My Driving Licence Saga: The Eye Test

As regular readers will know, I had to have an eye test yesterday. It was a special one, organised by the driver’s licencing agency. I had to pass it, or never be allowed to drive again. As the application to renew my licence has dragged on since the first week of February, my stress levels were reaching an all-time high as I got in my car to drive the ten miles to Fakenham, north of Beetley.

On the hottest day of the year so far, with 33C (91.5F) showing as the outside temperature, I arrived almost thirty minutes early, to make certain I didn’t miss it. At least the car park was almost empty in the town, and free for the first two hours.

When I decided to show up ten minutes early at the designated optician’s shop, I could see they were busy. No less than six female staff appeared to be run off their feet with a constant stream of customers. When I showed the official letter, the lady perused it and said, “Sorry, we have no trace of this appointment”.

I actually surprised myself by keeping my temper as I carefully explained that one of their members of staff had telephoned me over ten days ago to tell me that was the only appointment they had available in June, and I had accepted it. I added that I thought it was her, as I recognised her voice. She went off to check on her computer, and sat shaking her head.

“Sorry, it quite obviously was not entered onto the appointment calendar”.
(Translated by my brain as ‘Computer says no!’)

At this point, it was fortunate that the shop had air conditioning, otherwise my brain was liable to overheat and run out of my ears.

As I sat holding my head, incredulous at the complete and utter incompetence I was faced with, the nice lady saved the day.
“Let me ring head office. I need a log-on to use the machine, and that is usually the appointment number. They might be able to give me an emergency code”.

She rang them, and they gave her the code. Fifteen minutes later, thirty-five minutes after my scheduled appointment time, I was taken into a cubilcle smaller that the smallest toilet stall on earth, and sat in front of the ‘Visual Fields Analyser’. This invloves staring at a red (or orange) dot inside a screen, as various small white lights flash on and off randomly, anywhere in your field of view. Each time you see a light, you have to ‘click’ a button you are given to hold in your hand.

Before starting the sequence, the lady warned me. “Be careful, the button is very sensitive”. Then we ran through the long sequence of the moving red light and small white lights. When that was over, she shook her head. “You failed by a factor of nine. I think you held the button too long and registered some clicks twice. Shall we try again?”

The second try was better. I was aware of the sensitivity of the button, and I stroked it tenderly, as if caressing the lips of a lover, digitally.
She beamed at my success. “Yes, you are within the allowed parameters!”

But there was more.

“Now you have to see the specialist Optometrist, upstairs, I will show you up.”

I had been there almost an hour now. Upstairs, I was away from the airconditioning in the shop below, waiting on an uncomfortable chair while said Optometrist dealt with a schoolgirl who had an eye infection caused by contact lens fluid.

(I could hear every word of the private consultation though the door of his room.)

After asking the teenage girl far too many unnecessary additional questions, then having a protracted and rather pointless chat with her dad about nothing relevant, the Optometrist called me into his small room, and was full of smiles as he apologised for the delay.

The test that followed was a classic and basic ‘Eye Test’.

I had to look at 6 rows of increasingly small letters of the alphabet on a screen behind his head.
Once with one eye covered, no glasses on.
Once with the other eye covered, no glasses on.
Once with both eyes uncovered, no glasses on.
Then repeat, whilst wearing my glasses.
I had to achieve a perfect score of 6 on each line, each time.

Fortunately, he was writing my score down where I could see it, and I saw a complete row of 6/6.
The test was finally over. I had passed! I asked the cheerful man if that meant I would now get my licence renewed. He smiled again.

“Well I am afraid that is up to the DVLA. We send them the test results, but the final decision is up to them. You can go now”.

Life Expectancy

When I was young, the assumed life expectancy was supposed to be 70 years old. (For men) As it said in the Bible, (somewhere) ‘Three Score Years, and Ten’.

I soon began to make decisons and lifestyle choices that were destined to reduce that number significantly, in my case. I started smoking cigarettes at the age of 16, and by the time I was 18, I was considered to be a heavy smoker. That carried on until I was 60 years old, 42 years of around two packs a day, every day.

And I also liked a drink. Beers at the pub, wine at home, and the more-than-occasional gin and tonic, or a nice cognac.

At the age of 27, I started working shifts, in an exceptionally stressful job. I did that for another 33 years, until just shy of my 60th birthday. In between, I moved house more times than I care recall now, and got married and divorced. Twice.

Then I got married again.

I didn’t watch what I ate too closely, and often worked 60-72 hours a week. I tried most recreational drugs known to mankind at one time or another, and adopted the ‘James Dean’ philosphy of ‘Live Fast, Die Young’. I expected to burn out. Not only expected it, there was a time when I actively sought that untimely end.

During my time as an EMT, I became closely acquainted with death, in more ways than I ever thought possible. I came to the conclusion that if I lived past the age of 55, it would be little short of a miracle. So when I celebrated that 55th birthday, I had to take stock. Perhaps I would live longer despite everything?

