Puebla Day +8 Of nuns, sex +Ancient Rome


Today, I have lain fallow all day on the sofa. My main contribution to the universe so far on this sunny January day in Puebla has been to moult. Over everything.

First my pillow, then the shower, then all over the sofa. And now, I notice with a shudder, my afternoon cup of tea. Oh, and the keyboard, which is producing really quite a fetching pelt, now that I’m getting used to it.

The floor in the flat, despite Katty’s best efforts earlier today, looks like the hairy aftermath of a mass shave-in at a barber’s shop.


Despite that, and the good high priest of the blood Dr Priesca telling me that I am still – still? – in neutropenia, I have been in good spirits all day. Yet increasingly, in the back of my mind, I am aware that my stint under the volcano is coming rapidly to an end.

That is both good and bad. Before I came, I wondered how I would get through this month.

Although I knew I had done my research, the uncertainties ahead of time are always there, not least when the gods of the medical profession are (more or less) united in telling you either not to do it or that it won’t help you. It is hard to stand up to that, and make up your own mind, so ingrained is our deference to medical opinion (in some cases rightly so, but as in all fields of human endeavour, there are quite a few rubbish opinions out there too).

But for me, unquestioning deference to medical opinion, at least on MS, is at an end. If there is one thing, and one thing alone, that dealing with MS has taught me, it is – in the immortal words of the American scriptwriter William Goldman – that ‘nobody knows anything.’

He’s talking about the movies, and the fine art of predicting hits, always important when tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars are riding on a film.

And he goes on to say: “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

I can’t remember if he said that in “Which Lie did I Tell?” – a book I loved (though it makes you realise that you probably don’t want to be a screenwriter after all, AND that somebody stole the title you always wanted for your journalistic autobiography) or one of his many others.

But with MS, as with so much in medicine, the truth is pretty much the same. Nobody knows anything or everything. No doctor, no nurse, no GP and no specialist can tell you with 100% certainty where your MS will end up, or which drug or treatment or HSCT will work best for you without good old trial and error. They can use their expertise and experience to work out where to start and where to end, but nobody will know for sure how you, you unique collection of mind, cells and soul, will respond.

Will you end up unable to walk or look after yourself by the age of 60, or be more mildly impaired? Might you just squeak on by with a few minor disabilities, but nothing so bad that you won’t be able to deal with it? Nobody knows anything, experts or not. They can tell you the figures, and the probabilities (there’s a very useful graphic by Professor Gavin Giovannoni on his blog about the MS curve from years 0 to the bitter end. It certainly spurred me on to look for treatment that might halt progression quickly).

And as with anything in life, even the most life-changing decisions, you need to weigh up the facts, the odds and the options, talk to as many people as you can, sort the utter total bollocks from the facts (and it is amazing how many people will tell you utter complete rubbish, even those with the best of intentions, with all the authority of Moses) – and then in the end, you will need to sit down and decide for yourself.

Or stand up and decide for yourself. Just don’t let yourself be talked down by people who ‘know better’. They don’t always. And they don’t have to walk in your Birkenstocks because you can no longer walk in heels or even normal flat shoes. And I say that with no disrespect to Birkenstocks, which have helped me continue to walk, along with Hussein Eshref’s osteo and Jyoti Patel’s chiropody and podiatry.

Joy likes encouraging my stem cells to grow with the daily Filgrastim jab

Last year, I was told that because the course of my MS had started out “benignly” some years ago, medical experience suggested that it was likely to carry on that way.

Er, no. As I lay in bed last summer unable to work for twelve weeks, with double vision and such dizziness that I could barely get up, benign is not the word in the dictionary that I would have picked out.

But then I realised, as I saw more doctors and nurses over those summer months, that in fact, in the end, making me better was not up to them. It was still up to me. I had by then given up smoking, drinking, going out most evenings, and pretty much all the things that had until then held this ageing pile of cellular scrap together. Done all the things I could to take control. And yet, it wasn’t working.

