Shades of grey

It's a funny experience looking inside one's own head, especially knowing that not so long ago it looked considerably different. But there it was, on the registrar's computer screen, in all its greyscale glory.

He'd made a big show of asking me how I was doing, whether I was back at work, reviewing the notes, showing me the scans. So far, so predictable.

And then he dropped the bombshell.

"As you can see, it all looks really good," he said in his heavily Anglicised Arabic accent, beaming, and prodding at my brain. "So I think all I can say is get on with your life. I'll discharge you from the surgical clinic."

I hadn't really been expecting this today, so the news took a few moments to sink in.

"So I don't need to come back and see you at all?"

"No. No more appointments. Of course, you'll continue to see the neurologist, but apart from that..."

"No more scans?"

"Well, maybe one in a couple of years just to check, but we'll let Dr Farmer take care of that."

And that, rather anti-climactically, was that. Not even a chance to say goodbye to the woman who saved my life. While her number two, her Metatron, was delivering the good news, Joan was attending to people still in need. My gratitude would have to conveyed be in third person.

Of course it's not the absolute all clear, not as long as Queen Square has me on file, but when surgeons say there's nothing more they need to do, it's a pretty significant step in that direction.

Now for the hard part...


Look at what you could have won...

The editorial staff here at nota benny would like to apologise for the prolonged period of silence. In the month since the last post the schedule's just been so hectic and full of exciting things to blog about that there hasn't been any time for the words to make the leap from brain to byte.

Consequently, dear reader, you've missed pregnant ruminations on such wide and varied topics as: the BBC's credibility problems (we're waiting for the other shoe to drop when people twig that star appeal and journalistic aptitude don't necessarily go hand in glove, that Brian Conley will never entertain you, not even in the middle of the afternoon, and that the Tardis isn't actually bigger on the inside than out. And that it smells of wee.); the theory that the UK's summer weather is just one big publicity stunt for the release of Evan Almighty; an appraisal of the tea and cake served at Buckingham Palace; and the delicate nature of complimenting a father on his teenage daughter without sounding like a potential sex offender.

Any or none of these subjects may crop up in the near future.

But coming soon, an investigation showing why if visiting the woods it's Swedes not bears of whom you need to be wary.


Free at last

Oh happy day. After 114 days in captivity, Alan Johnston has been freed, safe and seemingly well.

What made Alan's time as a hostage so perverse and unjust was that he had spent three years in Gaza putting the case of the Palestinian people, as much as any objective journalist can, telling stories that may otherwise be untold to a Western audience.

Whatever the Army of Islam's motive for this deplorable act, it was only ever going to work against the Palestinian cause. Yet that should not prevent them from being congratulated for letting the episode reach its only desirable conclusion.

The bile and invective I instinctively prepared at the time of the bogus announcement of Alan's death can thankfully remain unpublished. I'm glad I held my tongue at that time, in spite of a great anger. Whatever one's view of the desperate situation in the Middle East, one can't deny that progress will not be made as long as so many bitter words are spoken.

Hopefully Alan will now get time to readjust to life outside his Gaza cell and to spend time with his family, who must have had the worst four months imaginable. The mood among colleagues also seems to have instantly lightened, people relieved to have truly good news to report for once.

And then when he finally gets back to work, hopefully in some nice, quiet posting - Baghdad, perhaps, or maybe Beirut? - mine will be one of many pockets only too happy to shed a few pounds to buy him a drink.


Mighty Mika

Just when I thought there was no one left to champion the cause of real journalism over celebrity tittle-tattle, along comes MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski.

Objecting to Paris Hilton's first interview following her release from jail being the designated lead story in her bulletin, she stages a very entertaining on-air coup. As befits the daughter of a former US National Security Adviser, Ms Brzezinski wants to lead on Iraq - but there's editorial pressure from above. The adamant anchor ends up destroying the paper copy of the script in a very public display of defiance.

You'd never see George Alagiah or Sian Williams having such a public editorial hissy fit - would that they should.

What's a little unsettling is how Mika's male colleagues react to her stance. First they say she's not a journalist any more as if a "real" journalist, rather than a presenter, would see the value in the Hollywood-based Hilton story over some crumby foreign thing. Then later, one says she's "such a journalist" as if that's something to be avoided in modern TV news. Cronkite and Dimbleby must be rolling in their graves.

Has Mika Brzezinski committed the journalistic faux pas of becoming the story? Arguably, yes.

And there is something in the Hilton story - preferential treatment for stars, say, maybe the overcrowding in LA's penal system, or even just as a matter of interest at the end of the summary - but I suspect Mika's reaction would not have been quite so intense had the item not been placed so high by her producer.

However, Brzezinski has struck a blow for sensible, adult news, for those of us who think that just because what's important in the world and what the masses want to hear about aren't necessarily the same thing, that doesn't mean we should let populism run the news agenda.


Tube tales

The Victoria line, midnight. A train pulls out of Oxford Circus, heading north.

Eye contact.


"Sean. Shane! I had a moment remembering your name..."


"Sorry, I had you confused with somebody else there. How are you?"

Identity established, conversation ensues.

A stranger smiles, happy with his new story.


Treaty sweeties..?

One wants to be understanding but this picture (which led the BBC News website for most of Saturday) makes it look like there are closer ties between Spain and Germany than anyone thought.

In the words of the dear, departed Jeff Murdock, there is "Definite N.A.T." going on between the German chancellor and the European Commission president.

I don't wish to start any rumours, but is this a case of SeƱor Barroso and Frau Merkel taking the phrase "European Union" a little too literally?

Clearly mischief is alive and well in the BBC interactive newsroom.


Baby shower

Welcome to the world Luca Sam Wilding, one week old today.

