I think I first heard of Dean Burnett through his blog, Science Digestive, when the mainstream press covered his amusing first application for a position as an NHS Homoeopath. I read his second application first, and it had me in tears of laughter: I imagined him as a sharp, arrogant and rather cruel fellow, though clearly a comic genius, and might have thought he went to far if this was not an NHS position! I have since seen more of his job applications — if you have not read them, and I confess I have not read his application to be a psychic yet, stop and go and read them now.
Now they are ten times funnier (the homoeopathy ones) if you know something of the history and “theory” of homoeopathy – but for once I am not going to encourage you to bother to go look it up, unless you really want to. You can find out most of what you might want to know in the wikipedia article. Ben Goldacre deals with the subject in his excellent book Bad Science – but let it be noted for the sake of honesty and my integrity that my prejudices against homoeopathy could be utterly unfair – I have never actually reviewed the literature properly, let alone taken a remedy. I can not see how it can work; which of course does not mean it does not. One day I will examine the claims carefully – for now, everything I have read suggest it is rubbish. Here is the British Homoeopathic Association website, in the interest of balance. Later this year I will try to look at as many of the papers as I can. I try for critical thinking and yet to be genuinely open to odd ideas if evidence can be had…
Anyway tonight I went to the second meeting of the Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub. It was absolutely packed, with 53 folks there to watch Dean, a recent PhD in Neuroscience, do a talk combining stand up comedy and science. It was truly excellent, and just as entertaining as Trystan Swale’s discussion of Crop Circles last time.
So why did I enjoy it so? Firstly, too many stand ups seem to want to be Bill Hicks, or Lenny Bruce. This is 21st century Britain. Other are stuck in the 1970′s – the routines are formalised, with genre tropes, with a kind of structure, which makes the performance feel like a homage to great stand ups off the past. And then there are the shock-jocks – the ones who sell explicit and offensive humour to challenge. The problem is, good comedy to me is reportage: it grows from lived experience. Black humour, and dark mature themes are fine if you happen to live like the Velvet Underground meet the Exploding Plastic Inevitable on a knife edge of decadent excess, surrounded by freaks and geniuses – otherwise you are just an overgrown adolescent trying to be offensive. So what am I saying, other than I know bugger all about comedy? Probably that I have no sense of humour
So why did I enjoy Dean Burnett? Because he deals with material he understands, that is bloody hilarious, and is at times grim, at times worrying, but he takes you with him – because he talks about stuff he knows, his own life, and his work as a scientist. And he is not the arrogant evil genius I imagined at all: he is self deprecating, slightly nervous, clearly highly intelligent and a warm and I would imagine compassionate bloke who thinks carefully and also happens to be wonderfully funny.
Of course I am immensely critical: I rarely praise anything – but if Dean produces a DVD, I’d buy it tomorrow, and I if was still working in TVland I’d push Dean as a really interesting bloke to watch. He has already achieved a lot of success: I guess he will do better. I never did manage to ascertain what his neurological speciality is : I know it’s the temporal lobe, because he modestly mentioned that and pointed out his knowledge of the rest of the old noggin was not as extensive; but anyway thanks to everyone from Cheltenham Skeptics at the Pub for an interesting night, and if you have not seen Dean yet, try and catch him.
It’s a long time now since I moved to Normal Terrace, but I still recall my first image of the place, and why I came here. I was walking down the High Street, and on a whim I turned through the arch to walk towards FCH. I remember thinking to myself “this is a regio”; for people who do not play the game Ars Magica, that is a sort of little pocket dimension superimposed on our own, which unwary travelers can stumble in to.
It was a sunny afternoon, and the Terrace looked beautiful; many of the houses had lovely floral displays, but of course that was not what attracted my attention. That was the cats! Some Cheltonians call the street, I have since learned “Cat Alley”; at any time one sees a few sleek contented moggies dozing in our little lane, safe from traffic as few cars venture down the one end of the road open to traffic, and even if they did the sheer narrowness of the lane prevents much speed. I of course chatted to the cats – wise old Sam, the white moggy, and then Suki, a wonderful multi-coloured half Persian. And so it was I met Suki’s owner, Chris, a little old lady who stood by her gate, chatting amiably to anyone who came past. We exchanged a few words, and I decided there and then that I would move here.
A few weeks later a house came up, and move here I did, renting a lovely little cottage. The first night was not well omened – Crowley, my beloved black cat, ran out, and I feared would make his way back to the old house. He spotted a hole in the fence to the gardens opposite, and so did I, and I moved a bin to block his passage, catching him as he found his exit denied. At that moment a small irate figure appeared – Chris. She was furious, because I had blocked her kitties way to the gardens where they bask! One thing it seems hard to mention now she has left us, is Chris’ temper – when anyone upset her cats, or crossed her, she was a formidable lady! Yet she was also extremely sweet, kind, caring and loving – not just to her cats, but to all animals, and even to her neighbour, me.