Like the victim of a witch’s curse or a voodoo spell, I had mentally handed over responsibility for my health to the medics when I was diagnosed with MS in November 2015. The people in white coats would know best, I thought, what to do for me, now that they had finally managed to agree on a diagnosis.

But they didn’t. The drug I was given seemed to prompt the worst relapse I have ever had as it started to kick in. And as I slowly and very cautiously (with one eye blanked out by my eye-patch to silence the double vision) went to the relapse clinic last summer, I finally located the urology section, run by the wonderfully-named doctor Dr Panicker. As I have never met or seen Dr Panicker, I am not sure that this isn’t a hospital in-joke, but there you are. It may just have been destiny.

The young nurse in Urology kindly measured my bladder volume and capacity, and with great thoroughness investigated how my bladder was faring (very unhappily since it gave up champagne, thank you, although my liver says frankly it was quite relieved, and my wallet has thanked me vociferously every single day), I had a sudden epiphany.

The irritating urgency/hesitancy combination that is one of the very common gifts granted to a body by MS really can be a bugger, leaving you planning every trip, outing, holiday or day at work around how far away the loo might be. About 30 seconds to a minute away seems to be the best distance.

I know that the nurse meant to be kind as she finished scribbling her notes and looked at me with a big, warm, encouraging smile as I prepared to leave the small antiseptic room.

“Next time you’re in, we’ll teach you to self-catheterize, and then you’ll be right as rain,” and she gave another perky smile, as you do to elderly patients who are clearly coming to the end of their useful lives, and bid me a good day, and went on to tend to her next patient.

I walked out into the thin London summer sunshine in the park outside the clinic, and sat down on a bench. I didn’t light up, as I’d already given up smoking by then. But I really really wanted a cigarette. And possibly a double whisky. If there was a loo near enough. Self-catheterize. Next year.

Anyone need any shampoo? I don’t…

Not far from me were some of the other patients from the hospital in their electric wheelchairs, the only real option for those with the most severe mobility problems and spasticity. Not all would have had MS. Some are treated there for Parkinsons, others for rarer and extremely uncommon diseases of the brain.

I looked over at the man whose head was now bent so far forward over himself that he could barely see where he was going, yet who managed to control his chair with a tiny steering rod. And to the woman of around my age whose daughter was wheeling her rather less fancy chair around the garden, pointing out all the things she could no longer see for herself, as it was obvious from the descriptions that her eyesight had gone.

Self-catheterise. Next year? I was already walking with a stick. And my eyes remained extremely unreliable. As was my hearing. Though at least my sense of taste had come back (and with it some of the weight I’d lost). But next year? So soon?

I sat and pondered, and looked at the roses, a riot of cheerful colour that would scent the whole square on a warmer summer’s day. And it occurred to me as I sat in the park that afternoon that nobody at that hospital (as far as I was aware) – not one single person – expected me to get better. Ever. Only at best to stay stable, but most likely get worse.

Because they had told me I had MS. Not just a word, but a life sentence.

A chronic lifelong condition, according to the NHS, and NICE, and the UK’s disability legislation, for which I remain truly grateful because I am really not, at the moment, able-bodied or indeed able-brained nor able to discharge a full day’s work five days a week of the kind that I so blithely used to do for seven days of the week without even thinking about it. As grateful as I am to BBC News, who have been sterling employers and my absolute rocks, who listened and agreed to support me in my somewhat-difficult-to-explain-to-an employer-decision to have HSCT and entrust my innards to Clinica Ruiz in faraway Mexico. Thank you, James, Keith, Jonathan, Gavin and so many others).

As I sat in the park pondering, without a cigarette or whisky or even the 2017 equivalent, the skinny latte, the less obedient side of my brain whispered to me – hold on a minute.

