IIt had started a couple of months previously, when he met a girl in a bar - the start of a disastrous, if short, relationship. They decided to hitch-hike across Australia together, which they did, and which in itself was a series of quite remarkable experiences (maybe later, but not here and now).
They reached Sydney, just about in one piece (two pieces ?), and she went off to visit some friends. He never saw her again. He decided to explore the city, and very soon found himself in King's Cross, as all tourists eventually do. By today's standards it was quite tame, but for the time (late fifties/early sixties) it was as wild as anywhere he had visited. Hookers offering their services He consciously collected them, well knowing there are no good ones, or bad ones, just experiences, and this he realized, was going straight to the top of his list of extreme travelling experiences.
He had been He consciously collected them, well knowing that ultimately there were no good ones, no bad ones, just things which happened to him, and thisshot in India, knifed in Egypt, arrested in a cowboy film-type mirror-breaking bar brawl in Greece (from which he was still out on bail), been caught in a sand-storm, and denied entry into the US, but none of these seemed quite as awful, or would be quite as memorable, as this. This would be the one to tell his grandkids, if he ever had any.
every few yards, bar after bar after bar, clip-joints, music places, and, very noticeably, falsetto-screeching homosexuals with dyed hair, parading openly in the streets. All in all a carnival atmosphere, and well worth exploring.
After a couple of hours of exploration, he was quite surprised to find himself being bundled roughly into a police car. His behaviour had been no better or worse than any of the other people here, so what had he done to warrant this ? The answer, unbelievably, is "nothing at all". It seemed that a cop had been shot by a foreigner,so, in retaliation, the police were rounding up non-Australians, and giving them a night in the pokey. This in itself would have been bad enough, but the pokey referred to was a single cell, which he found himself sharing with more than sixty others, all drunk, and all protesting loudly. There was nowhere to sit, so the night was spent standing up, being vomited on, being urinated on, and being constantly jostled. The kind of thing which, in years to come, could be expected by clients of "Hilton" and "Holiday Inn", but which wasn't yet normal.
When morning eventually rolled around, they were finger-printed, documented ("What is your religion ?" "Atheist" "I'll just write RC") and charged, all with different offences, his being "Urinating from Sydney Harbour Bridge". He was quite offended by this, as he knew that they hadn't actually paid for the bridge which they were pretending he'd pissed from.
Before going into court, it was explained that they could plead "not guilty" if they chose, in which case they would be held on remand for a few months in Botany Bay, before being found innocent. Then they would be arrested again, for being in the country illegally, as their passes would have expired. They all decided that they were, despite the truth, guilty.
The court itself was clearly an active and willing part of the frame-up. Regardless of the fact that no two were charged with the same offence, they were each fined £5.00 (this was before the A$ became currency), and released.
There are records for the number of people who can be fitted into a Volkswagen, and an English telephone box, but is there one about prison cells ? If there had been, he would have claimed his rightful place.
He recalled a scene from a film he had seen years ago. It was H.G.Welles' "The Man Who Could Work Miracles", in which the world stops spinning, and everything flies from its surface, because there is no longer any gravity (He was doubtful of this. If the Earth's rotation played any part in gravity, surely it would be the centrifugal effect which would eject everything - not its lack).
His local doctor had just told him that he had Cancer. The world had stopped, but instead of gravity ceasing, it had increased dramatically, and he felt himself hurtling downwards, through the floor, through the earth's surface, down, down, and further down.
He could feel that the speed of his descent was draining his blood.
He wanted to vomit. This was childish not the way a grown man should react. The doc was saying that while he was quite certain that it was Cancer, he shouldn't regard that as a diagnosis, just an opinion. He would be referred to a specialist, who, if he was of the same opinion, would refer him to an oncologist, and only he was qualified to pronounce the diagnosis.
From the time he found himself hurtling through the ground, until the time his Cancer was officially diagnosed, took fourteen weeks, and from diagnosis to preliminary investigation a further six. The reason for all this delay was that the Danish government had issued a guarantee that all patients who were diagnosed as having Cancer, should wait no longer than six weeks before the start of initial treatment, but had made no such guarantee about the length of time it should take to be diagnosed. He wondered how many people actually died while they were waiting, and what they died of. It couldn't be Cancer, because the oncologist hadn't said that it was.
