Nine Nights in Ninewells

Jeff in Ninewells (2)

In case you were wondering, I didn’t die.  I woke up on my 57th birthday connected to various tubes, drips and drains. There were monitors beeping intermittent alerts about my blood pressure and oxygen levels.  A nurse was telling me that everything had gone to plan. She gave me a button to press if I needed more morphine then she sat on a chair at the foot of my bed and made frequent notes about my condition. If I coughed, she scribbled something on my chart. If I pressed the morphine button, another scribble. I wasn’t in any real pain, but give a man a button to press and he’s going to press it just for the hell of it. This was the intensive care unit at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.  There were other beds with other patients. Six in total, maybe more. My view was restricted. It was a busy place; each bed had a nurse stationed at its foot and there was a central desk where sat green-suited figures peering into computer monitors and occasionally disappearing into side rooms to attend to mysterious patients set apart from the rest of us.

I’d lost a day. The 21st January to be precise, or at least most of it.  At nine that morning a jolly anaesthetist had been joking about getting me to reveal the PIN number of my bank account as he injected me with the first of his sleeping potions. I remember telling him I could feel it taking effect and then nothing. Absolutely nothing. No dreams, no sojourns into the afterlife, no white lights. Nothing.  I had no sense of time passing. If you’d woke me and told me I’d had a five minute nap, I’d have believed you. But it wasn’t five minutes, It was 24 hours and nine hours of that I’d been in the operating theatre while a crack team cut out the tumour from my tongue, replaced it with a skin graft taken from my left forearm and then patched that with another graft taken from my abdomen.  For good measure they sliced into my neck to take a hefty sample of my lymph nodes. I’d felt nothing. And now I was awake and, despite everything, I could still speak. Or at least, I could make enough recognisable sounds to tell doctors and visitors that I was feeling ok. Anything more sophisticated than that required the use of a small white board and marker pen.

I couldn’t sleep though. Every time I nodded off an irritating cough would jump-start me awake again.  I discovered afterwards that I’d taken a bad reaction to a blood pressure medication during the op and the lingering cough was probably a continuing side effect.   I stayed awake through three changes of shift . By midnight I had shaken off most of my wooziness and was tuning into all the overnight gossip between the night nurses.  One was anxious about an exam she was taking the next day, another was wondering if the extra shifts she’d done over Christmas would be reflected in her January pay packet.  In the middle of the night, an immaculately tailored doctor, clad in a three piece suit with colourful waistcoat, appeared at my bedside and urged me to get some sleep.  I promised to try, but I was still awake when the morning shift took over.

A few hours later they wheeled me to a general ward and that felt like the first bit of progress. And each day thereafter they removed one of my tubes or drains and that, too, felt like I was getting somewhere. By the third day, a physiotherapist arrived and helped me out of bed and on to a chair. My knees protested but I ignored them. What do knees know?   I began to feel human again, despite the bandages on my arm and the swelling around my neck.  I was given a Zimmer frame and escorted around the ward.  It felt great to be up and about and even better when the physio decided I didn’t need the Zimmer.  A day or two later I was making my own way to the toilet, a day after that I was trusted to shower by myself. I even shaved. One week after my operation, I was free of all tubes and drains including the one I hated most; the nasal gastric tube which took 12 hours to deliver a half litre of nutritional gunk through my nose and into my stomach.

I began to make limited conversation with fellow patients. Until then I’d given them secret nick names.  Mr Freeze was a man from Arbroath who insisted on sleeping with the ward window open all night.  The bearded man in the bed opposite me bore a slight similarity to Jeremy Corbyn, so I thought of him as ‘Jeremy’ until I discovered his name was Douglas.  Larger than life characters were the two ward cleaners who would converse with each other at high volume as they wiped surfaces and mopped floors. They were oblivious to the patients around them and would discuss topics such as the corona virus and the value of funeral insurance plans. By Thursday I was moved to a bed nearest the door of the ward and this, I was told, was a sure sign that I would soon be heading home.  And on Friday morning I got my discharge papers, had some stitches removed from my neck, waited for my head to fall off (it didn’t)  and was given a free bottle of mouthwash and sent on my way back to Inverness.