So Chris and I became friends, and through her I slowly came to know Greg, Tina, Lynn, Mary, Jethro, David and many others here in the street. Because Chris spoke to everyone, Normal Terrace developed a sense of community, and soon I was popping in to see her, and listen to her talk about the past. She could remember when the bottom of the street was called “Beckinsale’s Passage”, but the thing that surprised me the most was she was actually born here, in the same house. I’m still a bit vague as to how old Chris was — certainly approaching ninety; but she told me stories of the war years, of people long gone, of families and fights and gossip and shops long since forgotten.
Well I don’t want Chris to be forgotten, so I’m going to write about her, and maybe it will help. She was born just after the first world war in her little house in Normal Terrace; the room she spent her last two years sleeping in was the room she was born in. She said it was a foggy night when her mother went in to labour — and someone ran to fetch the doctor, who was in a Sunday evening service at Holy Trinity Church. The doctor hastily left the service and hurried round; and Chris came in to the world. If I have one regret now it is that she did not pass out of in that room, but spent her last two weeks in Cheltenham General, and then, seemingly recuperating, in Tewkesbury Hospital where her final illness took her peacefully a few hours ago. Her world was very much Normal Terrace, a tiny insignificant street, and I was surprised back in the Summer how often she said she had not been down a street just a few blocks away for years- even Kings Street, just one road away, and Milsom Street where she attended the girls school.
Her brother bought a house in Stoneville Street; luckily he sold it and moved out just two weeks before the Luftwffe raid and the bombing that took so many lives back in 1941. Her mother rented the little house, but when the owners sold up, she was able to buy it at a reduced price, and Chris and her mum had the electric installed, and made many improvements, though till the end of her life she refused to have washing machine saying there was no room and preferring the social vibe of the launderette (Alison did her washing for the last year when she was housebound). I just realised others will come, the house will be cleared out, and it will change – I am deeply saddened to think of this, just as was sad to see the rosebush I tended so long cut down on Number 8 few days back, but still Chris would be delighted to have young people move in to her house I think – so long as they own cats!
Chris worked all her life in bakeries – I know she worked in at least two, one being on the Hewlett Road roundabout, the other on the High Street. When I was doing her shopping she would send me to get things I barely understood – cottage rounds, and rock cakes. Tesco dont sell rock cakes – in fact I don’t know anywhere that does, but if i ever find out what one is I will think of Chris, and wish I could have got her some. I did used to buy her favourite Cadbury’s Crunch big bars of chocolate, often combing shop after shop looking for them, as they seem somewhat rare, but it was worth it for the pleasure it brought to her. She would always offer to share with me (I declined, I’m fat enough already), but I would sometimes make myself a coffee while she drank her tea and ate two biscuits!
Chris married, Tim, her husband whom I believe she loved dearly. He passed away about five years before I met Chris I think, and I still know little of him — I got the impression that the bereavement was recent enough to best be avoided as a topic. Every years she marked the date of her mother’s passing — Chris had remained at home to look after her mother who was crippled by arthritis, and along with her dogs, the cats and Tim, her mother was always close to her thoughts. Yet of course the topic Chris spoke of most was cats, and when my cat Crowley died, I remember her tears – she loved everyone’s cats, not just her own. The poisoning (accidental one assumes) of one of her dogs, and the shaving by some cruel idiot of poor Ziggy (who survived) were traumas that always brought terrible grief to her face when she spoke of them. Till the end I used to have to carry out her biscuits crumbs and bread and put water out for the birds that she watched from her room.
So Chris and I became friends, and when I moved, I moved just three doors and became her neighbour. In 2007 she became stricken with arthritis, and from August to the next summer she was unable to leave the house, or attend “the club” she loved so much at St Matthews Church. (Chris was in her younger years an important member of the St Mary’s congregation, and the St Matthews’s club is a wonderful chance for the elderly to get out and socialise). When (as not infrequently happens!) I was dirt poor, Chris had often bought me little bits of food shopping, chocolate, biscuits or a loaf of bread – she even bought me cigarettes on two occasions — so now I started to do her shopping for her, at Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencers and elsewhere, sometimes all on the same trip! I used to go fetch her prescriptions, and at the time i was shopping for another bedbound friend and her husband, so my shopping trips used to get very long.