Even as the expert doctors and nurses suggested that recovery beyond a certain point from this latest relapse was unlikely, my rebel brain (the bits not infested with new lesions) began to speak louder (in capitals, like the female TV boss I once had whose bollockings only ever came in mad capitals)

BUT THERE IS A CURE, or as near as dammit.

Those people in that busy hospital, the experts and administrators with their endless waiting lists, and schedules and all their years of experience, they didn’t actually offer the stem cell transplant treatment that I had read about recently and seen on Panorama and had thought idly might help me.

So of course they didn’t think that perhaps I might get better. Why should they? Most of their patients probably rarely did, just as oncologists in the 1950s would have had to have their deathbed speech rather more off pat than oncologists and haematologists today, who have far more options in their medical toolbox before they must these days tell families “there’s nothing more we can do”.

So as for getting better from MS – that bit was up to me to sort out.

And that day, without all that much further ado, my decision was made. I wanted a stem cell transplant ahead of my fiftieth birthday. My present to me: a new immune system. And I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything, even that bright red bicycle for my fifth birthday. And thank you beyond anything that mere words can ever express to everyone who helped me on the road to this birthday present.

The eye of the tiger bedspread

From the Facebook groups on HSCT and from reading medical research papers (not that I understood everything, but I got the gist), and meeting first Mindy Watt and then so many other kind and generous veterans of stem cell transplants who gave me the benefit of their own experience, I discovered that in fact, there really were people out there – real people, men and women with normal lives that had been radically changed for the worse by MS – who seemed to have had their MS halted in its tracks by HSCT, and who had begun to regain their lives, and their futures.

And sometimes better than halted. Symptoms reversed, at least in some areas. And for a very lucky few who did HSCT early enough, in all.

We can quibble about what you’d call a cure and whether perhaps it might be better to say that for up to 70 – 80% of people after HSCT for at least the first five years, their MS is ‘in remission’.

But I shall never forget how my heart leapt after speaking to Mindy that first day. It was, it suddenly seemed, entirely possible to do something that my GP and Mount Sinai, my neurologist, were telling me was not do-able.

To help myself (with the help of my family, friends, and work – and Clinica Ruiz) to get rid of MS, or as much of it as possible, via a treatment that might be expensive (if the NHS won’t take you on as a patient) and a little unpleasant. Oh, and it might well cost me my hair and six months of recovery period afterwards.

That seemed like a pretty good deal.

Puebla makes VW Beetles and new immune systems

Kind friends and even members of my family worried about my decision on my behalf, quite possibly (as far as I could gather) envisioning midday shoot-outs in a hot and dusty Mexican border town, during which my organs would be stolen to order and my family contacted for the ransom, while Donald Trump built a wall specifically around my clinic or my very bedroom brick by brick as I was trying to recover, while the sombrero-wearing locals would force feed me the entire coca crop of South America for breakfast, before sacrificing me on an Aztec altar to the whoop of tequilas being downed to some quite bad Mexican drumming. I exaggerate, but really and truly only a very little.

Yet everything I had read, heard and seen for myself on the web and in meeting people who’d been there and knew it well, suggested that Puebla was rather a nice place, and the Clinica Ruiz exceedingly good at what it does.

With 21 days of HSCT treatment at Clinica Ruiz behind me tonight, I can safely say that this latter is the case. Unless, of course, they’re saving the ransom and the kidnapping and the coca crop for later on, or they’ve taken several closer looks at my organs and realised that they really are the organs of someone who has worked at the pub-face of journalism for 25 years and are thus of no use whatsoever even to the world’s most incompetent organ-thief.

Just outside Clinica Ruiz, the essentials

I’ve rarely met doctors whom I thought were more dedicated to what they do (or who seem happier in their work) or administrators so cheerfully efficient. Indeed, administrators who know your name as you walk through the door. Maybe that’s just private medicine, but actually no – it goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced at any hospital in the UK, France, Germany, Russia, or anywhere else that I have sought answers over the past 25 years as to what ailed me.

