

It was my turn and I entered the unknown; the doctor’s room. I had not been to a doctor for donkey’s years. He sat behind his desk and blinked at me from behind his glasses. White hair, a slightly red face. When he spoke he had a charming southern Irish accent.

“So what seems to be the Trouble?”

I started to explain, rather hesitantly, something that I could not really describe very well.

“I’ve got this feeling . . . it’s like a very mild stitch almost, but not even that bad. . . It’s just an odd feeling . . . doesn’t hurt at all. I just haven’t had it before.”

“And where are you feeling that?”

“Here” I pointed to the left of my navel, on the side. The soft bit.

“And you’ve not had this before?”


“Eating alright? Not doing anything new and strenuous? No reason you can think of?”


“And are you going to the toilet often?”

“No . . . not really just the usual you know”

Why do doctors always want to ask you about your backside or your genitals – never about your fingers or your feet or your face?


“Yes, I work in an Arts Centre, film and video stuff . . . some teaching . . .”

“And do you get worried much - stressed?”

“No – not really”

He pushed the glasses up his forehead, rubbed his eyes. Then took his hands away so the glasses dropped back into position. He blinked at me again.

“You know what I think?”

“No – I don’t know what you think.”

“I think you might be stressed, this might be stress related: psychosomatic.”

“Oh – right. . . It’s just that I haven’t had this sensation before. . .”

“Now. . . What I’m going to do is suggest that if it doesn’t go away in a couple of weeks that you come back and see me. But like I say – I’m pretty certain it’s psychosomatic.”

“OK – I will”

And I left feeling a better.

But it didn’t go away, so I went back a couple of weeks later. This time he said he would refer me to a gut specialist. I pointed out that I was going on a long trip in a few weeks time and he took the dates I would be away.

“And where will you be going?”

“Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Coming back through Russia; Trans-Siberian”

“Well that sounds great. You enjoy it – Now you’ll get a letter inviting you for an appointment. I’ll tell them when you are away. OK?”


“And in the meantime if you feel it deteriorating or anything go to your chemist and get some “Fybogel”. It’s going to pad out your gut a bit and it may have a small laxative effect.”

“OK . . .”

And I left feeling a bit better.

We went on the trip. The first time Clare or I had ever been in a aeroplane, went on a trek in Thailand, got married in Hong Kong, went by train to Beijing, crossed Mongolia, hooked up with the Trans-Siberian, flew home from Moscow.

We had a great wedding party when we got home. It was great to have done the journey, and it was great to be back.

There were two letters waiting for me. One inviting for an appointment, and one expressing disappointment that I hadn’t turned up. Another date was offered but I was unable to go to that as I had work in Newcastle. The record shows that I phoned to say so. Soon I received a letter telling me I would not be offered any more appointments as I had wasted the consultants time and that it wasn’t fair to other patients.

Today, 22 years later I read the letter that the consultant wrote to my doctor. He was apoplectic with rage, and it really comes across in his writing. Really angry that I had not turned up.

I am sorry to read the letter.

“This man” He wrote “ seems to think the service is designed for his convenience . . .”

I am feeling so bad reading this letter.

“I think if I was to meet this man I would not be able to view the case objectively” he wrote.

How annoying to realise that even at this very early date I was in conflict with a consultant. It was the last thing I wanted. I thought I was trying to keep them informed, trying to communicate.

I am very presently aware of his anger – I have wasted his time, and deprived other patients of his attention. I’m really sorry and shockingly surprised.

Dear Doctor Goodman (fake name), if you ever read this I apologise. I certainly never meant to anger you or waste your time.

However perhaps you too had some fault. Maybe a little arrogant; in reading your letter the words you use assume that I will do as you say. That I am an underling. You consider yourself above me, and you were not, nor I above you.

Back to 1988: the odd feeling? It had gone away. Nothing to worry about at all. It was Psychosomatic after all.

On the TV “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers, looking like two psychotic Joe 90’s. I bought the CD.

I don’t know if this was the first whisper of U.C. but many years later when it was clear and present it was in the exact same spot.