R I P, Big Rocky

I wrote recently about how some of Ollie’s canine pals are becoming unwell. Big Rocky (I call him that because there’s a small Rocky too) the Newfoundland cross has been unwell lately, and hardly able to walk. His loving owners, Steve and Gill, bought him a cart so that they could at least wheel him down to the river for a swim, and to see some familiar faces.

Today, I was informed that they had to have him put to sleep at home.
Naturally, they are heartbroken, and all of us dog-walkers are very upset too.

Rocky had a great life, with two of the best people who could ever own a dog. He was loved and cared for, given all medical treatment when necessary, and never wanted for exercise until he could no longer manage it.

Steve and Gill have lost a much-loved companion, and Ollie has lost one of his oldest friends.

Ambulance stories (19)

Another post from 2012, reflecting on my time as an EMT in London. I don’t think any of you have ever seen this one.


Phone calls in the night

Some jobs in the Ambulance Service do not involve rushing off on blue lights, heading for the local Casualty department, trying hard to save the life of the patient on board. They do not involve any contact with the patient at all, save for a brief confirmation that nothing can be done.

Most people who die from natural causes, do so in the early hours of the morning. They are sometimes discovered later, often much later, but the chances are, that they actually passed away after midnight, and before 6am. Of course, the Ambulance Service is a 24 hours a day operation, so if the unfortunate person is found, an ambulance will usually be summoned to the scene. The deceased person may have been found by a carer, if in an old people’s home, or possibly by a neighbour, who might have a key, and…

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Losing friends

One of the most depressing aspects of getting older is the loss of family members to illness or old age. I was quite young when my maternal grandfather died, but remember it well. It was an introduction to the loss of older relatives that prepared me for many more that came later.

However, I don’t think I was ever prepared for the loss of so many friends. For some reason, I grew up thinking that my close friends would be around for as long as I was, and their unexpected loss came as a harder blow than that of very elderly relatives who had lived long lives.

But you forget you are getting to an age where friends begin to pass away too. It just creeps up on you, but never gets any easier to deal with.

Last week, I was informed of the death of another close friend. Someone I had known since I was 28 years old, so almost forty years of friendship. As I received the text message from his wife, I was struck by the fact that I was holding the last letter he had sent me, preparing to reply to it that morning.

I met James Cassidy on my first day at the London Ambulance Training School. He was an experienced Paramedic who had chosen to become a training officer. As our large group of new entrants sat nervously eyeing each other in a big classroom, he walked in to introduce himself as our class instructor. Within minutes, his easy manner had relaxed everyone. He joked and laughed with us as if he had always known us, and when we went for a tea break, we all agreed that we were lucky to have got such a character to guide us through the long weeks of training to come. We also concluded that any job that could produce such a man must indeed be a good choice of career.

The next weeks of training showed his caring and commonsense nature to the full. He helped those who found it hard going, and continued to encourage us, as well as never sugar-coating the harsh realities of the job we would soon be doing. On completion of the classroom training, he became my personal instructor for the on-road, real life training. Six weeks of 999 calls, in one of the busiest ambulance stations in central London. Non-stop emergencies of all kinds, with very few days off.

During that time, Jim and I became firm friends. In between jobs, we would have long debates about politics, life experience, travel, literature, and the pros and cons of life in the emergency services. But once my training was over, I moved on to my permanent posting, and Jim went back to take on his next class of new entrants. But we didn’t let that distance stop us keeping in touch, and began many years of correspondence by letter, something that endured even after emails had become the norm. I only bumped into him occasionally over the years, sometimes at headquarters, or at retirement celebrations. But we kept in touch as frequently as our busy lives allowed.

Many years later, Jim left his training role, for promotion to Divisional Officer, in east London. Despite his elevation in rank, we stayed in contact just the same, right up until the time I was due to leave London for good, and retire to Norfolk. Jim and his wife came to my leaving party in 2012, and he promised to visit me in East Anglia. And he kept that promise. When he retired and bought a motor caravan, he arranged to bring it to a site close to Beetley, and we spent two marvellous days catching up. In his last letter to me, he mentioned that he would be coming to visit again, this time with his wife, and hopefully in the summer of 2019.

But that was sadly never to be, and his unexpected death last week came as a great shock indeed.

So rest in peace, my friend Jim. A great bloke, a true and loyal companion through most of my life, and never forgotten.

Approaching the end of a positive year

As 2017 draws to a bleak and chilly close, I have cause to reflect.