Nor indeed had I ever met a nurse or caregiver before who was so genuinely keen on nursing and giving care as Joy, who has gone well beyond the necessities of nursing to being a super-nurse, even calling a nutrition expert last week to find the best possible diet to cure my stuttering, halting innards. And thank you for asking, the constipation is indeed getting much better as the chemo recedes further into the rear view mirror, as it were.

But my stem cells, oh my stem cells. You wonderful young things, what on earth are you doing? Where are you? Why am I the only one in my group still officially in neutropenia this Sunday night? My blood count is heading in the right direction, but perhaps at 49 and three quarters, none of my cells are doing their work as enthusiastically as they did at 29, even the very youngest of them. Come on lads, get a move on.

And speaking of work, I have lain not just on the sofa all day, but fallow for some 22 days now, quite possibly the longest consecutive period of days without writing a despatch or doing a live broadcast of some kind since I joined the BBC in January 1991.

Not entirely fallow, if you count this blog, but I realise now that perhaps I should at some stage around the age of 40 or 45 have taken a sabbatical of some kind.

Many of my friends have taken maternity leave (and before anyone points out that having babies is not a holiday, and is exceedingly hard work, with no paid overtime, I am well aware of that. I have many wonderful nieces and nephews whom I love to bits and dote on as only a spinster aunt can. And I can still remember just how knackered their parents looked when I happily handed the squalling young thing back to them with a smug, auntly smile.)

The smug auntly smile 

But maternity or paternity leave usually does involve time away from the office and from work, albeit attending to the night and day needs of someone else. But at least someone smaller and cuter (and quite a lot more adorable than the news desk) in whose continuing survival you generally have a direct and clear-cut stake.

And I mean that with no offence to our lovely intake editors, who are beautiful inside and out. Just not when they call you after midnight, or before 7am. Or on Saturdays, Sundays, your birthday, 3am, and just as you have been reunited with your boyfriend after three months apart. And no, when you rang to ask me if the story on page 3 of the Guardian was important, I think you answered your own question when you mentioned page 3.  If it’s not on the front page, it really isn’t worth waking me up for.

I don’t yet know what I shall be when I grow up again, when the mid-HSCT caterpillar that I am today finally decides to take flight (thank you, Stan) or what skies I’d like to take to when I am well again.

And I’ll try not to think of the Canadian caterpillars in the hat-boxes that Sam and Tid and I sought to keep safe as they transformed from grubs into glories. Not nearly enough survived though we did follow all the instructions from our nature book. I think some might actually have hatched into clothes moths, with which my father has long been strangely obsessed.

And nor did Twiggy, my stick insect, survive my care. The one and only pet that I ever possessed who was truly my own, in Bangor in that eternal summer of 1976.

That damned stick insect is probably responsible for my own lifelong lack of motherhood. She died on me after just 10 days or so. She was always thin, and then Twiggy just stopped eating one day, and no amount of fresh hedge would tempt her. I can see her jam jar now, as I came down the stairs that morning for school, realising with a truly sickening lurch of the heart that Twiggy was no more. I had killed her with my neglect. Or my overfeeding. Maybe she hadn’t wanted that much hedge after all?

Though perhaps it was the Convent of the Sacred Heart’s sex education that was truly to blame for my child-free state. It was brutal. I arrived at school at the age of 10, and thank goodness, on the very first day, Kate Neely hissed at me and pulled me aside in the corridor.

“Come into the library. We need to talk.”

She was tall, willowy and lissom, with the blue eyes of a Siamese cat, and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.

Inspiralta Marilyn


We sat down in the library, which smelt a little musty, as if decades of literary mould had rubbed off on the air, which couldn’t help but pass it on to us. I looked at her nervously.

“You are the youngest in our year,” said Kate, cat’s eyes narrowing. I nodded. “And I am the second youngest.” I nodded again.

“So this is my duty. Do you know the facts of life?”