At a time like this, he was being forced to battle not only the horror of the disease, but also the nonsense of Danish bureaucracy ("The Best In The World").
He survived the awful long drawn-out treatment and was eventually pronounced free of the horrible illness. The following day he was diagnosed with diabetes, 'though he was assured that the two had no connection with each other.
He received the same assurance, the second time he was found to have Cancer (in exactly the same place). It was nothing more than coincidence. This time he was prepared for all the clever words of explanation, and not nearly as scared about the outcome, just as long as he could get the right people to sign the correct papers,everything would go according to plan.
He was never the same person again, despite all the radiation, the operations, and the plastic surgery. He now understood that nothing was important. It was just a game of form-filling, and trying to find out which political budget was responsible for which expense. He would survive, or he wouldn't. Just two different forms.
He was closer to seventy than sixty, when he realised that he didn't understand. Anything.
He didnThe Knowledge
't want to believe it at first, but the more he thought about it, the more apparent it became. All the basic stuff he had known all his life didn't make sense. It wasn't knowledge at all, but something more akin to whimsy.
Babies, for instance. Where did they come from ? All that stuff he'd always accepted as explanation explained nothing. Sex. Seeds. Sperm. Hormones. How could they possibly become a multi-billion celled, sentient being, capable of love, hatred, learning, communicating, murder ? Murder. What did it mean ? The taking of another person's life ? What nonsense. Life can't be stopped, it just keeps on going. Everything contains life. Even diamonds and oil.
The more pressure, the more compact, the more difficult to get to. But once, it was trees and vegetables, before the pressure was applied. No. It isn't possible to take a life (except by eating it - orally, anally or directly into the main line), and that's something we all do. We call it "food"), but it is possible to stop a person existing, whatever that means. Every chemical, every atom, every part (including the life) still exists, but the person doesn't. If you want to put that idea to the test, study a compost heap. As everything breaks down, the life is transferred to other things.
Worms. Insects. Flowers.
Everything which ever was, still is. Only the patterns change, like an eternal kaleidoscope. The universe weighs the same today as it did at the beginning of time. Nothing has ever been added or removed.
Understand it ? He couldn't even believe it.
He knew it couldn't be true, but he sometimes wondered about those Roswell aliens. Had they taught their captors how to make stuff ? Could a human brain really have invented the Internet ? Invisible cloaking ? Smart bombs ? Mobile 'phones ? Was Arthur C. Clarke human, with his ideas of satellite communication and elevators from the Earth to space-stations ? Is the human mind capable of forming such notions from nothing at all ?
He recognised that if some alien being asked him to explain a kitchen table, and show how to make one, he would be very hard pressed, so who are these people capable of designing things like nano technology ?
He decided that he didn't believe in them.
Working on the adult medical, surgical, psychiatric, orthopaedic and emergency departments had been educational, exhausting and often rewarding, but none of it had prepared him for paediatrics.
Back then, leukaemia was a death sentence, and his job was to make what time the child had left, as uncomfortable as he could imagine. He, and the other staff were, in effect, caring torturers of terminally sick children.
Parents, already racked with grief (and often illogical guilt), would bring their ill, beloved offspring to the hospital, in the expectation that there they would be cared for by professional people who knew what they were doing, and who would do everything in their power to make them well again. In all his years working with children, he never once met a member of staff of whom that wasn't true, but he, and everyone else, knew that the child would have been better off at home, in the care of its family.
Occasionally there were stories of a kid, usually somewhere in America, going into complete remission, but he had never actually experienced it. His leukaemia kids died in agony. An agony caused to a large extent, by the inhumane "treatment" they received at his and his colleagues hands.
It was a dreadful ethical dilemma. Was it right to torture these already dying children, for the possible benefit of future generations, but with no hope of benefit to themselves ? Today, a child with leukaemia stands a very good chance of survival as a result, but does the end ever justify such terrible means ? He hated what he was doing, but knew that it had to be done, and that it was for the best, in the long run.
Matthew was six, and he didn't have leukaemia. It was generally accepted that he was a cabbage, or some other such vegetable, as a result of having been sandwiched between two lorries in a road traffic accident. He couldn't do anything for himself. He couldn't eat. He couldn't keep himself dry, or clean. He couldn't speak. He lay in bed, and moaned, for weeks. Everyone had given up on him, and it was the consensus that he would have been better off if he had died in the RTA, which, to all effects, he had.