Dearest Luca,

I'd like to think that at some point in the distant future, should the technology still exist in this primitive form, you'll search for your name and find this message. If so, hello from 2007 and a few random thoughts brought about by your arrival in the world.

Firstly, know that your birth was one of the happiest days ever, not just for your mum and dad, but for all your uncles, aunties, grandparents, greats grandparents, great uncles, great aunties, and even some people you've probably never met.

You may have heard this previously, but while we were waiting for you there was some controversy about your name.

I realise you think of yourself as Luca, and indeed that's what your birth certificate says but as far as all your uncles are concerned, your true name is Thor. We almost had your daddy on board but, sensible man that he is, he gave into your mother.

Indomitable woman, that one. Little firecracker. Goes with the hair. Not fierce, as such, but definitely not one to be crossed. Remember that when you're weighing up just how much you can get away with.

In spite of the disagreement over your name, your folks are two of my favourite people in the world and you should listen to them because they are kind, clever, sensitive, wise and fun.

On your father's side, at least, you've become part of one of the most wonderful, loving, intelligent families in existence.

It was my honour and pleasure to grow up with Auntie Frances, Uncle Joseph and your father, and to have your grandmother as a second mummy, even though my own family was (and still is) perfectly wonderful and all I could hope for. You'll doubtless have heard stories by the time you read this - some of them, hopefully, about What the Dragon.

And your Uncle Hugh, well, he's a very dear friend, and I'm sure he'll teach you all the things your parents don't want you to know.

I'm afraid I don't know your mummy's family terribly well, but they helped make her who she is, and that should speak for itself.

I also think it's important for you to know just a few of the people with whom you share your birthday.

Ben Jonson
Julia Margaret Cameron
John Constable
Max Shreck
Jackie Stewart
Vince Lombardi
Jacques Cousteau
Hugh Laurie
and (my personal favourite) Gene Wilder

(Had you been born exactly one calendar month later, you would have shared your birthday with Suzanne Vega. If, by some small wonder, you've got any appreciation for the music of the 1980s, you may come to find this as funny and ironic as I - and presumably your parents - do).

Most of these names will probably mean nothing to you at first, but hopefully you'll want to find out. They're all important or significant in their own way. I could provide links to them all for you, but that would make it too easy. :)

Because if there's one thing I hope to teach you, it's this: keep asking questions, and only stop when you get an answer you understand and accept. Then find something else to ask about. It's the best way for you to learn and a good way of making other people respect you.

And before I sign off please join me in welcoming another little person to the world, a Swedish girl by the name of Astrid Barrett, born to some other friends of mine just a couple of weeks before you. Maybe the two of you will never meet, or maybe you'll fall in love. Please understand that I'm projecting a couple of decades into the future here, and her father won't appreciate me saying this, but I'm sure you could do much worse. :)

Finally, whatever life holds, Luca, please know that you are, always have been and always will be loved.


Your Uncle Ben


Not everything in black and white makes sense

It's all go at St James' Park at the moment. New manager, new owner, new players, and new controversy over old ones.

Taking these issues in no particular order:

Shady transfers
Although the club and its officials have been cleared of wrongdoing by Lord Stevens' inquiry into irregular transfers, almost a quarter of those 17 league-wide player transfers about which there's still some concern came into the club during the Souness era.

And knowing that, it really comes as no surprise that these include three of the worst footballers to have signed for Newcastle United in recent years, namely Jean Alain Boumsong, Amady Faye and Albert Luque. Whiter than white? I think not.

New manager
Also mentioned by the former chief of the Met was our new boss, "Big" Sam Allardyce. I wasn't a particularly big fan of his clod-hopping football at Bolton, unlike many I had no wish to see him take the England job last year (although now I'm wondering whether I'll wish he had) and didn't like his tendency to stick by one of the league's nastiest players, El-Hadji Diouf.

Speaking of which...

New arrival
After it having been threatened for six months, we've finally got Joey Barton. Oh happy day.

How do I love him? Let me count the ways.

* He ended last season out of favour at Manchester City after an alleged training ground assault on team-mate Ousmane Dabo.

* In 2004, Barton was fined a club record six weeks' wages after stubbing out a cigar in team-mate Jamie Tandy's eye during City's Christmas party.

* During City's pre-season tour of Thailand in 2005, Barton physically attacked a schoolboy Everton fan and had to be restrained.

* Not forgetting the fact that his brother's doing life for being a racist murderer.

It's just a shame that the similarly admirable Lee Bowyer left the club just 12 months ago.

Forgive me if these words disguise my true feelings about this fine, upstanding member of the community from good stock pulling on the shirt of the team that I love. Sarcasm is notoriously difficult to convey in text.

New owner
The only change I'm remotely happy about is Mike Ashley's arrival. Hopefully he'll finally oust Fat Freddy Shepherd and bring in a chairman who actually knows something about football and treating a club, its players and, most importantly, its fans with the respect they deserve.

I've said it every time we've had an alleged new dawn since Bobby was sacked, but it will take a lot to convince me that there are better times ahead.

Sam, Joey et al, it's time you proved me wrong.


Thought for the day

How much faster would the flow of pedestrian traffic be along central London's thoroughfares if they were cleared of all the people handing out free crap like papers, flyers and phone cards? With all that free space, maybe people would be able to walk around all the slow tourists.

I'm just saying...



This week's story about the guy from the US carrying a particularly nasty strain of tuberculosis has reminded me of an old bugbear of mine.

There have been regular updates given by the US Centers for Disease Control. As long as I've been visiting Atlanta I've been wanting to visit CDC and take the tour. Maybe you can blame a morbid curiosity in the all-conquering nature of bacteria and viruses, or possibly just a rose-tinted glamour resulting from having seen Outbreak one too many times.