I looked blank, thinking perhaps it was a book I hadn’t read, or a list of something that I should have brought with me to school – like the baffling ‘bed-jacket’ that Mum and I puzzled over for weeks. What on earth was a bed-jacket? Turns out that because we’d lived on the continent where they had central heating that worked and actually produced heat, unlike the institutional central heating of England in the 1970s, and grown up with those funny foreign big windows that not only let in light but also sealed properly, we had absolutely no need for a bed-jacket and therefore not a clue what it was. Why, oh why can’t the English make windows that seal properly? This has been an issue since wattle and daub, and frankly it’s not getting any better, despite the promises made by the ads at the back of the Sunday Times magazine.

In the end, Dickins and Jones supplied us with a pale pink woollen bed-jacket, as well as the elbow-length white gloves that I needed for Mass on Sundays and Wednesdays, and the three white cardigans for Mass, as well as four shirts light blue for summer, four shirts yellow for winter, two navy blue skirts, dressing gown and copious navy socks (MUST BE embroidered with CASH’S NAME TAPES: Caroline Wyatt 411.)

I didn’t like to admit to Kate that I had no idea whatsoever what she was talking about. So with all the earnestness that a ten year old in a blue pinafore could muster, she began to draw stick people on a piece of paper.

The boy stick appeared to be attacking the girl stick, as far as I could see.

“Right, this is what the Dad does when he wants to make a baby, and this is what the Mum does. He has this pointy bit, and she’s got a sort of inside pointy bit. And when they get together, they kiss for a bit before his pointy bit goes in hers. And then after nine months there’s a baby. I think it comes out of her pointy bit.”

I was shell-shocked. Why on earth would people do something like that? I’d noticed that my brothers had pointy bits, and that I didn’t, but they seemed to use theirs to go to the loo. And surely it would be unhygienic in the extreme for God to have made them dual-purpose tools.

But I didn’t let on to Kate. I was 10, I was the youngest in the year, and I was absolutely determined to look sophisticated.

“Oh THAT. Yeah, of course I knew that. Known about it for years. But thanks anyway.”

I think Kate went on to have lots of lovely children, and clearly she did finally clock how the pointy bits worked. Me, I discovered the finer points when the nuns showed us a grim 1970s film of a very hirsute couple doing natural childbirth. Ruskin would most certainly not have approved of the lady in the film, or indeed the gent.

And I have never ever, before or since, seen a horror film like it, with all the blood and guts and gore and the wobbly 1970s cine-cam on the crucial arena for the full however-long the labour took to happen. It is a miracle, a positive miracle that I have ever been able to hold down a relationship after that film. Though perhaps that was exactly the deterrent effect the nuns were after. Thanks, sisters.

Clearly, it didn’t deter many of my fellow convent girls from founding large and happy families. Although thinking about Kate Neely’s remarkable cat’s eyes and Marilyn mouth, nobody has ever bettered the late President Francois Mitterand in his double-edged compliment about Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister – that she had “the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”, although some sources suggest he initially said “the eyes of Stalin”.

The mad Roman Emperor Caligula makes for a much better quote, though, and judging by the eyes in the marble head of Caligula in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, I’d say he definitely meant Caligula.

And I say that in a most supportive way. Margaret Thatcher was my childhood political heroine (and for much of my adult life as well, even if she did go a bit Caligula by the end).

Although listening to the results of the 1979 election under my bed-sheets at boarding school resulted in a three hour detention when I was caught and (most unfairly and without due process) sentenced by the nuns to three hours of writing lines, Margaret Thatcher had that one night offered an utterly revolutionary and life-changing lesson to this then 12-year old: that a woman – a WOMAN! – could be elected to run the country.

By the age of 12 I had already had my two main ambitions quashed. At nine or so, I had announced to my parents that I would like to be the first female Pope. I was at that stage going through quite a devout phase. My mother and father very gently told me that wouldn’t be possible. We were Roman Catholic, and the Pope could not be female.