Seeing Matthew in that condition had an unusual effect on him. He had never believed in any of that alternative mumbo jumbo, but at the same time he could see that conventional medicine had failed this pitiful little boy, and he determined to try to do something about it ('though he had no idea what, or how). He was working long, arduous hours, but every day, when his official duties were finished, he would take a chair and sit beside Matthew's moaning head. There was no conversation of course, but he would chat to the boy, trying to find a way of capturing his interest. The speech therapists had tried their best, but without success. Why was that ?
Was Matthew so damaged that he was physically unable to speak ?
What would be worth the effort it would take for a severely injured six-year-old to try ? Why would he even want to say words like "cat" and "dog" ?
Using his torch, he stared into his dilated pupils, and was surprised to "see" the little boy, crouched in a corner of his own head, shivering with fear.
"Matthew" he said. "If you will make an effort to come out of there, I will teach you to swear, and make up rude songs about Matron. I know it's not going to be easy, but don't you want to be able to play again, like the other kids ?"
There was no response on that, or many subsequent days, but finally he recognised a flicker of interest.
"Bollocks" he said.
"Bollocks" answered Matthew.
For quite a while he did nothing other than parrot the words, but gradually he stopped being a cauliflower, and became a little boy again. Not perfect, but then, what little boy is ?
Matron's life became a misery. Every time she came onto the ward, Matthew would sing obscene songs about her, laughing, playing and making farting noises. He had learned that authority figures only have that status if he allowed them to, and at the age of six, that wasn't going to happen.
He was reprimanded for teaching Matthew to swear, but both the boy and his mother were grateful, and he knew that it was probably the best thing he would ever do in his life, and anyway, what difference did an official telling off make ? Last time it had been because he had been seen in town without a tie, on his day off, and another time for having his hair dyed purple. If those stupid administrators could just use their energy on getting patients cured of their illnesses, instead of their usual petty officiousness, hospitals would run far more smoothly and efficiently. They should have played a vital role in the running of things, and maybe they did, but this, he knew, wasn't it.
That "Talking Heads" track was many years away from being written, but he was already living it. He had a beautiful loving wife, two delightful daughters, a rewarding and satisfying job, and a cottage in Cornwall (England) in which they all lived in idyllic vegetarian poverty. There was nothing more he wanted or needed, except perhaps some new electronic thingy, and some way of forgetting his messy divorce and betrayal which had cost him his son.
He barely noticed as this total fulfilment gradually turned into stagnation, and he looked around for something to want. It was an almost impossible task, even the weather was kind. He had a palm tree in the garden, and sunsets were far better and more colourful, than any postcard could have made them.
He had never before known (and would never again know) such family love and trust. He, his wife, and his daughters all loved each other completely, and poverty really wasn't that important. He was living in Bountyland.
When he was a child, he had sometimes found himself perversely wishing that he was Oliver Twist, and now, in his early thirties, it was the same kind of thing. He no longer had a reason to strive after anything. Bliss, for him, was just sitting watching his wife crocheting, the girls tucked up in bed, while Frank Zappa, Viv Stanshall, or Beethoven (on good hash "The Pastoral" became a wonder of the world - Shades of "Clockwork Orange") wove their magic from the stereo speakers, and it was something he found himself doing all too often.
It had to be destroyed. His experience told him that rose-tinted glasses weren't to be trusted, so he found an excuse to get away from it all. Losing his son hadn't been his fault, but losing this whole loving family would be. He would take control of his own life.
He could take whatever life threw at him, but not contentment.
That was a painful killer.
How often had the name “Denmark” called to him ? What did he know about Denmark ? Was he interested ? The answers are (1) Never (2) Nothing and (3) No.
School in England had taught him everything he needed to know about the country (that is to say “nothing at all”). He had managed to pick up a few “facts” in the same way as he had learned about sex, from sources which were no less reliable.
He knew that Danes had yellow hair, blue eyes and orange skin, from the couple of Danish porno movies he had seen. (He didn’t actually like porn, it made him feel mildly nauseous, which made him fear for his manliness).
He knew that there were two seasons - six months in which it was dark 24 hours a day, and six months in which it was never night.
He knew that polar bears, walruses and penguins roamed freely, and that any Danish girl would agree to sex when asked by any man, woman or Alsatian dog.
