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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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By Martin "better now, thanks" Kelner on May 4, 2015 - 3:16:53 PM

My Pen Burst


Friday July 26th, 2013


I don't know.   First I get cancer, and then a pen bursts in my pocket.  


BBC local radio has bought a consignment of hideously cheap ballpoints, the kind that live in polythene packs of 20 on the very bottom shelf in a discount shop, which scratch at the paper in an irritating way rather than writing on it.   We have thousands of them at BBC Radio Leeds where I am working - I think they may be reproducing - and you usually have to try two or three before finding a barely functional one.  


Like a fool I put one of these pens in my trouser pocket only for it finally, uncharacteristically, and madly generously, to give up its ink; in a gusher, all over my money, my cards, my security pass, and inside the deepest recesses of my fingernails when I put my hand in my pocket to retrieve the wretched thing.   The pocket was stained deep blue, and on my upper thigh was an ink atoll that later required vigorous scrubbing.


I checked on the internet and a box of 50 of these pens costs £1.50.   With the BBC's buying power, and the bulk quantities they would be ordering, I reckon it must have set the licence payer back little more than a penny each to fuck up my trousers.  


Coincidentally, the day before the disaster with the pen I read in the Sunday Times that a former head of Nations and Regions, who I never met despite my broadcasting in Leeds and he supposedly being in charge of radio round this manor, had left the Corporation with a pay-off of £866,000.


Frankly, I don't usually get as exercised as the Sunday Times or the Telegraph about these BBC executives trousering eye-watering sums.   Nice work if you can get it, good luck to them, is my customary stance on the topic but, you know, what with the pen and everything….  


If they had just given this chap six grand less - he seems a decent chap, I'm sure he wouldn't have missed it and he walked straight into another job, anyway, as Warden of Goldsmith's College - we could have had the Zebra Z-grip retractable, 12 for six quid on Amazon, and I bet the BBC could get them even cheaper.   "Good quality pen," said Natalie, one of two reviewers of the item, while Robert Kyle, the other, trills, "Easy to use, good grip."   Around half a quid a pen, and both reviews 5-star.   I've been to see West End shows on less recommendation than that.  


And even if we drones at the very nadir of the BBC's hierarchy - in the regions, the regions, a word routinely accompanied by a barely concealed sneer when uttered around Broadcasting House - do not merit retractables, how about the 430 M-3 Staedtler Stick, a traditional ballpoint, made in Germany, ten for £2.19?   Forgive me for lapsing into racial stereotypes, but I don't see the Germans as people who would tolerate a Kugelschreiber that fucks up your Lederhosen.  


There are 26 four or five-star reviews of the Staedtler on Amazon.  Danno praises its ability to sidestep the dreaded smudge, while Robbie S (Not Robbie Savage, I'm guessing) goes ga-ga over its dependability.


I have quite literally found these reviews helpful.    On Amazon, one is not only encouraged to review consumer goods - I have reviewed pilchards and a broken biscuit assortment amongst other items - but also to say whether you find other people's reviews 'helpful.'   Reviews are then sub-divided into 'most helpful critical review' and 'most helpful favourable review.'  


Customer feedback is the obsession of the age.   It is impossible to buy books from Amazon without receiving an email inviting you to 'rate your recent purchases.' I ignore them mostly.   I responded once: "Well, I bought the book, and it arrived and I read it.   What more do you want to know?"  They merely thanked me.   It didn't start any kind of relationship.


But the ballpoint pen reviews were genuinely helpful.   Unlike Trip Advisor, where you suspect half the notices are from hoteliers or restaurateurs trying to drum up business, one cannot imagine Herr Kugelschreiber sitting in his office in Nuremberg rhapsodising about the smudge-free properties of his pens, allocating bogus star ratings.  


And if the BBC had troubled to detail one of its functionaries in Nations and Regions to trawl the internet more assiduously, I shouldn't have been searching high and low for something to scrub clean my upper thigh.


And I know what you're saying, Mr and Mrs Outraged: "I didn't pick up an article on cancer to read about the ballpoint pens they give you at the BBC."  


Fair point.   The cancer, as we have established, is pretty bad.  I'm due to go into St James's Hospital in less than a fortnight, and I shall be in for at least 10 days.   The consultant says it could even be 20 days.   He's advised me to write off the next six months as far as broadcasting goes.  


