So we’re going to have to manage without the usual snap, crackle and buzz of whatever you were expecting to read when you got here. The usual attractions are shuttered up, and the empty streets are blowing with detritus torn out of rubbish bags by hungry seagulls. That bloke in the trench-coat, hyphen courtesy of Weebly's spellcheck (spell-check, surely?), his back to the wind, hand on his hat, has just appeared in my mind’s eye but I’ve no idea where to send him. Yes, the Ferris wheel is about to blow over, but the emergency services are on their way.
Is this one going to make any sense, do you suppose? How did they know to come? Oh, I don’t know, they’ve got a psychic on the payroll and they’ve learned from bitter experience that whenever the lighting goes weird and the spooky music starts up, they should listen to her. So they’re tooled up for the Ferris wheel landing on the electricity substation and, um, the nuclear reactor built in direct contravention of planning controls right on the corner behind the launderette, There’ll be a fire and the reactor will melt down, but they’ve got all that covered, and almost certainly some ancient evil will be woken from its centuries-long slumber by all the noise - but there’s a department for that kind of thing now.
The giant gorilla snatching the news helicopter out of the sky comes as a surprise, but it’s important to maintain an element of unpredictability in these situations. Try some more of this cough medicine, it’s really - powerful. Thanks, don’t mind if I do. No, to the brim is fine.
He's drinking the stuff in this antique brown bottle with "patent medicine" embossed on the side? Seriously? Sometimes, I kind of almost like being unwell - oh, gravely ill; you wouldn’t believe my symptoms - because if it’s the right kind of illness, just the right intensity, it’s an opportunity to switch off for a couple of days and catch up on some reading and box-set watching. Is that a tree branch tapping on the window? For a moment I thought - no, couldn’t be.
That’s your raven, right? I think it likes me. There are no rules for how to behave in this situation - there are rules, multitudes of them, but they’re all backward-looking, describe what’s worked in the past as though it’s established practice and kind of get in the way of introducing anything new - no rules, so we’ll just play this one by ear. How do you deal with the “rule” that a weekly blog has to be a weekly blog even if the person who writes it is in a state of - oh, you wouldn’t believe; oh, no, sorry, I’ve said that already? If the person who writes it is -
What is this stuff? Have you read the ingredients? Yes, thank you, I think I could possibly manage a cup of tea. And a couple of biscuits, perhaps? And I wonder - is there any of that cake left? Oh, no, not a large slice, well, perhaps wide enough to include two of the cherries on top? What’s that? Well enough to get out of bed? Oh, my head, I would, you know I really would, but… no, the chocolate biscuits would be gentler on my stomach, I think. Only one cherry? The cake’s in the side in the kitchen, isn’t it? Did you say you were going out later?
Where was I?
Oh, don’t worry, it’s an old house; there’s bound to be some creaking. I was talking about rules, wasn’t I? Commitment to write weekly; but not at all well today (and yesterday; time’s running out). It is a truth universally acknowledged by people who put together courses on how to do social media properly that a blog, or a vlog (don't worry; no prospect whatsoever), or a podcast (thinking about it), or a multi-media online spectacular featuring wild animals, snake charmers, fortune tellers and rabbits being evicted from hats (can I leave you to fill this bracket?) must be updated regularly, at whatever interval the "unique visitor" (that's you) has come to expect. What does the rulebook say about being ill? Apart from: don't? Sorry, the playbook. Everything’s a playbook nowadays. What does the social media/blogging playbook say?
No wonder he's looking flushed. But at least he's forming sentences. I think the answer is, sit huddled on the side of the bed, duvet around your shoulders, hot water bottle on your head and old-fashioned thermometer in your mouth, feet in a mustard bath (no idea why, but the sentence was rolling along and suddenly there was this mustard bath), and then ask the nurse in the starched 19th-century outfit to fire up the laptop, help you to open up Google Docs, and then bravely, heroically, write a short apologetic piece to say that normal service will be resumed next week.
Reader, this is that piece. Normal service will be resumed next week. I’m - oh, you can work out how I’m feeling. The heart monitor’s blipping away happily, and the visibly eccentric boffin with the wild hair and the defibrillator paddles is looking disappointed. There’s a storm coming, but nobody’s thought to connect the lightning conductor to the slab on which I’m lying. Rumours that I’ve come downstairs and settled myself at my desk with a larger slice of cake, two cherries wide, are, um, true, well, three, but I’m really not feeling up to much. Sorry.
Hang on. I see four cherries. That's half a cake! If I go on like this, I’ll get a client. There are whole genres of fiction - and I’ve read most of them since heading up to bed two days ago - in which the first chapter of the first book of the series invariably starts with the hero, male or female, sitting in his/her office (which is sometimes a regular table in a bar where he/she knows everybody) grumbling about (take your pick) headache, hangover, bills to pay, lack of cash, lack of clients, failure to look presentable and/or find uncrumpled clothes, run out of soft throat lozenges, nobody’s taking me seriously, I really am ill, et cetera. They grumble, grumble, grumble, and just when you’ve got it clear that they’re not at their best - the book starts with the arrival of a client.
I blame Raymond Chandler. Except that he was good at it. Anyway, our hero sits at his (enough of the his/her; we’re talking about me) desk in his pyjamas, with his hair out of control, not seen a razor recently, writing his apology for a blog post, and there’s a tap on the door and in walks this ice-cold tall blonde woman with green eyes (this is my story) in a sharp suit with a supercilious expression (I’m sure the suit has a supercilious expression too, but you know what I mean) and they trade one-liners until it’s clear that he’s independently maverick-ish and unaffected by her condescension and she’s prepared to pay him an enormously large sum of money to find the McGuffin within twenty-four hours or the kidnapped heiress Runs Out Of Time.