He knew that Danes communicated with each other by means of an impenetrable back-slang which included glottal stops and vowel-sounds unknown elsewhere.
At the age of ten he had been an avid philatelist for fifteen minutes, so from their stamps he knew that Danes couldn’t spell the name of their own country correctly, calling it “Danmark” instead of “Denmark.”
He knew that Danish custom insisted that the man of the house was obliged to offer guests the use of his wife for the night, to ward off the chill air.
He knew that Lurpack was probably the world’s finest butter, and that Carlsberg was probably the world’s finest beer, but he didn’t know that “Lego” was Danish, or that its name came from “Leg God” (Play well).
He knew nothing, and it wasn’t something he was concerned about.
In the 1970s, it was quite common practice for Danish students to take a sabbatical, in order to gain work experience abroad, before going on to university. Many of the girls chose to work as nursing auxiliaries, so, for the first time in his life, he actually came in close contact with Danes, one of whom invited him to take a holiday in Denmark with her, when she returned. He did so and was surprised to find that the natives were friendly (he didn’t understand what they were saying), that the sun was shining, that jazz bands were playing on river-boats, and, on the banks of both sides of the river, row upon row of naked breasts, of all shapes and sizes were exhibited to his gaze.
Of course, he’d seen naked breasts before (some of them Danish) but never displayed like this.
They puzzled him. Should he inspect them ? Should he compare them ? Should he ignore them altogether, and pretend that he hadn’t noticed them ? What was considered good form in this situation ? How should a well brought up Englishman react ?
When the short holiday was over, he returned to England, handed in his notice, and bought a one-way ticket to Denmark.
His arrival in Copenhagen was something of a disappointment.
The sun wasn’t shining, naked breasts were few and far between, and the natives were decidedly unfriendly, ‘though they all believed that they were very hospitable. It was a myth which their government brainwashed them with, together with other untrue notions such as the fact that just about everything in Denmark is the best in the world. They smile for tourists, but don’t allow foreigners into the “family Denmark” (the reasons they give are very familiar - take our jobs, claim unemployment benefits, take our women, dress differently, etc.). An old man had actually told him that they don't like foreigners, but that that didn't include the English, because they remembered Winston Churchill - he tried in vain to recall a time when anyone had insulted him so badly. A woman friend, whose daughter was having a relationship with a Sinhalese chap, told him that she wasn't racist, "but why did it have to happen to my daughter ?"
Needless to say, they are an extremely nationalistic society, and their national flag (Dannebrog) represents everything good and happy. Among other things it is used to decorate Christmas trees, birthday cards and cakes, weddings and graduations, and is waved on all occasions of joy or pride (such as being born, passing an exam, or scoring a goal). He even saw a pack of toilet-paper with the red and white flag printed on it. It is a simple flag - plain red with a white cross - but Danes to a man believe it is beautiful (the story of it having fallen from heaven is accepted as historical fact), and fly it proudly from flagpoles in their gardens. (Flying the flag of any other country requires special permission, usually granted only for International hotels etc.)
Danish hospitals are a strange mixture of up to date, and primitive. Surgeons appear to be very efficient, and they all talk a good operation, but their actual surgery’s success rate would be considered poor, even in a third world country. Every hospital has an abundance of Monty Python “machines that go ping”, but few employ staff who are qualified to use them, so going “ping” is just about all that they do. In fact, a Danish doctor's job seems to have little to do with treating patients, but is more about referring them on (a good doctor is one with an extensive list of specialists he can look up). Needless to say, the Danish health service is the best in the world, together with the educational system. When asked why 30% of school-leavers were unable to read or write, the minister of education replied that it was the wrong way of looking at it. Danes should be proud of the fact that 70% of school-leavers were literate.
English is an obligatory part of the school syllabus, but it is a strange and very Danish English which is taught. He and an English friend used the official Danish/English dictionary as a source of entertainment. They found, for instance, that in English, an MG is a machine gun, and that instead of “unapproachable” the correct English word is “uncomeatable”. Small wonder that a newly elected female politician told American journalists that she couldn’t answer their questions, as she had just started her period.