I had a back up plan. This was 1976, remember. I would, I announced, in that case marry Prince Charles, and ensure that Mum and Dad could both live happily ever after at whichever palace they preferred. There was a slight and uncomfortable pause over the breakfast table at this announcement, and not the happy gratitude I had expected from my dual parents/subjects.

“Darling, you’re Roman Catholic, so you can’t marry Prince Charles. It’s laid down by law that the Monarch can’t marry a Catholic any more.”

Oh. So at the age of 9 or 10, all my worldly and indeed otherworldly ambitions had been crushed. What else was there left to do but become a journalist? At least nobody (generally) tells you that you can’t do that on the grounds of race or religion or gender.

But back to Caligula, because what we know of him today has come from the unreliable pen of the Roman ‘sleb biographer Suetonius. He could well be seen as antiquity’s very own tabloid press, as he wrote the Lives of the Caesars, or perhaps in today’s terms, a celebrity blogger, creating copy in which a pithy headline or a catchy quote was worth more than any number of the more tedious and perhaps accurate words from the more earnest historians of the day.

Though I seem to remember very vaguely down the decades from my Latin teacher Miss Lucas that Suetonius himself relied on a daily papyrus newspaper, the Acta Diurna or Daily Events, set up by that first great newspaper magnate, Julius Caesar.

(All together now, the Gladiator Song: “I’m the bodyguard of Julius Caesar, the man with the nose like a lemon squeezer” as we all used to sing in the car on the way to our holidays. * do see the end for the full lyrics…)

I have just looked that newspaper’s name up on Dr Google to double check, and Dr Wikipedia confirms it too, as do many other sites, so my memory is perhaps getting sharper after HSCT.

And certainly, my brain this sunny Sunday in Mexico feels a lot less full of cotton wool and random Magritte clouds than it used to, not to mention the old pipes that may or may not be pipes, or indeed the melted clock that Salvador Dali left ticking in there, even though I told him to come back and take it home with him. Mind you, Joseph Beuys always refused to return for the felt suit he left in there around the time I lived in Berlin, claiming it would compromise his integrity as an artist. But Beuys will be Beuys.

The Acta Diurna was distributed in locations in Rome and around the Baths, with the motto: publicize and propagate.

Like the more downmarket of its successors, it used low-grade papyrus, so nothing of it remained for us later journalists to peruse. Quite possibly it became bumf even at the time.

And like all its successors (at least until the internet began to specialise us down our own little funnels and rabbit holes of special interest groups, all busy narrow-casting rather than broadcasting, and preaching to the already converted or groups of people all very cross about the same things, who keep telling each other how very cross they are about it all), the Acta Diurna kept gossipy Romans current on everything from births deaths and marriages (or matchus, hatchus and despatchus) true crime, gory deaths, suspense-filled trials, taxes, the price of food, what the current Imperial family was up to…

“Ooh, did you SEE what the Empress was wearing on Friday? Wasn’t that Ralphus Laurensis, that blue garment? And what DID the Vestal Virgin think she looked like? Anyone knows that red, white and blue military stuff is not a good look at the Emperor’s coronation. Ooooh, and did you SEE that red tie? Someone has to tell Caesar/Pontifex Maximus that he’s gotta tone it down a bit soon, or none of those Senators are going to take him seriously at the Uranus temple on Capitoline Hill.”

Oh, and the Acta Diurna also did astrology. So very, very similar to The Sun or Twitter, or any number of modern newspapers and magazines.

So as a journalist in 2017, I say thank you to the Consul Julius Caesar in 59 BC, for ordering the Acta Diurna be posted at temples, in markets, and in all public places.

Caesar, you helped me find a mission in life, and forget my deep sorrow at not being able to be Pope or Queen. In journalism, I found a meaning and a passion that I had never felt in any other job, and that includes the many long months as a receptionist for Alfred Marks, even in sunny Sydney, though I think the money for temping may actually have been better then than journalism is today.