After decades of seeing a glass half full, and of always looking on the black side, I made a decision.
2017 would be approached with a positive outlook. Problems would be faced head on, adversity shunned, and foul weather ignored. As I was all-too aware that I would be 65 last March, I knew that I had to do something to drag myself out of the trough of melancholy that had blighted so much of my life.

So, I determined to look for the good in everything. Even the worst things have a good side, surely?
I did my best, I assure you. Without going into detail, this past seven months have been some of the most difficult of my life. But I didn’t let on, and refused to just lie down and let it all roll over me. I looked for those elusive positives, and to a large extent, I found them. It might have taken some searching, I admit that. But they were there all the time, I just had to recognise them.

Our short holiday was plagued by bad weather. On the positive side, we managed to miss most of it, enjoying our time between the downpours. Dog-walking was often a chore. Finally tiring of the same old walk, I tried other places. But Ollie wasn’t impressed, and lusted after his routine. So, I knuckled down, stuck to the same boring trudge, and tried to find the positives. They were staring me in the face. Ollie was happy. That was the positive, and after all, dog-walking is all about the dog, not the owner.

Events in our personal lives have been less easy to reconcile. The death of a beloved aunt, and one of my dearest and oldest friends. Hard to find positives there. But at least they were no longer suffering. Their lives were remembered with love and respect, and we were all better for knowing them. That’s a positive, if I ever saw one. Other life issues had to be dealt with in much the same way. This happened, that happened. But it meant that we no longer had to put up with X, or suffer Y. Looking for the positives takes off the edge of events that might otherwise lay you low.

Christmas looms, quickly followed by the futuristic-sounding year of 2018. Whether or not I can continue with such a positive attitude next year remains to be seen. The way things are at the moment, that’s a 50-50 chance. But I will do my best, and try to make it work again.

Staying positive, until the end of 2017.


Very sad news

I received a notification of a blog post today, from one of the blogs that I have followed since I started out, in 2012. I hadn’t seen much from that blog lately, so I was keen to open the post.
Then I read this.

August 12, 2017

Nandia Vlachou (1975-2017)

“Nandia has passed away on the sunrise of the 8th of June 2017. This blog will no longer be updated, although its contents will remain available in memoriam.

Her husband.”

I can’t tell you how sad this made me feel. Nandia was a married woman, with children who are not that old. She lived in Portugal with her family, and worked as an art historian, and writer. Her articles were always fascinating, and written to a high standard. We shared many blog conversations about films, and she was a great supporter of my blog too. Although we never met, I considered her a real friend, and I was always humbled by her intelligence and experience.

Her blog will remain open for posterity, for all who want to read her work, or enjoy the many images she posted there. I will miss her a lot, and miss her comments on posts, and her opinions on anything. There will be no further posts, and no replies to comments. But if you ever want to have a look at a very classy blog, then follow this link.

Rest in peace, dear Nandia.

Not forgotten

My Mum died on the 14th of March, 2012. Five years ago today.

I have written a lot about her on this blog, and have previously marked this anniversary of her death. I wasn’t going to do the same again today for some reason, but then I changed my mind. I don’t want her memory to be forgotten. Though I will never forget her, her life, and awful death, needs to be mentioned, if only once a year.

By her own reckoning, she was an ‘ordinary woman’. A Londoner, born into a working-class family, she left school aged just 14, to start work. Her youth was ruined by the Second World War. Long years spent terrified of the bombing, hiding in shelters, and having to cope with the loss of friends and neighbours lost in the destruction, or when fighting overseas in the services.

Despite all that, she got on with life. She married, raised me, and continued to be part of her large extended family too. She was a loyal wife, a devoted aunt and sister, a good cousin and caring neighbour. Above all, she was a wonderful Mum, who would do anything for her son. She also supported many charities, and loved her pets too.

The last years of her life were marred by illness, and problems with her sight. That final stay in hospital, receiving no treatment under the ‘Liverpool Care Pathway’, was one of the hardest things I have ever had to witness. Yet through it all, she only worried about me. My future, my happiness, my health. Never her own.

Violet Anne Johnson, 1924-2012. Never forgotten.

Black Tie

What do you think of, when you see the words, ‘Black Tie’?

Perhaps a formal dinner, a special occasion, or a well-dressed wedding? When I was younger, I used to dread seeing those words. They meant that I would have to hire a dinner suit, and either struggle with tying a bow tie, or wearing one already attached to a strap. Then finding cufflinks to use with those formal shirts with the pleats and darts, shirts with no other practical use. But that was decades ago, and I have had no need nor reason to wear such things for almost forty years.

