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.