However, it remains true that I have singularly failed to propagate in anything other than the journalistic sense, although I have been mother to tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of despatches and reports, though I am not sure how useful many of them have been. Entertaining, some of them, like the drunken Russian coming home from a good Friday night with the vodka who got his todger stuck to the metal pole of a bus stop in Siberia in minus 50 while having a pee to offload some of the booze.

He was well and truly stuck by the foreskin, and as the minutes and then hours ticked past and frostbite started to threaten, our Russian hero was rescued by the quick wit of his slightly less drunken friend who returned to the bus stop with a kettle of hot water. We agonised for a full day in Moscow, me and Chris Booth, what exact word the Radio 4 bulletin at 1800 might find acceptable for penis. Boringly, it was penis. But they ran the piece, and men across the UK winced in sympathy with their Russian counterpart at 1828 that night.

Clearly as an adult, I’ve now worked out that nuns are perhaps not the most reliable experts on sex and pregnancy, and that I should not have let myself be put off all forms of human intimacy at the age of 14 by their film (although one of our most delightful nuns used to open her seminars by announcing that ‘today girls, I could leap into a whole bed full of men!” I wonder if she is still a nun today? She was lovely, and we all told her with the immense sophistication of those who know nothing, that really, sister, you ought to go and try it, and see what it’s like. Oh, and report back and let us know!)

In achieving my ambition to become a journalist, after I finally gave up on taking up residence in either the Vatican or Buckingham Palace, I have to say thank you to my wonderful friend, mentor and journalism tutor Linda Christmas, who took so many young journalists under her wing.

I was on her first course of periodical journalists at City University in 1990, and since then, she has taught more titans of journalism than I have moulted hairs over the flat today. And that is a lot.

We skyped today, and she asked me about the reference to Novalis in yesterday’s poem by W H Auden. And I had to admit that while the name rang a distinct bell, I could not remember, and was not sure if I had ever really properly known.

Thanks to Dr Google, we refreshed our memories.

Novalis was the pseudonym and pen name of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772 –1801), poet, author, mystic, and philosopher of Early German Romanticism.

He was born in the Harz Mountains, where I once had the worst ever break-up with a German Boyfriend, when the GB asked if I could remember the woman he said he hadn’t slept with. I said I remembered her well, for she had been in his bed when I got home that evening. The poor woman had not, as far as I could see, got any clothes on, and very much appeared to be underneath him, if memory serves me correctly.

GB did insist at the time that she was only there sheltering from the rain, and that it wasn’t at all what it looked like, and that I had an unnaturally suspicious mind, doubtless inculcated by the nuns.

As I wanted to believe him, I thought to myself that it had been quite a dark and stormy night, and his flat was quite warm and cosy, so clearly a girl caught out in the rain would automatically have managed the five flights of stairs and no lift for a bit of shelter that damp evening.

Anyway, the GB continued, over our romantic dinner in the Harz Mountains, the woman that he hadn’t, absolutely cross his heart and hope to die, promise, hadn’t slept with had just had his baby, and the court had ordered him to pay for it.

And the court’s DNA test had confirmed that the miracle baby of the woman who had had such urgent and pure need of shelter from the rain was indeed his.

So could the GB borrow some money from me to pay the woman (whom he had indeed sheltered, as was his Christian duty, and a little bit more) the first few instalments? Er, no.

Though I have to say, I still sometimes think fond thoughts of the GB. Without him, my German vocabulary would never have come on in such leaps and bounds, nor my ability to swear like a navvy in at least one foreign language, a deeply satisfying skill. And I am grateful to both Kate Neely and the nuns for ensuring that while I might have fallen for the GB’s smooth talking once, I knew not to fall for it a second time, not after DNA evidence.

Anyway, back to the Harz mountains of Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg in 1772. He grew up to study law, and attended Schiller’s history lessons. He then got involved with the salt mines, and went on to study everything from mining to mathematics, chemistry, biology, history and philosophy.