There would be guided tours of galleries overlooking labs; a "Know your virus" interactive exhibit; a "Beat the Pathogen" game (which I'd have to give a little more thought to but would definitely involve dressing up in a biohazard suit); and a gift shop selling all sorts of stuff from disease-themed movies (Outbreak, 28 Days Later) and music (Anthrax, anyone?) to t-shirts saying "I went on the CDC tour and all I got was this lousy rhinovirus", "Herpes is for life, not just for Christmas", "TB or not TB? That is the question" and other such vaguely witty slogans.

But Jen swore that they didn't have a visitor's centre. Why, she asked, would they want to open that kind of thing up to the public? And anyway, what kind of sicko would actually want to go?

So for the past few years I've been banging on occasionally at anyone who'll listen about how the CDC's missing a trick.

Except it turns out they're not.

I know it won't live up to my expectations, but I'm all the happier just to know it exists.


Panda pops

It's just after four in the morning. Technical difficulties at work mean I'm flicking through the channels in search of something to watch.

Did I really just see a bearded man in spectacles giving manual relief to a talking giant panda? Apparently, yes.

It's not a real panda, of course, but a person in a suit playing one. But I'm not sure that that isn't even more disturbing.

Now I know what they mean when they say it's always darkest before the dawn.


Turning Japanese

More on my swiftly developing career as the BBC News website's voice of east Asia. In much demand (or possibly just available) following the critically acclaimed performances of "Thai lorry driver" and the classic "Second Japanese panda fan", as well as a misguided turn as "Filipino karaoke enthusiast" I'm in danger of becoming typecast, having just completed the role of "Japanese paramedic". This is my second son of Nippon in a row. I suppose it's a problem all successful artistes face, yet there are so many more countries to which I have still to lend my voice.

This time the links should work.

Oh, and happy birthday Busta, Bronson and Cher...


Dysfunction keys

So I'm in the elevator at work, wearing this t-shirt with an Escape key on the front. It's an item of clothing which, like many in my wardrobe, often raises a smile or some similarly friendly response.

The lift stops before my floor and a few other people get in, including one bloke I recognise as a techy type having seen him crawl around under various desks and shouting down phones over the course of several years. I don't think he recognises me. To say we know each other would be a lie.

But this doesn't stop him from bellowing, "Ah, does this one work?" and, quite uninvited, firmly plants his pudgy little finger on the button in the middle of my chest chest. "Oh no. We're still here. Just as useless as all the others," he grins.

No one's quite sure what to make of it. Embarrassed faces all round. Still, despite this unexpected incursion into my personal space, I attempt to make the best of an awkward situation.

But the witty comeback isn't there. In the short trip down another couple of floors I mutter something about buttons, hopelessness and escape. But the door opens at my floor, I walk out, turn round, flash a smile and say, "There's no escape."

And as the door slides closed, he looks at me like I'm the one who needs his head checked...

Happy Birthday Alan

66 days and still missing. Ten years and three days my senior. What a way to spend any day, let alone your birthday.

Please sign the petition, get the blog button, tell your friends, keep him in your thoughts.


Am I a man or a mouse?

Surely one of the most exciting, magical and dramatic online quizzes I've ever seen, tied into the forthcoming His Dark materials movies.

I'm happy with a mouse, but is it accurate? Take a visit please and help me find my true daemon.


Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out

Ding, dong, the witch is, well, if not exactly dead, then certainly ordering four dozen baps for the mourners and making sure his affairs are in order.

What once felt so fresh, shiny and new, now just leaves a taste so bitter that it pervades every cell of one's body.

I won't deny that the Blair government did much for the country's benefit, and I'd hate to think what the UK would be like now had the Tories stayed in power.

Yet, without retreading too much of the same old ground, the contemptuous way in which Blair and his minions treated the public in the lead-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq and the horrific debacle that followed sent his healthy balance of good will well into the red. No one's pretending that Saddam was a saint, but surely there must have been another way.

On a more personal level resentment over the royal shafting the government gave the BBC over the Kelly affair (something for which Auntie seemingly continues to pay, given that the compromising licence fee settlement awarded earlier this year looks set to cause yet more years of job cuts) still burns deeply within the hearts of many inside the Corporation. The country should hope that the malice of Blair and Campbell has not tarnished a global jewel beyond repair.

And for the people of Iraq, there is no end in sight for the tragic results of Blair's collusion in the crimes perpetrated against them. Tomorrow will bring more bombs, more murders, more misery.

I'll likely come back to this once things have sunk in and played out. Because while I'm glad to see the back of him, Tony Blair deserves a proper goodbye.

While once upon a time I'd have welcomed Gordon Brown taking power I have a horrible, nagging doubt that this may be false hope. The sense of renewal that accompanied Blair's election is not apparent today. Yet while I have no desire to see the nation seduced by David Cameron, Gordo has much work to do to prove that he and Blair are not, as George Galloway puts it, "two cheeks of the same backside".

And I can't shake the image of the closing shot of Flash Gordon: tyrant Ming the Merciless has been killed, the ring that holds his power has slipped from his finger, and a happy ending seems in store for all the peoples of both Earth and Mongo. But as the ring lies in the rubble of Ming's palace a hand comes from out of shot to claim it, and the sound of maniacal laughter rings afresh in our ears...


Who's the daddy?

Okay, so based on the evidence of these photographs alone I can just about figure how it found some similarity between me and Matt Perry and I take it as a compliment (although I forget - was this photo from his pre-narcotic dependency, self-satisfied, height of Friends' success phase, or his recovering addict, put on a bit of weight, pressure-of-being-in-world's-biggest-sitcom-all- gone later years?) and maybe Gandolfini (although Danny Fantastic's a better match for Big Tony).