It was at this time that Ziggy her beloved cat fell ill; Chris moved for her upstairs bedroom to sleep downstairs with Ziggy, letting Zig out at 4am, waiting till he was ready to come back in, night after night, cleaning up the vomit from the poor ailing animal. I used to carry Zig down to the vet; together we nursed him, and he had one last summer. Little did I realise soon it would be Chris’ turn, but maybe on that sad night we buried him, I had an inkling. That Ziggy’s death broke her heart I have no doubt; but Chris was a tough old soul, and she was determined to go out again. Health problem after health problem hit her – she slipped a disc, and was forced back to bed just as she had started to walk again, but I was determined. It took seven months, but by practicing a little each day she was able to walk once more, and began to accompany me on shopping trips. By the summer of 2009 she was going on her own, while I fretted like a mother, hoping she as ok, then wandering off in to town to check up on her!
During those years we spent hours together, shopping, chatting, fretting over cats, walking very slowly with her bent over her trolley. By the end of 2009 she was doing marvellously, and when I went away for Christmas Ed Woods stayed at my house and did what had become my nightly ritual as the nights drew in, of going in, sitting with her and chatting. When I returned she seemed better than ever – I bought her a plant pot for Christmas, but I was never to collect it from the shop and give it to her, because events over took us.
One morning back in early 2010 I was on the phone to Becky when I heard a banging on the wall. I assumed it was a hammering from the garage out the back, and ignored it. A few minutes later I was in the basement when I heard a splintering of wood. Again I ignored it, though I wondered what it was! It was Ian from number 7, kicking in the front door. Chris had fallen, breaking her hip, and I had failed to hear her banging as a cry for help. Now to be fair Chris banged quite often and I would run round to find she just wanted a cup of tea, or wondered if I was OK, and i would always hurtle round there, but this time I didn’t as i mistook it for something outback, and I felt wretched.
As they carried her in to the ambulance I said “are you ok, Chris?” she seemed extremely annoyed by this question “Not really” she said” why did you not come?”.
Well Chris was in hospital for a few weeks, and i went up to see her, though not every day as she would have liked, but whenever I could. Hugh Wake and Becky drove me up, and Lisa came too a few times and we saw her getting better, and then she was struck by pneumonia, and we were told to expect the worse. And then, she did what she always did, and stubbornly got better.
The neighbours, Alison, Tina and I, all friends of Chris’ arranged to go round and feed the cats while she was in hopsital — I did it night after night, until they were re-homed with Alison’s mum and Enid and Tony her nephew and his wife and nearest relatives. I know how happy she was one day in the summer when Alison pushed her round to see Suki, but when she came home, while she talked of them endlessly, she always felt it was best they stayed with these kind folks “until she got better”.
I’m a strange creature - I never doubted she would get better. That Chris would die was inconceivable to me. And indeed, there eight more months, in which I really came to know her better than ever before, even though Alison now did the shopping, Tina was a constant friend and support to her, and I kept up my nightly visit for a chat and cup of tea, and added two or more visits during the day, sometimes ten or twenty. Chris was lucky enough to have wonderful carers from SociaL Sevices, and Anne, Annie and Mary and all the rest became a regular part of my daily existence. And once a day, Chris would climb in her wheelchair, and we would set off, on an adventure, to do some shopping or explore streets she had not visited for years.
Her walks had to be at least an hour or she complained bitterly; one of the last times we went it had been raining all day, and a constant stream of visitors, the doctor, nurses carers etc meant we had not gone out. It was now nearly ten, but the hammering on the wall told me the rain had stopped, and out we went, around streets filled with drunken youths, swaddled against the cold, around the night streets of Cheltenham.
We must have walked over a hundred miles together, well me pushing, Chris talking, in this last year. It was a beautiful summer, and I remembered a poem I saw on the Tube once about an old cat enjoying one last summer. The vague premonition we might not enjoy another together led me to try hard to meet her whims, to make sure she always had the best time I could manage, and to try to recall her words, determined her memories would not pass with her. Her memory will of course live on in all of us who lived here in Normal Terrace, but in these few jumbled snippets are something of Chris; i sthis what a life is, some anecdotes written through tears?
I’m sorry I can not do Chris justice – the memories will come unbidden, as I walk the streets she loved, as I see a cat lazing in the sun, as I see old ladies buying their tiny treasures, chocolate and biscuits in the supermarkets, as I watch her house cleared and her wheel chair pushed away for anothers benefit. The end came peacefully, and Tina and Alison whom she loved did not even realise that she had stopped breathing, over in her hospital room at Tewkesbury. Still Chris, gone in to that darkness, something of your light remains here with us; “there is a light that never goes out”.
As a little girl Chris played with the cats in this road; while we may come and go, the cats of Normal Terrace will go on, generation after generation, and while there are cats here, Chris will sleep happy. Cuddles does not know why I am crying, but he is a very stupid and lovable cat, and never knows much, and Marmalade and Hansine paw round confused, but they will miss you Chris. We all will.
I used to leave every night and say “Night, Night Chris”, and you would call “God bless you”
Night, Night Chris. God Bless you. x