But Black Tie has come to mean something else to me. It is the colour of the tie that I wear most frequently these days. In fact, other than a couple of weddings I have attended in the last five years, it is the only colour tie I have occasion to wear. Because I now attend a lot of funerals, so my old tie is getting a lot of use. Use that I wish there was no need for, but at my age, inevitable.

I have attended two funerals already this year. The first was that of my beloved Aunt, on the 19th of January. This was a family affair, and no less sad because she had lived to a great age. Seeing relatives who you hadn’t heard from since the last funeral we all attended. Young children of cousins, now adults, seemingly grown overnight into different people. Older relatives; familiar, looking tired, reflecting your own passing years in their faces like a mirror. Food and drink and catching up, back at the house.

Fond reminiscences, followed by fond farewells.

Then yesterday, the funeral of my great friend, Billy. A long drive to another sad day, with mist and rain providing a suitable backdrop. This was a funeral where not only his family and friends gathered, but also many former colleagues. The attendance was the largest I can recall at a funeral, indicating how well Billy was thought of, and how much everyone wanted to be there to say goodbye. A Humanist service, some wonderful music, and the poignant scene of his Boxer dog, Bruno, sitting patiently in the front row. Chatting to people remembered after twenty years or more. Hearing stories of others who had passed away, and hoping to meet some again before too long.

Sadness tinged with happy memories indeed.

On the way home, we were unlucky to get a punctured tyre on a busy motorway. In driving rain, and stopped on the pitch-black hard shoulder, it was too dangerous to investigate. We had to call out the breakdown company, and wait for seventy minutes in this precarious spot. The mechanic told us that the tyre was shredded, and the car had to be loaded onto his truck to be brought home, with us riding inside his vehicle. We got back at 11:30 pm, more than thirteen hours after leaving home that morning.

I put my black tie back on the rack in the wardrobe, hoping never to need it again.

Staying positive, in 2017.

Singing in Heaven: Billy O’Neill

If there is a Heaven, you can bet my dearly departed friend will be performing there. After my recent post about his sad loss, I found these two videos on You Tube. Rocking in one, mellow in the other.

He could rock a Gretsch and Telecaster, or lull us with an acoustic. These are fairly recent films, and it’s great to remember him with a guitar in his hand.

Something positive, after all the sadness.


Thanks to Ian, for putting them on You Tube.



Friday morning

(I wrote this yesterday afternoon, after receiving the news. I wasn’t sure that I was going to post it after all, and left it in drafts. Today, I decided to publish the post, in memory of my dear friend.)

I got some bad news today. It wasn’t completely unexpected, but no less heartbreaking for that.

One of my dearest and best friends died, after a long battle with a painful and debilitating cancer. He was only 57 years old, and had so much left to give, and to enjoy. I thought about our friendship for a long time, then took Ollie for a walk on the cold and grey afternoon that reflected my mood so well.

I first met Billy in the late 1980s, when he came to work at the ambulance station in Notting Hill, London. It seemed unlikely back then that we would ever become such firm friends. I was the experienced, somewhat bitter man. He was the gentle new boy, seeing good in everyone, keeping his head down, and keen to do his best in a strange new world. He stood a full ten inches taller than me, and had a background that couldn’t have been more different.

Very soon, Billy was a popular figure. Staff at the hospitals loved his good manners, and open personality. Patients recognised his caring nature, and colleagues appreciated his keenness, and his involvement in the life of the small ambulance station. Not long after, we were embroiled in the bitter dispute that became the six-month long national ambulance strike, from 1989-1990. Billy threw himself into that, alongside the rest of us. He came in every day, designed and painted posters and banners, and helped out wherever he could. He was no militant (like me) but could see the injustice, so resolved to fight it.

Just after the strike, we became crew-mates. An unlikely pair to work together every day, perhaps. But he mellowed my cynicism, and I helped him toughen up enough to cope. Outside of work, we also became great friends. Long evenings enjoying listening to music, talking about literature and films, and enjoying meals in each others flats. I used to complain that talking to him made my neck hurt, always having to lift my head to speak to someone so much taller. We laughed most of the time too, sharing a sense of black humour, and the often hilariously ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Yet when things got serious, we did the right thing, and Billy soon became a very accomplished Paramedic indeed.