But Ralph Lauren? Don Adams? Travolta? And Peter Sellers? Since when has wearing spectacles been a key indicator of a genetic match?

Either this face-recognition system still needs plenty of work or my mum's got some serious explaining to do.


Visions of loveliness, actions of cowardice

Every once in a while one meets a woman whose very ordinariness demands that she be elevated to the status of Godhead. Using words such as ordinary and unremarkable do her a disservice for she is witty, intelligent, feeling, mature, articulate, attractive and definitely sexy. Yet no one attribute stands out. Ergo ordinary, normal, but in the very best way.

Sure, there are better-looking women, ones with more challenging minds, even some with whom one has a deeper natural connection.

But with these deified girls everything just comes together in the right proportions. Perfectly imperfect - or is that imperfectly perfect?

What's more, the goddess seems unaware of her divine glory and ability to knock your average Joe dead in the water.

It's perhaps this last attribute that puts her beyond the reach of mortals.

The end result is that to harbour serious romantic aspirations around these women is tantamount to blasphemy. They are to be cherished and (if this doesn't sound a little too much like a stalker with serious psychological problems) their purity is to be preserved at all times (regardless of boyfriends, who have obviously attained that position by proving their worth).

(These girls are, of course, completely different from those one meets who are so unattainably gorgeous as to not even be fanciable - any effort to do so would just result in infatuation and heartache. With these few, the psyche seems to save time and anguish by automatically opting out of the competition.)

So it is with J.

I first met her several years ago when working in Manchester. Among certain of my colleagues at the time, she was quite the subject of idolatry. J was a radio reporter, me - one of the few people working on this new-fangled interwebsite thingy. Consequently we didn't have much reason for our paths to cross. Nevertheless we managed to strike up an enjoyable, relaxed, if politely restrained, relationship.

On my last day before heading south, she gave me a signed photo of Mikey Graham, the pudgy one from Boyzone who never really got over the band's break-up and had to cancel his solo tour due to lack of interest. Despite my predilection for pop I don't like Boyzone, never have, yet I've had that photo pinned to my corkboard for the last six years, an icon to keep my faith strong.

Our paths crossed occasionally over the next few years and in between times I'd see or hear her on some channel or other.

I'd not seen J in more than a year. But knocking off shift late last night, walking through the corridors of Television Centre, I found myself following a woman. Somehow I knew it was her. These instincts are usually way off the mark, resulting in awkward moments with shocked strangers. Yet this time I was right.

She seemed genuinely pleased to see me, if a little surprised, and as I'd not seen her since BC, I had to drop the brain bomb on her.

But as soon as I'd mentioned this, without any time for explanation, my driver turned up saying, "Ben Fell? Ben Fell? Which is it, you or her?".

For just a moment I felt like grabbing him by his lapels, pinning him against the wall and, with our faces just microns apart, yelling at the top of my not inconsiderable voice, "Ben Fell? Does this vision of loveliness look like Ben Fell? You're not even worthy to hold eye contact with her, let alone know her real name. Prostate yourself before her and beg forgiveness."

It passed as quickly as it came (which is just as well as a) it would have been more than a little embarrassing and b) the man in question turned out to be a very nice chap) and we parted with a promise to get in touch soon.

I still don't fancy allow myself to fancy her. I'm still in awe.

I know it's absurd, that she's just a human being with the same doubts and insecurities as anyone worth their salt, and that this whole post probably says many bad things about my attitude to relationships. In affairs of the heart, I'm a coward.

Am I wrong? Is every woman a goddess in her own way? Probably so. And there are many out there, just waiting to be worshipped in a less mentally retarded way.

But putting J and her like on this pedestal makes life easier, a way to stay sane.

Can anyone honestly say they've never done the same?


The brain drain

Today marks one year since they cracked my head open and sucked out a bit of brain. Most people know about it, some managed to live through it, but for Sherri and anyone else who wants to know the full story, here it is...

I'd had a spate of symptoms at points over the course of 18 months from autumn 2004 to this time last year. These included dizziness, headaches, numbness in my arms, failure in my legs. As each came and went I blamed it on diabetes, carbon monoxide poisoning or caffeine.

The worst point came when I had several near-blackouts and one actual instance of fainting in Summer ‘05, most dramatically marked when I collapsed at the feet of a colleague in the middle of the newsroom.

Feeling progressively more and more like a hypochondriac, I meandered through various clinics and A&Es as the NHS worked at its naturally relaxed pace for the outpatient diagnostic phase. At first, my heart was the principal suspect - never a good thought for someone in their early 30s who had spent the previous two years getting fit.

But following a clean bill of health from a cardiologist, doctors started to tell me they were pretty sure I suffered from vasovagal syncope - a posh way of saying you stand up too fast - and told me to eat more salt and drink more water.

Then a neurologist at St Mary's in Paddington sent me for an MRI in early April. Expecting nothing out of the ordinary, the family immersed itself in celebrations of Josh's 21st birthday. But eight days after the scan I got frantic phone calls telling me I had to go into hospital for brain surgery immediately. It wasn't cancer, the young Asian registrar told me, but it was necessary.

My first thought was that Mum and Dad were far too busy to bother them with the news. I'd tell them later, if it proved necessary.

To this day I have no earthly idea what I was thinking, but thankfully a colleague talked me out of that pretty quickly. (This was the same point at which I was also telling people that I'd probably be off work for a week or so, so you can see that I didn't quite grasp what lay ahead.)

Having got over the initial shock, and with Thomas and Mum almost instantly on hand to bolster me, there began a long wait 'til I actually got to the table.