And now?  I await pathology results to see if I need radiation treatment. I’m booked for four months of speech therapy to get my voice back to a rough approximation of how it used to be. I’ve been warned it will never be the same as it was, but hey, maybe it will be an improvement. I also need to learn how to swallow food more challenging than chicken noodle soup and soggy Weetabix.

But it‘s all good. I’m so thankful for the NHS and the teams at Ninewells who work like a well-oiled machine. There was expertise at every turn: radiographers, dieticians, pharmacists. I saw such compassion and professionalism from the nurses and surgeons and consultants right through to the girl who cheered everyone up each night as she wheeled her trolley full of tea, biscuits and a secret stash of drinking chocolate.

So yes, I woke up on my birthday a little scarred and a little scared,  but that was a lot better than the alternative I’d been fearing for the past month.

Not waking up at all.

See you on the other side

If I die on the operating table next week it will be a real nuisance, because I have so many exciting things planned for this year. For example, fresh on the back of terrific sales figures for The Red Light Zone over Christmas (thankyou), I was hoping to announce details of my next book. As yet, it doesn’t have a title but I’ve been describing it as a collection of humorous “memories and make-believe”.  It will include true tales about my childhood in Scotland, about learning the facts of life from a toy frog, about encounters with comedy Nazis and how I faced down Easterhouse gangs with a simple hula hoop.  In the fiction section there’s the tale of militant zoo animals resisting a downsizing project and one about the man who has a glitch in his subconscious which allows him to confront the lack-lustre repertory company responsible for his dull and repetitive dreams.  Alongside the book there’s going to be a kind of stage show and the possibility of a radio programme too.

All I need to complete the project is a bit more time and, well, not dying would help.

Not that I’m planning to. Die, I mean. But the doctors have warned me that this surgery on my tongue is a serious business and, when you are under general anaesthetic for nine hours, there’s always a chance that something will go wonky. Then there was the nurse who took a blood sample from me, dabbed my puncture mark with a cotton ball and waved me off with the words “See you on the other side.”

I mean, really!

“Don’t’ go towards the light,” my friend Richard warned me a few days ago when I brought up the subject of my operation, “Because in your case it will probably be a fridge with the door open and you really need to cut out all the snacking.”

As much as I’m grateful for the many comforting words that have come from friends and former colleagues, I find I react much better to this kind of dark humour.  I do appreciate people’s attempts at reassurance, but that does tend to make me feel more nervous…like there’s really something to worry about. That in turn prompted me to do some grown-up things like updating my will and booking my car in for a service.  I’ve also granted my close family Power of Attorney over my affairs so that they can withdraw my Premium Bonds and cash in that half-complete book of Tesco savings stamps. They also have the authority to switch off my life support machine should I slip into a coma, but I’ve insisted they check I’m actually in a coma and not enjoying my usual afternoon nap.

Yet I remain optimistic and am trying to ignore some ominous signs. Last week, for example, my watch stopped but the bloke at Timpson’s fitted a new battery with a two year guarantee. Do I read that incident as a warning about the finite nature of life or as the prospect of renewal?  More to the point, ten quid for a sodding battery? I almost died of shock.

As I say, I have no intention of popping my clogs, but that thought in the back of my mind has given life a bit more intensity in the past month.  I’ve loved every moment with my family and every phone call from my amazing children. I’ve savoured tasty meals and enjoyed every sip of a good Malbec.  And I’ve been listening to music and appreciating the skill of every musician involved. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for example, is well worth seventeen minutes of your full attention. Here’s a link to a performance of it on YouTube.

Meanwhile, I hope to be back in action in a few weeks and getting on with all those plans. So, ahem, I’ll see you on the other side.

One way or another.

Hopefully, I’ve got this licked.

Jeff in hospital gown (2)

Despite explicit instructions from my lovely publishers, I sometimes gift copies of The Red Light Zone to special people in my life. Last Christmas my wife and children found signed books in their stockings and their gratitude defies description. Generous to a fault, I’ve also given tax deductible copies to would-be business associates.  And then last week I presented one to the surgeon who had diagnosed that little blister on my tongue as full-on mouth cancer.  This, it has to be said, was my attempt to divert him momentarily from the conversation we were having about my impending surgery in Dundee. He had been describing how I would be under general anaesthetic for nine hours as a crack team of specialists removed the tumour and filled the gap using a skin graft from my forearm. Nine hours under the knife, two weeks in hospital, three weeks to recover and, oh, by the way, I’ll be talking with a bit of a lisp for a while.