It dawned on me that it was possible to live to that Biblical age of three score plus ten, even for me.

Then I got to 60. I stopped smoking cigarettes, and retired to the countryside. I began exercising regularly with my dog Ollie, and relaxed at long last. But after many years of taking Statins for high cholesterol, I got bad news from my new doctor. Muscle wastage, and mild liver damage. All caused by reacting badly to Statins. I had almost no strength left in my upper body, and the muscles in my arms and chest were shot for life. I came off those tablets, and had to live with my record-breaking high cholesterol levels.

I thought that I had finally reached my high water mark, and the cholesterol would kill me within a year. But no.

So here I am at the amazingly (for me) old age of 68. I find myself in the middle of a lethal pandemic that is daily taking the lives of tens of thousands around the world.

But other than being ‘very sleepy’, I have no symptoms.

Maybe I am immortal after all.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday


I woke up feeling stressed today. Just something that has been niggling me for a long time, and it grew strong enough to actually wake me up. We talk about stress all the time, in this modern world. We say things like “Stress is a killer”, or “I feel stressed out”. Lots of things can magnify feelings of stress. Job interviews, job losses, examinations, moving house, getting divorced, or even being stuck in traffic.

Stress means different things to different people. One person’s stress is another’s challenge. Many thrive on the adrenaline of stress, whilst others have their lives destroyed by it. But how much of it is natural, and how much learned? Are we born with the capacity to feel stress, or is it thrust upon us by the experiences of others? Was it designed into our very being to help us deal with the basics of life, or has it grown since the age when we started to question satisfaction, and our place in the scheme of things?

I have no doubt that stress can make you feel ill, physically as well as mentally. Stress-free days are so rare that they feel special, like a holiday, or childhood treat. In western society, we seem to have been taught what we should feel stressed about. It’s as easy as telling a child not to worry about something that they weren’t worried about to begin with. “Don’t worry about the exam, it will be fine”. So you worry. “Don’t worry about the new school, you will fit in”. So you worry. “Don’t worry about your first day at work even if it feels strange”. So you worry, and it feels strange.

Often in life, we choose to place ourselves in stressful situations. For most of my life, I worked in jobs that could be extremely stressful. Not just because of what I encountered, but also because they carried an above-average sense of responsibility, and accountability too. Added to that stress was more of the same, found in my private life. Failed marriages, trying to be kind and fair to everyone, hoping to set a good example. Instead of just getting on with it, I always felt stressed about it. From an early age, I was taught that stress makes you sharper, gets things done, and leaves you with a sense of achievement that then cancels out the stress. But that didn’t happen.

Was stress something to bear because of youth, puberty, and development issues? I had to be seen to be popular, have a girlfriend, a decent job, and live a worthwhile life. Once that was all behind me, surely stress would play little or no part in my life? But it did, and it still does.

I woke up this morning wondering if it will ever stop.

Ambulance Stories (47)


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a subject much in the news these days. It can affect anyone, in a variety of situations; from a soldier returning from a combat zone, to someone who witnessed a bad traffic accident. I found this recent definition of the condition on the NHS website.

The type of events that can cause PTSD include:
serious road accidents
violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect
witnessing violent deaths
military combat
being held hostage
terrorist attacks
natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis
PTSD can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later.
PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience, but it’s not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others don’t.’

You notice that there is nothing in that list specifically about working for the Emergency Services. I suppose that if you choose to embark on a career in the Ambulance Service, or the Fire Service, and The Police, you should anticipate the likelihood of having to deal with a lot of unpleasant things, and that you will be witnessing things that others never see. The same applies to those who choose a career in the Armed Forces, but they are on the list, given the extreme nature of their role I presume. It would appear that being the victim of something, rather than just witnessing it, or dealing with the outcome as part of your job, is the defining factor here. So how does this manifest itself, what are the tell-tale signs? This is again from the NHS website.

Signs and symptoms
‘Someone with PTSD will often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
They may also have problems sleeping, such as insomnia, and find concentrating difficult.
These symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.’

For more than twenty years, I witnessed all sorts of unspeakable things working on an Ambulance in Central London. Countless dead bodies, attempted resuscitation of people of all ages, including babies. Finding corpses that had been neglected and were decaying, traumatic limb amputations, decapitations, murders, sexual assaults, and violent crimes. Sufferers of terminal illnesses, people who had jumped from a great height to their deaths, or under trains, or sometimes into water. Suicide by drug overdose, death from drug addiction, victims of shootings and stabbings, others seriously injured in road accidents. I saw them all, and dealt with them accordingly. There was a lighter side. Delivering babies, chatting to interesting elderly people, the banter with colleagues and hospital staff. But generally, it was mostly unpleasant, and often downright nasty.