The surgery was to take place at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square, which is supposed to be the best place for brain surgery in Europe, some say the world.

Under the mistaken impression that I wasn't allowed to leave the ward, by day five (Easter Sunday) I was going a little stir crazy. Thankfully those in charge were willing to allow me a little leeway, happy to let me roam nearby streets of beautiful Bloomsbury, provided I was in the company of someone responsible.

It's just as well they let me out of the cage because altogether I had to wait nine long days before getting to the theatre, and almost a week before even getting to speak to my brain surgeons.

In charge was Ms Joan Grieve, a kindly but no nonsense woman with something of a mischievous streak, the sort of girl who would be odds on favourite to captain the hockey team at school. Her number two was Dr Oasi Jeelani, a supremely confident young Londoner who, when asked whether he liked his job, said he'd pay to do it.

Obviously one wants to go through life without having one's CPU exposed to the elements but if you absolutely have to have brain surgery, then it's people like these you want to have doing it. Both undoubtedly brilliant.

Having written that paean to the surgeons, it would be remiss of me to go any further without mentioning the neurologists. All the glory and glamour may go to the people who get their hands bloody, but it was Dr Simon Farmer and his team who actually found the damn thing. Their part in this process is so often underplayed but should not be underestimated.

And the nursing staff - not all necessarily the most genial of folk, but my, do they earn their money. One glance at the dedication, skill and patience their jobs require should be enough to silence the majority of malcontents in any other sector.

The problem, my surgeons explained, was a colloid cyst (a pea-sized sac of gluey stuff) which was washing about and regularly blocking the drain in one of the chambers in my brain. Much like having a teabag stuck in your kitchen sink, this was causing hydrocephalous (water on the brain) and a build-up of pressure which in turned caused all those side-effects.

Other symptoms in undiagnosed or untreated patients include a one in eight chance of sudden death. So the decision to have surgery was, if you will, a bit of a no-brainer.

Joan and Oasi would have to take a piece out of the front right of my skull and burrow down about 9 centimetres until they reached the offending article, pretty much right at the centre of my brain. Then they'd snip the cyst open, suck out the glue, and remove the rest of the cyst wall, before getting out and patching me up, complete with titanium brackets to hold the skull in place.

Dr Jeelani added that there were two surgeons because one had to hold the other's hands steady. Perhaps understandably, it took a couple of beats for the penny to drop and people to laugh.

They've no idea what causes these things, or indeed how long mine might have been there (possibly since birth). And despite the fact that the condition is pretty rare, the same team had actually successfully removed a colloid cyst the week before my op. Insert London bus joke here.

For most of the time I managed to stay strong - I knew I had to. It's a funny thing about adversity, but very often it seems easiest for the person at the centre to be the one helping to keep everyone else's spirits up, so that they would find it easier to do the same in return. At least that's the way it felt to me.

But other than a bit of a wobble after my first chat with the surgeons (when Sam provided the double whammy of a clear, incisive head for detail and much needed emotional support, as she did throughout the whole hospital experience), the only point at which I was really scared was the evening before the operation when, just for a few moments, I realised I might wake up from the procedure and all that I'd experienced, loved, cherished or hated would be gone, and I'd have to start again stripped of context. That I'd no longer be me.This, I learned post-op, was also the major fear for most of those to whom I'm close.

But I certainly don’t feel any different and everyone says I didn’t lose any of my Ben-ness. Read into that what you will.

I've never felt so loved as I did at that time, both before and after the op. Family, friends and colleagues rallied round, messages of goodwill came on an almost daily basis from all around the world, people I'd not seen in far too long suddenly re-emerged to become essential crutches. I felt a little guilty about the number of visitors and cards I received, which easily outweighed anyone else in the beds around me. The improbably high turnover of attractive young women in my presence certainly didn't go without mention by wardmates.

I even had the good grace to accept offers of prayer in the spirit in which they were intended (but it was not until later that I discovered that these stretched beyond people who knew me to a whole church prayer group in rural Georgia). I may not agree with beliefs about where the positivity of prayer ends up, but I can't deny it helps to have so many people wishing one well.

Fortunately it became clear very soon after I was brought round from the anaesthetic that there were no long term side effects (which, on top of the personality change, could have included short term memory loss, some loss of mobility in my left hand side, seizures, death – minor stuff like that). I even managed to insult my youngest brother through the oxygen mask.

It also quickly emerged that I don't get on with morphine. What goes down must come up, as they don't say. Clearly I'm not destined to join the ranks of the great Romantics.

I have many happy memories of this period immediately following surgery: the camaraderie on the recovery ward with guys like Ernest (a 40-something black guy who looked half his age but turned out to be a grandfather), Ollie (a sweet-natured Bengali lad from the East End, sadly no stranger to the National), and Patrick (an ageing Irishman who'd done everything in his life and had stories to tell that would be the envy of any blogger); a precious spring picnic in beautiful Queen Square; a chance meeting with a BBC staffer making a documentary about the hospital; talking movies and football with Sean; and learning from another hospital veteran that the easiest way to get a decent meal was by ordering Halal.

Twelve days after the surgery I was released from the National. After a few days at home in London to ensure proximity to the hospital in case of emergency, we all decamped to my parents' house in Wales where I was to spend much of the summer.

So began the second struggle, to get back to fitness. At first even the shortest of walks was exhausting - three weeks post-op and half a mile on flat ground would wear me out. Equally, computer work was out of the question - in the early months staring at a monitor for much more than 15 minutes would leave me with a headache for the rest of the day, as did much more than half an hour's reading - which meant that all the books I'd been given to help me through my long layoff had to be content to wait.