“The best in the world" is applied to everything which is Danish. Danish democracy (it is a monarchy), Danish driving schools (Danes are appalling drivers), Danish food (mostly 2nd class pig, the good stuff is for export only - to buy Danish back bacon, it has to be imported from the UK), Danish culture (putting straw in clogs to make them fit), Danish design (which is about making everything as simple as possible) and the Danish tax system (the world’s highest level of tax which makes King John seem like a charitable public benefactor. For instance, house owners pay tax on the income they would have if they rented their house out, instead of living in it). Danish incomes come fairly high on the worldwide list, but disposable income doesn’t get a mention on any list, anywhere. Everything is taxed at a very high level. Medicine, old-age pensions, books, EVERYTHING.. When Americans and Brits complain about taxation, it is because they have never been to Denmark (the best in the world).
An EU proposal that value added tax should be a uniform 17½% throughout Europe was vetoed by the Danes, who insisted on at least 25%, with no exceptions.
Despite these, and many other negative observations, his overall impression was that by comparison with the UK, Denmark was far preferable.
The Danes' sheep-like acceptance of authority meant that the crime rate was very low (he had seen people, at three in the morning when there was no traffic at all, wait patiently for the little man to turn green, before crossing the road), and that he, and anyone else, could go out alone, at any time, and not expect to be robbed or assaulted. He kept his front door unlocked, and, during the months when it was warm enough to do so, he let it stand open. No-one ever misused his trust, (in that regard). When a neighbour's bicycle went missing, the story made the local newspaper, and a group of schoolboys who, a few years ago, broke into a dentist surgery are still a frequent topic of conversation in the local Co-op ("Where's it all going to end ?" "It's getting to be like America").
The scenery was a lot more to his taste - the women were generally pretty (many of them breathtakingly so), making most of their English counterparts remind him of Hogarth pictures of deformity. The men, on the other hand, were a waste of space (he wasn't overly interested in alcohol, cars or football, so there was no conversation).
He took Danish citizenship as soon as he could (seven years after moving there), and since becoming Danish he has been more foreign, more English, more alone, than he had ever been before.
Danish hospitality - the best in the world.
He wasn't half the man he used to be.
It was late in the evening, and he had removed his clothes, ready for bed. The TV was showing a programme called QI, which he assumed, by the content, stood for Queer Innuendoes. The characters on the show began to speak strangely, in a way he couldn't understand, so he switched off the set, stood up, turned off the light, and fell to the floor.
He found that he was unable to get up again. He started to panic. Clearly there was something seriously wrong, so he decided to call the emergency service doctor, but when he tried to speak, he found that he could only come out with an unintelligible mixture of Danish, English and gibberish, with small parts of French and German to add to the confusion. He managed, with great difficulty, to crawl on the floo in the dark, found the back of his sofa, and eventually, using superhuman strength, climbed over it, and sat, uncomfortably, for the rest of the night, until he was able to call his own GP, in the hope that he would recognise the number, and realise there was a problem. That worked, and the doctor arrived at a little over eleven o'clock, diagnosed a serious stroke which had paralysed his entire right side, and called an ambulance.
What followed was a full day of nightmare.
Unable to see what was happening, or where he was, he was driven first to one hospital, where he was checked over, then another, and a third, until he arrived at the fourth one, which would be his "home" for the next three and a half months. Unable to do anything for himself by this time, he was catheterised and put into a bed, for further tests, which were made more difficult by his inability to communicate. He had no idea where he was. He had been unable to see the outside of the building, and all hospitals look pretty much the same on the inside. He couldn't ask, or eat, or even roll over in bed. He had become a vegetable zombie. The medical staff all worked hard to keep him alive, but what for ? He was no use to himself, or anyone else. He didn't feel depressed, but thinking realistically he could see that euthanasia would be the most logical course of action. His kids 'phoned from the UK and Australia, but he couldn't speak to them, and the hospital refused to give them any information, presumably to protect him from the media and his fan clubs, and anyway, he didn't want them travelling to Denmark to see him in that condition, that would be to no-one's benefit.
After 3½ months of constant training (physio, speech therapy, learning to eat with only his left hand etc) he was allowed to go home. They tried to tell him that he would have to move into protected housing, but that he couldn't keep his cat with him. That was out of the question, so he refused, and instead opted to have visits from nurses and helpers, four or five times a day (he could no-longer administrate his own insulin, or take a shower on his own).
He decided to write about his adventurous life, but first he had to teach himself to use a computer again. If that sounds easy to you, a quick test consists of sitting on your right hand, and writing your own email address.Once he'd got that more or less together, he started to write.....