We were threatened and attacked too. I was physically assaulted a few times, and verbally abused daily. I have been threatened with violence, had knives waved at me, and on two occasions, even a gun was brandished. We were fair game, and enjoyed little respect. Writing the stories about my experiences on this blog has brought back many recollections of my time there; and as memories, they are mostly good ones, surprisingly. When you are dealing with the victims of terrorist bombings for example, you don’t really have time to think about stress, or trauma to the mind. You just do the job you signed up for, and move on to the next one. The day after that, you turn up for work, and deal with whatever is thrown at you, starting all over again, from scratch.

I did my last shift in an Ambulance in November 2001, before moving on to pastures new, as a Communications Officer with the Metropolitan Police. I can honestly say that I didn’t miss the job at all, just some of the people. I joined at the right time for me, and left when it no longer felt right. Since retiring in 2012, I often have vivid dreams. About 70% of those dreams happen to be related to working in an ambulance. Two nights ago, I woke from one such dream at around 3AM. I had been driving an ambulance, and I had got lost, unable to find the location of the job I was required to go to. Rather than being in London, I was on the coast somewhere, driving near the edge of a cliff. The person beside me was unfamiliar, not one of my old crew-mates at all. This is a recurring dream, though often the person with me is someone I know well, or a person that I could never have known at the time, but have met since. They are not unpleasant dreams, but they usually concern lots of driving, and getting nowhere fast. Perhaps someone skilled in interpretation of dreams can explain them, I know that I cannot.

I suppose I always suspected that PTSD might be the legacy of a third of my life spent attending 999 calls. But it wasn’t. I didn’t get it, though some others surely did. I was one of the lucky ones.

Ambulance stories (35)

The Black Ambulance.

If you ask anyone who works in the Ambulance Service, and they answer truthfully, most will have a very low opinion of the general public. When I was first working in London, there were no television programmes like ‘Casualty’, or ‘Holby City’, and no fly-on-the-wall documentaries following crews about on calls. TV shows and films showed ambulance crews as little more than drivers, walking about in the background, or lifting stretchers. The Police were the stars of the show, and they would bark orders at the ambulance staff, saying things like ‘be careful’, or ‘hurry up’. Even in ‘medical’ programmes, the ambulance would arrive with a patient, and the crew would almost disappear, cutting to a scene where a doctor, and a usually adoring nurse, were caring for the stricken individual. In many productions, especially comedies, the crew might even be portrayed as incompetent, often forgetting to close the doors, and losing the patient out the back. This may seem harmless enough, but it fostered a public attitude towards ambulance staff that lasted for many years; until the advent of shows like St Elsewhere and ER began to show another side to the work.

Most of the public had scant regard for us. They would address you as ‘driver’, and feel comfortable ordering you about, or arguing with you. This crossed all classes, and was as prevalent in affluent suburbs, as it was on the poor estates in the centre. They felt it was perfectly acceptable to be downright rude, openly insulting, and at worse, physically violent. When I worked alongside a West Indian colleague for many years, there would be frequent references to his colour, not only from white people, as other West Indians regarded him as part of the establishment, and fair game for abuse too.

This grew steadily worse, with frequent assaults on staff, and constant intimidation during calls. Add alcohol or drugs into the equation, and the job started to get downright dangerous, as well as wearing and stressful. Of course, we could call the Police to assist, and we often did so. They could do little, as the offender was usually considered to be distressed or unwell, and not arrestable as a result. We would be left in the unenviable situation of still having to convey them, even after all the previous unpleasantness.

On one particularly bad night, we had just attended the flat of a well-known argumentative time-waster for the umpteenth time. Sitting in the vehicle, in the car park of a Maida Vale housing estate, we came up with the idea of The Black Ambulance. My colleague bought into this plan too, though he shall remain nameless, as he still works for the LAS. The fantasy involved respraying the conventional white vehicle to a nice Matt black. There would be no windows to the rear, and the logo and sign-writing would be in contrasting grey. Anyone who abused or assaulted staff, would have the Black Ambulance sent to their address; and this would also apply to time-wasting alcoholics and drug users, persistent callers, and those just seeking someone to argue with, and shout at.

The Black Ambulance crew would be dressed in the style of a SWAT team, and wear mirrored visors on their helmets. They would carry implements to subdue and restrain the offender; instead of defibrillators, and dressings cases, there would be CS Gas, Cattle prods, and straight jackets. Once inside the back of the vehicle, the offender’s fate was sealed, and disposal their only option. There would be secret dumps, where they would be committed to landfill, and all traces of their existence would be removed, by a special team, following on later. For those pests outside in the street, and not in any dwelling, the vehicle would be fitted with a raising mechanism, to allow the underside to lift over the prone person. Then some kind of acid-based solution would be deployed, leaving no trace after our departure. Very soon, rumours of the terrible Black Ambulance would begin to circulate, and the low-life, abusive idiots it targeted, would be deterred from ever ringing 999 again.

It was only a short diversion, a momentary drift into fantasy. Yet it says something about the constant stress that we were under, that we could gain pleasure and satisfaction, from imagining being able to actually kill and dispose of roughly 10% of all those we were called out to.

Any volunteers for the Black Ambulance out there?