Billy had a full and fascinating life, and was a man of huge artistic talent too. Born and brought up in America, he came back to the UK with his family at the age of eight, and settled in rural Oxfordshire. Always a spiritual person, Billy went into the Catholic Church, becoming a monk and working in the community in the Midlands. But he became disillusioned with the restrictions and attitudes of life in that field, so left to return to his love of music and books. A wonderful guitarist, he played in bands, and even toured and made records. He wrote songs, and made many contacts in that world too. He later became a librarian in the London district of Camden, before deciding to join the ambulance service, to help the community. He continued to make music, to paint and draw, and to explore religions and philosophies. He was one of the most interesting and intelligent people I ever met.

He was also an excellent cook, and a great host. He loved to experiment with Medieval and Elizabethan recipes, and his Simnel cake and Game Pie were both wonderful examples of that. He loved parties too, and the famously over the top Halloween parties, a legacy of his American youth, were a delight to attend. A welcoming and generous nature guaranteed that any evening spent in his company was always something to anticipate with relish. And a few glasses of Jack Daniels always helped too.

Over the years, our friendship continued to grow. For a long time, we lived a stone’s throw from each other in Camden, which made it much easier to socialise. When he grew restless in the job, I encouraged him to apply for promotion, and he was successful in being appointed to become a Training Officer at the regional Paramedic training centre for London. But he didn’t stop there, continuing to rise through the ranks until he was one of the highest-ranking officers in the London Ambulance Service. None of this went to his head though, and had no affect on our long friendship. When Julie and I married, he was a witness to our marriage. And when he had a Civil Ceremony with his partner Ian, I was honoured to be asked to do the same.

Billy and Ian bought a house in Oxfordshire, and moved away from the bustle of life in London. They got two dogs, and enjoyed their free time in the countryside. But they never forgot their friends, and we were always welcome. When We moved to Norfolk, they soon came to visit, and we enjoyed a great weekend touring around the area. Ironically, it was during this visit that I asked if he would be kind enough to say a few words at my own funeral, when the time came. Little did I know that he would go before me, and even as I type these words, it is impossible to think that he has.

A few days before Christmas, Julie and I went to visit Billy in a hospice where he was having treatment. We took Ollie along too. It was upsetting to see him in pain, but he did his best to stay cheerful, patting Ollie, and talking about everyday things. As we said our farewells, it was obvious that we both knew that this would be the last time we would ever see each other.

And it was.

William O’Neill. 1959-2017. You will never be forgotten.

Not just celebrities

The Internet and blogs have been awash with blog posts and articles about the amount of celebrities who have died during 2016. I even posted a tribute to David Bowie myself, on this blog. And as the year went on, it didn’t seem possible that so many famous people could pass away, in such a short space of time. With all the tributes, emotional memories and recollections, vigils outside houses, and television specials, it is understandable that the deaths of so many ‘ordinary’ people might be overlooked. But it is not only celebrities who have left us, during this cruel year.

In the early hours of this morning, my beloved Aunt Edie died.

She had never written a book.
She never made a record.
She was never in a film.
She had never appeared on TV.
She never had to deal with a well-publicised drink or drug problem.
She never had to ‘come out’ in public.
She was never hounded by paparazzi.
She didn’t have to cope with rich parents who didn’t really love her.
She never appeared on the front page of a national newspaper.

But to me, she was as famous as anyone could ever be. Brought up in South London, enduring the Blitz, and working hard all of her life. She raised two lovely children, and gave them the chances that she had never enjoyed herself. She outlived her husband, both of her sisters, and her only brother. She loved her family, and was well-known for playing the piano, banging those ivories all night during long parties of sing-songs at my Grandmother’s house.

When I was young, we all lived together in the same house, and she was as good as a second mother to me, when my own Mum was out at work, or off somewhere with my Dad. She went on to become the redoubtable landlady of three South London pubs, following a family tradition started by her own uncle. Whenever she could, she helped other family members, raised money for charity, and supported her husband when he became terminally ill. She never forgot her roots, and personified the hard working-class life that made her the woman that she was.

In her latter years, she retired to rural Essex, but even when she became infirm, she refused to let any medical problems get the better of her. In a final gesture of her innate social responsibility, she even donated her body to medical research, so that future generations of doctors might learn from the circumstances of her demise.

I will miss her much more than I will miss Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, George Michael, David Bowie, or any of the other celebrities that I never met.

I will miss her more than she will ever know.
Rest in peace, Edie. You were much loved in life.