Funnily enough the same didn't count for television, a godsend as this period of convalescence coincided with the football World Cup. More than one person felt it their duty to remark upon the serendipity of this timing.

But eventually the strength returned to my legs, the head became reaccustomed to pixels and, with the help of a glorious summer and regular targets to hit (the first trip out, birthday celebrations, the first drink, family holiday in glorious northern Spain, Tory's wedding) things began to feel close to normal again.

The scans I'd had a few days after the op (and again a few months later) showed everything returning to normal, and I started a gentle reintroduction to work in August, three and a half months after my date with Joan and Oasi.

The return to the BBC after brain surgery taught me another important lesson I should have learned years ago: that we're all responsible for our own stress levels, or rather that we can control the way in which we react to high pressure situations. One can choose not to get stressed out. Disagree if you please, but the absence of weekend-long headaches since adopting that attitude suggest to me that there's at least a grain of truth to it.

The zest for self-expression took a little longer to return. I just didn't feel the need to write anything - hence the huge chasms of time between posts here. But eventually, a couple of months ago, the urge came back and I felt free - almost compelled - to get words down again.

Obviously Colloidgate (as it's never been called) was a wholly unexpected challenge, and each member of the family dealt with it in their own way (denial, anger, stoicism, running away), but I couldn’t have got through it without them and the love and support of friends and colleagues. Mum was just the best. Words fail me. Hopefully they're not necessary.

To the people at Queen Square and everyone who sent cards, gifts, texts and e-mails, dropped by just once or spent long hours at my bedside I can't begin to adequately express my thanks. Just know that I love you all and will never forget the role you played in my recuperation.

I’m now pretty much back up to speed. And reading some of the chatrooms on the internet it could have turned out a hell of a lot worse.

It does for many people, like the man I read about who'd undergone just the same procedure at a very similar age, but it had taken him several days just to learn how to talk again.

Or the brave souls with whom I shared a ward before my surgery: John, battling a debilitating neurological disorder and his lack of education in an effort to make sense of his situation; Simon, in for experimental treatment to manage the chronic headaches that had blighted his life for six years since his surgery; Eastender Terry, who'd had a tumour removed from the meningal sac that protects the brain for the third time in his life, and was taking his not inconsiderable anger out on the world, turning the air blue in the middle of the night, and going out on the piss from his hospital bed mere days after his op; another, much older John, puzzled and disoriented after a stroke, prone to absconding and talking nonsense, and butt of most of Terry's sadistic humour; and Tony, seriously brain damaged by radiation treatment as a child and reliant for the past 20 years or so on virtual 24-hour care by his two honest, hard-working, devoted parents.

Next to them, what did I really go through? Although it's not unknown for these cysts to grow back, it is incredibly rare so hopefully the worst is in the past. But both surgical and medical teams will keep an eye on me at regular intervals for some time to come. The National does so many amazing things for so many people, I want to give something back to them at some point.

I think life’s pretty much back to normal – or as near normal as it ever was – but the whole episode still looms pretty large, and I think we’re all still trying to make sense of it. I know I am.

And just the other week, Thomas broke down in tears on me in the middle of the night as he told me what a frightening time it had been. Admittedly he was tired and emotional in every sense of the phrase, but it was the first time he’d really opened up to me.

As for the scar (roughly crescent-shaped and a good few inches long), it's not currently on permanent display, but as time progresses and my hairline recedes it should offer plenty of opportunity to spin a tall tale or two for nieces and nephews.

I still get the occasional twinge, tire a little easier than before, but other than that the episode has pretty much passed into folklore, used as a joke or stock excuse and greeted with groans, rolling eyes and general derision by those all too familiar with the story.

Just occasionally, though, the enormity of what I went through - what we all went through - strikes me cold, and I think, "Fuck it, it is a big deal" then immediately feel guilty for caring about this thing that should be in the past.

But am I so wrong? After all, a couple of months ago I met a woman who had just held her 10 year survival party. And despite the fact that her op had left her with impaired mobility down her left side, she said my surgery had been much more serious and I shouldn't ignore that.

And as long as I have to keep going back for check-ups and scans, it will never disappear completely, so why pretend otherwise?

It's okay for it to be part of who I am, just so long as I don't let it become all that I am. Remember that, and hopefully I can get on with the future. At this point I'm just glad to be alive.


Hearing voices... or not

I seem to be carving something of a niche in being the voice of Asian men.

In the past three months I have been Thai, Filipino (far from my best performance - I phoned it in and got the delivery all wrong, but did Olivier always hit the right mark?), and now Japanese.

Perhaps I should get myself an agent...

And that's how this post should have ended. Except the links don't work.

I did want you to be able to hear the clips. But the code that should work (and indeed does work for other examples) seems determined to foil my plans. So I'll get back to you.


Hold the NIBs column!

The first in an occasional series in which an award-winning journalist scratches the cheap paint job off overpriced stories to bring you the headlines other members of the Fourth Estate really wanted to publish.

Hot girl back on market
* Huge blow to noble gene pool
"Shit or get off the pot," heir told
Everybody else is doing it, so why don't we
* Show me the money. SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!

And yes, the BBC also covered the story in great depth. (Obligatory gallery of Kate Middleton looking fantastic here.)

NB: NIB is industry speak for News In Brief
Disclaimer: Assumptions about nature of awards made at reader's own risk. Alternative headlines not sourced from publications to which they link.
Hey, can't a bloke cover his arse once in a while?


Free Alan Johnston

Not that many people will know him, but that bald guy to the right is a colleague of mine. Admittedly I've never worked with him, nor even met him, but by all accounts he's a good bloke, and his own record proclaims that he's a fine broadcaster.