Everybody down at the Precinct has vouched for him, although she clearly can’t believe it, and it’s only that extra thing Detective Petersen said that keeps her from walking straight out again. She’s not looking for a relationship, she’s heard all those lines before, this is strictly business, but - there, that was almost a smile.
He's not going to tell us what Detective Petersen said, is he? So I don't know if the social-media playbook has a rule for this, but going by everything I’ve read over the last few days - wow, this 19th-century cough medicine is strong stuff - the real-life rule for what to do if you have a blog post to write and a really impressive attack of man flu - did I tell you about [some text missing here]? is - grumble. Big-time. Wow, this medicine. Not only do you get cake with cherries on top, but if you go on long enough - oh!
Excuse me, I think I might just nip upstairs and brush my hair.
One of those missed appointments was mine. I don’t feel good about it. Early-morning phone appointment. But I’d set my phone to silent the day before, for a reason I don’t remember, and forgotten to set it back to intrusive. And I’m hazy anyway first thing in the morning. So the price of a day trip to Bristol, or perhaps of a half-share in five defibrillator machines in Penryn, was spent on keeping that doctor sitting at his desk holding his phone to his ear and listening to the dialling tone.
We fill small moments. Except that I don’t think that’s what happened. I don’t remember whether I got one missed call or two from the surgery’s Unknown Number, but I’d guess the doctor recorded me as a no-answer and got on with using the unexpected free time to do something useful - read his notes for the next patient, get some much-needed sleep/coffee, et cetera. If there had been a way to unhook him from his salary for that ten/twenty minutes, and cut off the utilities to his consulting room for that brief interval, there would have been spare cash to put towards a new parking space.
But that isn’t how life happens. For the record, I did go in to the surgery and apologise, and when I picked up the phone at the appointed time for my remade appointment, the doctor and I were all friends again. But that’s just a self-interested little digression: what I’m saying is, the front-office staff are not on a Caribbean cruise because of how many people failed to pick up the phone for their remote appointments. We fill small moments with work. My missed-appointment money was spent on - let’s be extravagant here - giving the doctor a few moments of freedom that might have done wonders for his mental health.
Or on getting him properly ready for his next appointment. There aren’t people sitting in that waiting room thinking: if I miss another three appointments, I could get them as far as Phuket. Any more than there are doctors who think: the patient wasn’t there, so I shall spend the next twenty minutes consciously wasting the time. But my real question is, why does it always have to be money? Do we have no other language, even in health care?
Large-scale infrastructure projects. I like the people at my local surgery, but (a) I don’t feel inclined to take the guilt trip because human error - like mine in forgetting that appointment (at my age, etc.) - is part of the human condition that is their business anyway, and (b) if they’re as hard-pressed as they claim to be, they’ll probably welcome an occasional unscheduled opportunity to regroup. If this is dementia-friendly Falmouth (I see stickers saying it is), people who forget appointments aren’t the bad guys.
I get it that people who can’t be bothered to turn up, say, are causing resources - doctors, nurses, ear syringe machines - to be moved expensively into place for no reason, and okay, there probably are good arguments for replacing patients with robots. AI doesn’t forget appointments. Assuming you remember to recharge it overnight. Oops.
But - “we could have bought a car with the money we spent on getting ready for you”? I don’t, er, buy it. That’s accountancy. Next time we’re given a figure for missed appointments, or indeed large-scale infrastructure projects or anything else, perhaps somebody could ask for a breakdown of how that figure was reached? And if we’re not given a figure, I don’t know, maybe we should ask how much a “donation towards 84 defibrillator machines in Falmouth and around Cornwall” is in real money.
Feathers. And come to think of it, “we could have gone on holiday if we hadn’t been waiting for you” doesn’t really work as an incentive. We’re about to be celebrating the centenary of the guns falling silent. Earlier in that war, in 1914, the Order of the White Feather was founded “to shame men into enlisting in the British army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform” (Wikipedia; not a happy story). That was counterproductive (read it, quite interesting), but the reason I know that is that I went looking for that old Kitchener poster.
You remember the one? Typically misremembered (by me too) as the “Your Country Needs You” poster; that phrase redirects to the original, which actually says “Lord Kitchener wants you”. I thought of it because I wondered whether a better “nudge” for my surgery to use would be a poster showing a tearful nurse or doctor or receptionist (okay, I’m over it; I’m not going to list everybody) over the slogan “Your Surgery Misses You”. That would do it, surely? I don’t feel too sad about keeping them from binge-buying defibrillators, or buying a car, but if they’re sitting up there on the hill worrying about me - well, I’d hate to let them down.
Money isn’t the root of all punctuality, and a white feather, or an “I forgot my appointment” badge, wouldn’t be the right approach either. But caring about the staff, getting a sense of their disappointment at not seeing me, thinking of them sitting there saying “Do you think he’s all right?” and checking their watches, while the ceiling lights hum and the wall clock ticks away the seconds - okay! I’m coming!
This isn’t a footnote, but I thought I’d put it here anyway. Way back when, you got to be an “investigative journalist” because you were a journalist and you investigated things. Typically, things that somebody else didn’t want investigated, rather than things that turned up in your inbox in the form of a media release or a leak.
These days, you can do a course in “investigative journalism”. Teaching people how to investigate requires a set of assumptions about what they’ll investigate, and you have to spell out a list of investigative methods, to fit into a syllabus, rather than teaching them flexibility and responsiveness - but it’s okay, because how would you do that anyway? If you can’t do it, teach it, goes the old saying. If you’re taught it, that doesn’t mean you can do it, goes today’s version.
A certain well-known president is making a lot of noise at the moment about “treason”. Maybe today’s Deep Throat couldn’t find anybody prepared to go into the parking garage with him, so he had to write his own article.