“So what is it you do for a living?” he asked me.

“I’m a writer and I run a company called ‘Writes and Speaks’,” I told him, thinking it might be time to rename that as ‘Lites and Spleaksh’.

That’s when I told him about my book, fished a copy out of my rucksack and signed it for him. I wondered if this small act of kindness might persuade him to go easy on me when they wheel me into the operating theatre a few weeks from now.  My surgery is scheduled to take place on the first anniversary of The Red Light Zone’s publication, but I’ll have to postpone the celebration party I was planning.  Yep, I was going to invite everyone mentioned in the book, the staff and managers of every book shop in Scotland and all six thousand people who have visited this website in the past year.  Honestly, I was really.  But only if my lovely publishers paid for the booze. But enough of this fanciful thinking and back to reality.

“No one thinks they are going to get mouth cancer,” my surgeon was telling me, “but it’s actually the fourth most common type of cancer. Usually caused by smoking, or a virus or maybe in your case just simple genetics and bad luck, but we do this kind of operation almost on a routine basis and we in Dundee have a 95% rate of success. That’s an official Government statistic.”

I resisted the temptation to make some cynical comment about Government statistics.

“I’ve always liked Dundee,” I told him, “I used to go on holiday around that area as a child.”

I was rambling now.  Trying to find some way of keeping up my end of the conversation beyond out and out screaming.  The surgeon insisted on talking about medical stuff. Well, you know what they’re like.

“It’s good that we’ve caught this at such an early stage,” he was saying, “Three months later and things would be a lot more serious.”

I have my dentist, Jennifer, to thank for that. I asked her to look at my blister ahead of a routine appointment. She didn’t like what she saw and referred me to hospital for a biopsy.  That led to a CT and MRI scan. Lots of pictures of my tongue were taken along the way. I was asked to sign a release form so they could be used for teaching purposes or in academic papers. I did so happily. Anything for a bit of publicity.

“In the meantime,” said my surgeon, “Go and enjoy your Christmas. Your problem is now my problem. You’ve passed it to me and its not going to get any worse in the next few weeks. Spend time with your friends and family. Eat and drink. Have fun, have wine.”

Good advice, I thought…and not just for the next few weeks.

“Thankyou,” I said, easing myself off his examination chair, “And you have a good Christmas too. Hope you enjoy the book.”

And the same to all my readers.

Making front page news by accident

The National Front Page

Boris Johnson was making noises about the BBC licence fee and a reporter for the National contacted me via Twitter and asked me to comment.  We had arranged to speak by phone the next morning so I went to my keyboard and began noting some thoughts about the way the BBC is funded and how the licence fee money makes its way to Scotland.  That was when I realised I had quite a lot to say, although I’ve said most of it and more in The Red Light Zone. The phone call didn’t happen, but I sent the reporter – Andrew Learmonth – my notes.  He contacted me a few hours later and suggested we run my notes as a column.  Then this morning I woke up to find I was front page news and my phone started buzzing with tweets and retweets. Then my book started to sell out on   A funny old day.

Here’s a link to my accidental column.

And you can still get my book at Waterstones.

The astronaut who wouldn’t talk about the moon.

Radio interviews can be tricky, especially when the guest you have booked doesn’t talk about the one thing you want to discuss. In The Red Light Zone, I tell how we once booked astronaut John Young for a live appearance on BBC Radio Scotland. The producer had spent months negotiating with NASA to secure the interview. All sorts of security arrangements had to be put in place including a chauffer-driven car to bring him to the studio.  It all seemed worth it. This was one of the few men who had actually walked on the moon. He was still active in NASA and involved in the Space Shuttle missions.

What happened next is something I described to Pete Gavin for his excellent Final Word programme on North Highland Radio. That airs tonight (27th November) but here’s a sneak preview.


Sorry about last Christmas

Last Christmas I disappointed so many people (well four) by telling them that they couldnt get a copy of my book until its official launch inJanuary. Well, as it tends to do, Christmas has come round again and so you now have plenty of time to snap up a copy for th radio enthiusiast in your life. Besides, last year, I didnt have all these nice reviews to include in my promo video.  But I do now.