But for those not in the know, for the past month Alan Johnston is thought to have been held captive in Gaza, from where he'd been reporting for the past three years, the only Western reporter to be permanently based in the area. He was widely believed to be a good friend of the people of this disenfranchised stretch of land, so why he should be a target is a mystery to us all.

No one has publicly claimed responsibility for Alan's disappearance, no mention has been made of any kind of ransom or political demand in return for his release. And for the past month, the pleas of the BBC, other international media, governments, diplomats, and most of all his family have all gone unanswered.

He was just a guy doing his job, and he was only three days from coming home to the UK.

I, for one, have a nagging feeling that something may have gone horribly wrong. Bitter experience tells us that when kidnappers have some reason to bargain, there's no shutting them up.

Yet we have to hope. Which is why that picture of Alan Johnston will stay where it is until his safe release.

Not that I expect it to make the difference, but if anyone wants to swipe it for their own site and join the call for his freedom, then I urge them to do so.

Please help us get Alan back.


Deja boo

I'm relieved to find that when it comes to television I still have some standards.

Despite having a predilection for US drama, not every new show can guarantee to set my heart racing when it flutters its eyelashes. And it seems that (contrary to my own expectations) stocking a series with hot women and switchback storylines isn't a guarantee of keeping my attention.

So it is with Day Break, the story of a detective with the LAPD who wakes up each morning to find a nightmarish 24 hours repeating themselves.

Our hero's been framed for the murder of a top lawyer. He soon discovers that he has to solve the case, clear his name and make sure he, his loved ones and complete strangers escape the day alive. If he gets just one thing wrong, the clock's reset and he's forced to go through it all again.

Those paying even the slightest bit of attention will probably notice the central conceit has been lovingly ripped off from the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day. And transposed to this murder mystery action thriller format it should make great telly.

Except it doesn't. Four hours in, I find myself not caring about any of the characters (even the cute ones), failing to be surprised by any of the so-called twists and, most criminally of all, overwhelmed by antipathy towards the protagonist.

Day Break has hackneyed scripts and themes, wooden acting, cut-out-and-keep caricatures, bland, homogenous sex kittens, machismo for machismo's sake and a surplus of unshocking shocks. None of it means anything.

Shows such as 24, Heroes, ER and Battlestar Galactica engage the viewer with tight, witty writing, complex, compelling plots, strong performances or sympathetic characters - and in the rare case of shows like The Wire, all of the above and more.

But with Day Break, much like our man Detective Brent Hopper I feel I've seen it all before. So it's out, off the watch list, Sky nonplussed.

It really shouldn't be that much of a surprise. After all, the show's a vehicle for Broadway refugee and televisual Angel of Death, Taye Diggs. Take a look at his record for appearing in the twilight years of established shows, and failing to make a success of his own - truly, is he not the African-American Ted McGinley? ABC certainly seem to think so - Day Break got canned after just 13 episodes, the last seven of which never even made it to TV screens.

Maybe if Mr Diggs had the opportunity for another crack at it he'd do things differently.

Unfortunately, Taye, in this reality when you wake up tomorrow it'll be just that.

But at least Day Break won't be on.


Seen and not heard

There's a device in Sylvester Stallone's sci-fi kitsch classic Demolition Man which assists the authoritarian regime of a 21st century utopia by cracking down on anti-social behaviour, such as graffiti and swearing. It's called the Moral Statute Machine, and its typical shtick (voiced by Nigel Hawthorne) goes like this:

"You are fined one credit for a violation of the Verbal Morality Statute. "

Then there's 1984's telescreens, the ubiquitous two-way transmission devices which prove to be Winston Smith's undoing. We all know how well that turned out.

So you can imagine why the news that city centres across the country are to get closed circuit surveillance cameras which tell people off for being unsociable might send a shiver down the spine.

But don't mistake this for another ominous step towards a police state. No, it's a good, happy community thing, apparently.

"It's very public, it's interactive," says the home secretary. And, according to the BBC News website, competitions will be held at schools in many of the relevant areas for children to become the voice of the cameras.

Oh joy.

I've no idea whether these things are being used anywhere else in the world, but do they really think that lagered-up pillocks are going to take notice? That people who are so self-absorbed that they don't care about their surroundings are really going to be shamed by voices of officious seven-year-olds coming from tinny speakers?

Despite the government's insistence that these are not surveillance cameras, isn't it a fact that if the system is going to work, people will need to be actively watching what's going on, rather than using the CCTV as a tool for review in the event of a crime.

Who will decide what constitutes behaviour deserving of reprimand anyway? Will the people keeping a keen eye on our streets stick to specifications and scripts or will they begin to feel they are there as moral arbiters, ready to scorn those who offend their Middle England sensibilities?

And will these cameras ever be miked? Surely that's the next logical step. Could there not be an argument from those in charge that, despite the further infringement of civil liberties, pictures without sound lack context, and hearing as well as seeing events might prevent miscarriages of justice.

"We know it's an invasion of privacy, but how do you expect us to take care of you if we can't hear what's going on?"

All this, along with the fact that the UK already has a respect tsar and police issuing spot fines for anti-social behaviour, leaves me wondering how long it will be until the government finally joins the dots on these initiatives and does away with the established legal system altogether.

"You have contravened the Blair Sociability Act. Please report to the nearest police station for processing and sentence."

It's a shame Nigel Hawthorne's dead. Sir Humphrey would have been perfect for the job.


See Evil, Hear Evil

Watching the "rap" by Bush's Brain (tumour), a friend commented that it was nice to see that Karl Rove did have a sense of humour after all.

"It's a nice thought," I replied, "but I suspect he probably just thought he was making fun of black people."

"Oh yeah," she said.

The sooner this man is stripped of power and influence, the better.


