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.