I had the right to remain silent

I was on my way to be interviewed for North Highland Radio yesterday when I was arrested. I assumed it was something to do with the way I had parked my car.  I had pulled into a residential side-street in Inverness but as I walked away from the car, I noticed I was a bit close to the junction, so I got back behind the wheel and moved it a few yards further forward.  Then I saw my interviewer, former BBC colleague Pete Gavin, waiting for me on the street with microphone in hand.  I barely had time to say hello when a car screeched in behind us and a cop in plain clothes emerged and asked me to face the wall, telling me I was under arrest and asking me if I had any sharp objects in my pocket. I told him I had a plastic comb. I warned him it had teeth

“So have I,” said the cop in a way that did nothing to slow my racing heart.  He then asked me if I had any identification on me.

“Don’t tell him your name, “ said Pete who, I noticed, was still recording the whole thing.  By this time, I was completely baffled, and my mind kept returning to the way I had parked my car. In fact, the cop started asking questions about my car, he recited my registration number and asked me to tell him if I had any items of equipment in the boot.

“Just some of my books”,  I said, feebly, forgeting to add the price and name of the publisher  (£8.99, Lunicorn Press – ideal Christmas gift) and still wondering if this whole thing was a joke. And, of course, it was.  Pete had arranged for a retired police officer pal to surprise me with this elaborate and far too convincing start to the interview which then continued inside Pete’s home studio complex as, under interrogation,  I was asked to identify an old Sony Walkman Cassette Recorder, a damp shirt and a Black and Decker garden strimmer.  All are items which, if you have read The Red Light Zone,  pertain to particular anecdotes I tell in the book. I daresay I had the right to remain silent, but not sure that would have made for good radio so I spilled the beans. I blabbed. I ‘fessed up.

It was , in any case, the most interesting start to any media appearance I’ve done this year and I’m not sure whether to congratulate Pete on his creativity or sue his pal for wrongful arrest.

I’ll let you know when the interview airs.


This should be a scream

I do enjoy my new career as a traveling author- probably a little too much. What started out as simple speaking engagements with a few readings, has gradually morphed into the bare bones of a one man show. It started with a few videos, then some props and, latterly some costume changes, a comedy routine and a musical finale. Now I plan to add a little bit of true-life horror.

My excuse, if I needed it, was that my booking in Linlithgow happens to fall on the 30th of October. Well, that’s as close to Halloween as I can get, so I plan to finish my usual sequence of radio stories with a bit of a gear change and a personal anecdote from my childhood.  This is something I remembered while doing research for a bigger project I’ll be able to tell you about next year.

This story involves a mystery – as yet unresolved – about a strange occurence that happened one night while my sister and I were asleep in our bunk beds. It also involves a strange door my older brother had in his bedroom and, for good measure, a midnight trip to a tomb in Clackmananshire.

If you want to hear the whole story (and all the usual tales about the BBC), you’ll have to book tickets via the Far From the Madding Crowd bookshop in Linlithgow.  I’ll post the link below.  But  watch the video to hear how the story begins.

Is the BBC killing radio?

Haver In-Print _ Radio Haver - Google Chrome 21_09_2019 12_10_37 (2)

Drew Carson’s new Radio Haver magazine features an article which poses the question: Is Radio Dead?  That’s a question I was asked dozens of times in my radio career and one that I and other radio folk try to answer again in Drew’s fine new publication.  In the 25 years that I worked for the BBC, I heard countless strategists (usually slumming it from TV) predict the demise of radio. They always got it wrong, just as they got it wrong when they predicted the death of network television and hard-copy books.  In each case, the analysts always seemed to be in thrall to the possibilities of digital technology and overlooked key factors in the popularity of the old stuff.

I love my  Amazon Kindle, but I dont take it into the bath and it doesnt look good on my bookshelf.  Sure, we’ve seen cassette tapes replaced by CD’s and CD’s replaced by online music dowloading and streaming services. That evolution happened because the new technology wasn’t just better or more convenient that the one before, but because it offered a direct replacement for it.  Just as on-demand movie services like Netflix offered a direct replacement for video rental shops like Blockbuster, but only a partial replacement for broadcast television.  Millions might binge-watch the next series of The Crown on Netflix, but millions will also enjoy the shared Saturday-night experience of watching Strictly Come Dancing on BBC 1.