Boy meets world

The more patient among you may remember that I've never been a fan of contemporary dance (previous opinions here and here).

But that was before I entered the world of Punchdrunk's Faust (based on Goethe's story), a cocktail of dance, drama, song, acrobatics, superstition and sheer balls-out eroticism.

The production puts the audience at the heart of events, offering the chance to follow any of the 20 or so characters throughout five labyrinthine storeys of a disused warehouse doubling as a small 1950s town in the southern United States. Occasionally, if lucky, individuals in the audience get drawn into the story, given the chance to interact with the cast, if only for a moment, as Faust wends his way inevitably towards Hell.

It's an incredible piece of theatre. Yet for one who delights in words, it's the relative lack of dialogue (at least in the way of English) that is one of the most captivating elements of the production.

Most of the communication between characters plays out in the form of body language and contemporary dance and, within this new context, I suddenly found myself appreciating the art form. I could see why people cared.

But that's not where it ends.

It's once having seen the show that its real magic begins - having been laid in the audience member's mind, Faust's offspring nests and grows, making it truly difficult to think of anything else for days afterwards. The sounds, the sights, the darkness, they're all fixtures in one's consciousness.

It isn't just theatre - it's total immersion in a world of debauchery and sorcery, and one that plays on the innate appetite for voyeurism. My words can't do it justice.

Once isn't enough, yet repeat trips just seem to increase the dependency. It's performance as narcotic. My second trip only served to make the desire stronger (little matter that I'd fallen deeply in lust with a cast member or two).

But on Saturday the show's six-month run (itself an extension of the original six weeks) comes to an end, just a couple of weeks after I'd been introduced to it.

So now I'm sad, because I'll never get to visit that world again. Not just because of the sense of mystery it brings, not even because it's the most sexually-charged environment I've been in for much longer than I care to admit.

It's mostly because it both sates and sparks a desire for real creativity in which I feel ordinary life is so lacking, and I don't know when I'll find that again.


Pedantry corner

Few things annoy me more than seeing a good, engaging piece of writing betrayed by a sloppy mistake born of inadequate research or bad education.

And I really don't expect any quality drama the BBC has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on to be getting the English language wrong.

But before us stands this line from the accused: Party Animals: Episode 6, BBC2, Wednesday 14 March

Danny (angrily addressing his colleague Kirsty): He pretty much inferred to me that you’d get the researcher’s job in exchange for fucking him.

Can you see the problem here? For those who can't, he used the wrong word. Danny meant implied. Which allows me to label someone a big, old fuckwit.

The Oxford Compact English Dictionary explains the difference like this:

The words imply and infer do not mean the same thing. Imply is used with a speaker as its subject, as in He implied that the General had been a traitor, and indicates that the speaker is suggesting something though not making an explicit statement. Infer is used in sentences such as We inferred from his words that the General had been a traitor, and indicates that something in the speaker’s words enabled the listeners to deduce that the man was a traitor.

In other words: You say something open to interpretation. What I infer may be different from what you have implied.

Too often now, the word infer is being used to mean imply. And it's just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Yet it crops up in drama, in news reports, in debates, all over the place.

And it all comes down to the same basic problem: people using words they don't understand just to make themselves sound clever.

We all do it, admittedly, and it's forgivable of some - but not of those who write for a living, those who pride themselves on their command of a language. If in doubt either check your word or find another. A large vocabulary is only worth something as long as one has the ability to use it correctly.

Assuming it was the writer who first used the word inferred in the script, how could this aberration have got past the rest of the cast or crew?

And using the argument that Danny was speaking the sentence in a heated moment doesn't wash: this is a Parliamentary researcher we're talking about, presumably well educated, and one with enough confidence in his facility with English to fancy himself as an MP's speech writer. There's no way he'd have said, "He inferred to me." Just wouldn't happen.

It pains me to dump on Party Animals because I have enjoyed it immensely, and I also find it very hard to find fault with anyone who would involve the always beguiling Raquel Cassidy. So I won't even mention the far worse sin of the erroneous apostrophe visiting the word "says" in a mocked-up newspaper headline.

By the way, for all those wishing to know the score on sleeping one's way to the top, the following episode revealed that Kirsty put out but failed to land the job. At least that's what I inferred.


Ad victorem spolias

Whenever people who doubt my authenticity as a football fan ask why I (a man born in the south west of England) support Newcastle United (a team based about as far away from my own town without actually crossing a country's border), I've always been safe in the knowledge that I couldn't be accused of being a glory-hunter.

"They haven't won a single trophy in my life," I've proclaimed with a perverse kind of pride.

So does this pose me with a problem?

No. It might be the first new thing the St James' Park cleaner has had to polish in a generation, but I don't believe outlasting a bunch of European also-rans earns us the right to call ourselves victors.

The purpose of entering the Intertoto Cup is to get into the Uefa Cup, and we still have teams to beat in that particular competition. Saying we're better than Zurich Grasshoppers and Ethnikos Achna is worth nothing when the likes of Benfica, Rangers, Tottenham and a dozen other teams are all still gunning for the same prize as us.

So please, someone wake me up when we've won something real.


Ugly Benny

So this is what it's come to?

From raging against the Academy to spending my days making barely comprehended yet sweeping observations about beautiful women in clothing worth more than I take home in a year? For shame...

That said, most of them do look fabulous. Although I feel I was a little harsh on old Meryl. But that "Devil wears Oxfam" quip really wasn't mine.

And okay, I know I said I was going to tell you a story about the hiatus herein, but I really haven't been in the tale-spinning frame of mind of late, such has the effort been in getting back into the old routine. But if just one person wants me to lay it all out for posterity's sake, I shall. Meantime, I feel I'm getting my blogging groove back. And this time I mean it.