Taking the pen name Novalis, he began to write on everything from art to religion and science, drawing everything together in a Romantic Encyclopaedia, and developing the fragment as a literary form of art long before Twitter had thought to do so.

His quest was the bringing together of science and poetry, something we do far too little of today, and his life’s works were based on the idea that education was the most important thing in the constant human quest to create a new Golden Age, for all mankind, and not just in the lifts at Trump Towers or at what will soon be rebranded The Golden House. Much classier. It will be bigly when it is golden, a lot biglier than it is now.

Novalis also thought to come up with a new concept of Christianity, faith, and God. Being an over-achieving German poet, author and thinker, he of course wrote hymns as well, hymns that fused darkness and light, day and night, and life and death in that typical Romantic style. And it was of course Novalis who came up with the “blue flower”, the symbol that later became the emblem for German Romanticism. And he features, most importantly, for today’s gentle readers, in Penelope Fitzgerald’s last novel, The Blue Flower.

This Balding Flower is now off to bed. Joy has long since turned her light out, and is, I hope, fast asleep and not lying awake worrying about me.

I am not worrying about me, as I reckon those stem cells will in their typical English lad way get around to doing things as they hit the deadline and realise that you can’t spend all day every day in the pub.

As I pull off my woolly cap tonight, most of the fur on my head has come off with it. I shall be a egg-head by tomorrow. In looks if not in brain. Goodnight.

I liked having hair

CHORUS of the Gladiator Song:

I’m glad, glad, very very glad

I’m glad I’m a gladiator

Ancient Rome, that’s my home

Fried fish shop by the old Hippodrome

I’m glad, glad, very very glad

From my helmet to my toes

My old Dad was a Roman glad

And he gave me his Roman nose

1, 2, 3, 4



Ever seen a fellow like a Roman candle

Bloke who never let his braces dangle

Gladiator bold and furious

Runs round Rome with a spirit so furious

I’m in the bodyguard of Julius Caesar

He’s got a fizzer like a lemon squeezer

My names Marcus diddle-I-darcus

Permanent address is Rome




Round the Coliseum we go marching

Wearing dickies that are needing starching

Watched by Nero, he’s our hero

Sits up there with a belly full of beer-o

All day long he keeps on fiddlin’

Fingers diddlin’, always twiddlin’

We must please him, if we tease him

Throws us in the lions den.






I had a fight with a lion called Nifty

Mangy old bugger with an eye so shifty

Rorus chorus, he rushed for us

I shoved my Trident up his anal quarters

Gave that lion such a fair old beating

Found his haemorrhoids need treating

Oh what a din!, Oh what a win!

Everybody thumbs up YAH!




Julius Caesar had a motto

Only remembered it when he got blotto

“Null secundus orus randy ”

He was a bugger on a pint of shandy

On his banner was a naked dancer

Three French letters and a mounted lancer

He can’t fool us, got no tool, us

Lost it in the Ides of March




Marcus Anthony, the dirty shitehouse

Lost his medals in a Rome red-light house

Woke in the morning, very solemn

Couldn’t see the end of his Roman column

The favourite sport of Roman rogues is

Two pink gins and off with their togas

Shagnus Magnus, any old bag does

Oh what a Roman wreck




We went on holiday to old Pompeii

Can’t say that we enjoyed our stayee

We insured against Jupiter pluvius

We forgot about bloody Vesuvius

off we buggered to Herculaneum

Wife got a rock upon her cranium

Oh what a shock, bloody great rock

So we buggered off back to Rome




They were a funny lot the Ancient Britons

Look at ’em twice and they’d have kittens

As you’ve read in “Di Bello Castie”

How we were poisoned by a Cornish pasty

We lost Marcus to a fair young Druid

Who injected him with priceless fluid

With his arse full of woad, he croaked like a toad

So we dumped him in the Edgware Road.