Streaming music services don’t offer a direct replacement for the convenience and companionship offered by live radio services and neither do podcasts.  In the U.K. commercial radio owners like Global and Bauer are investing heavily in creating more linear radio stations (funded, sadly, by reducing spend on local content). The BBC, meanwhile, is gambling licence-payers money on the creation and continued promotion of BBC Sounds and the Director of Radio, James Purnell, clearly thinks that radio is heading for the same on-demand future as television.  Yet, when you ask people which BBC podcasts they actually listen to, most people point to those connected to existing radio programmes, the kind of programmes they used to find easily on the BBC’s radio iPlayer. Those arent real podcasts, they’re just time-shifted radio shows.

That’s not taking anything away from the work that BBC producers are putting into genuine, specially produced stand-alone podcasts, but the audiences for those are tiny compared to the BBC’s live radio output.  Many BBC podcasts are superb, but they are not a replacement for live radio. If anything, they’re filling a gap left by long-form print journalism. The independently produced podcasts you hear curated on Radio Haver offer the kind of specialised music and cultural content that isnt available on linear radio.  So again, not a replacement but an alternative.

I’m sure James Purnell’s strategy is being informed by the the kind of detailed and expensive analysts’ reports that I saw time and again in my BBC years.  He wont be making this stuff up as he goes along or woking from a hunch.  His previous career in politics offers no clue to any hitherto hidden expertise in broadcasting, so he must, surely,  be relying on the expertise of others.

In that case, commercial radio owners investing their company coffers in the future of live radio must be wrong…and the BBC is right.  The alternative explanation is more worrying; that radio isn’t dead, but the BBC is trying to kill it.

Meanwhile, here’s the link to the Radio Haver magazine.



The return of Johnny Sellotape… and Santa.


Johnny in Aberfeldy

It started with a coconut and then I added a banana.  I laid these out on the table while I explained to the audience that these were my aide-memoirs.  Each one of these props would remind me to tell a paritcular story and if, by the end of my alloted hour, there were some unexplained items on the table, it would mean I had forgotten to tell them something.

“Some people tie string to their fingers to remind them of things, ” I said, “But I never go anywhere without bits of fruit.”

The cocounut and banana related to the use of sound effects in radio drama, but also on the table were three hats and a roll of sticky tape.  That last item was my prompt for a story about my short-lived stint as a stand-up comedian and my alter ego, Johnny Sellotape.  Johnny, I explained, also had a poor memory, so he taped emergency jokes to his jacket and deployed these when things got a bit, well, sticky.  The audience at Aberfeldy library seemed keen to see Johnny in action, so I donned one of the aformentioned hats and then a suitably corny showbiz jacket and reeled off some of the the most groan-inducing jokes you’ll ever find on those ‘worst jokes in the world’ websites.  Such as:

“What goes up but never comes down?  A Yo.”


“Did you hear about the robbers who got caught breaking into a calendar factory? They each got six months.”

I kept up this barrage of nonsense until I could see that some members of the audience were becoming quite ill…then I changed hats to tell the story of the song I tried to ban from Radio Scotland.  It was ‘Santa’s a Scotsman’ of course – written and produced by my friend Richard Melvin. The two of us concoted a plan for me to ban the song on the grounds that lyrics such as “too many pies, not enough exercise, of course he’s one of us” represented a negative stereotyope of Scottish people.   When the Edinburgh Evening News came calling for a quote, I staged an immediatate climbdown and explained that ” as someone who last had fun in 1978, I have trouble recognising it in others.”

The song is now a festive favourite of Ken Bruce on Radio 2  .

The good people of Aberfeldy, including the wonderfully helpful librarian Karen MacKay (pictured above)  having suffered through the Sellotape routine, deserved a treat. So, not only did I play them a bit of the song, but I gave away free CD copies with every signed copy of the Red Light Zone.   And if you would like one, just head over to my Writes and Speaks website, (click here)  After all, Christmas isnt far away.