He was very reassuring, though, confirmed that I am a pretty fit chap - apart from the cancer obviously - and said there was every likelihood I would get through the surgery and make it back into the first team squad.    But he warned of tough times ahead - not that he needed to as the consent form I signed went through in stomach-churning detail every possible thing that could go wrong with the operation.


This is because, a nurse tells me, 'where there's blame, there's a claim' - possibly the most frequently re-quoted advertising slogan since 'Do the shake 'n' vac and put the freshness back' - and Andrew Castle or one of his ambulance-chasing buddies will be round on the ear'ole should my team of surgeons damage so much as one of my beautifully manicured fingernails in the process of removing what feels like 75 per cent of my insides.  


I asked if I could be put up in the Jimmy Savile suite, ho ho (I know have a fuller understanding of the phrase "too soon").   But I found I'd be getting as much privacy as the late dj got anyway - not here he didn't actually, at a different Leeds hospital, but never let the facts get in the way of a bad taste joke - having been assigned an HD unit.   This was not unfortunately a reference to the quality of television pictures but the fact that I will be Highly Dependent on these people for my future viability, survival even.   It's that bad. Now, Mr and Mrs O, you know why I'd rather discuss ballpoint pens.


Incidentally, are there not more unwatched televisions in hospital waiting rooms than anywhere on earth?   They play away all day and no one gives a fig, which is more or less what daytime TV does anyway, I suppose.   Bizarrely, the one in the room where I wait for my pre-surgical assessment is showing a medical drama.   It must be said none of the 30 or so people in our waiting room is as good looking as those on the TV.    Nobody in telly-hospital ever looks poorly for a start.


There's a shelf for reading matter under the TV set.   Mostly it's supermarket magazines featuring Gloria Hunniford's quick 'n' easy recipes with tuna fish, and Lorraine Kelly's make-up tips   (I made those up, but you get the idea).   In amongst them is just one book, Strolling With The One I Love by Joan Jonker.  


Joan's Amazon page lists her several works - she was quite prolific, but died in 2006 since when her output appears to have tailed off - all of which have virtually identical covers, and similar plots.   The titles are often taken from songs - Dream A Little Dream, Three Little Words, Many A Tear Has To Fall - and the stories uniformly concern feisty girls with hearts of gold from Joan's native Liverpool.   I don't think I would be far off the mark if I said a Scouse Catherine Cookson.   


I clearly need to be armed with my own reading matter to keep me engaged in the difficult days ahead.   In the past month or so, since my illness really gripped, I have read Canada by Richard Ford and Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight, both downloaded onto my Kindle.    Canada was great, everything the reviewers said it was, but not ideal for the Kindle because I kept finding I wanted to go back and re-read bits and the device is not ideal for that.   Reconstructing Amelia was just the job.   Just absorbing and intriguing enough to drive you on through a sleepless night, but not literary enough to make you need to re-cap constantly.


I don't know how difficult it is going to be to read after the operation, or how connective my electronic devices will be in there.   Obviously I don't want to unplug one of those tubes they're feeding me through or the machine that goes 'ping' if they've got that (Monty Python reference, kids), and when the surgeon was discussing the horrors ahead, and my future prospects, it seemed ostentatiously bathetic to ask, "When will I be able to tweet again?"


Saturday July 27th   (Convalescing, first round of surgery successfully completed)


When you are awake at 3.30 am, is it morning, or is it still the night before?   It's an important question when you're self-medicating.   On my desk before me I have Codeine Phosphate tablets, Zydol capsules (Tramadol, breakfast of champions), Oramorph Oral Solution, as well as loads of those amateur painkillers like Paracetamol and Ibuprofen.   'Take one or two four times a day' is a typical instruction, but it's difficult to know if you're complying when you're not quite sure what day it is.


I often faced a similar dilemma in my breakfast show days.   If I stayed up to watch cricket from Australia and a late-night glass of red segued into my early morning Marmite and toast, had I crossed the border from sports fan to alcoholic?  


Prescription drugs, though.   Never.   It was almost a fetish with me.   "It won't disappear any quicker," I'd say to a daughter with a mouth ulcer when she ran the gamut from Rinstead pastilles through Bonjelea to Anbesol to try and get rid of it.   I was the one who would live with a headache or a cold rather than take a tablet, or go to the docs.  "It'll either clear up or I'll die," was my catchphrase.  


Well, here's irony, with my desk groaning under the weight of these pharmaceuticals, and me treating the local surgery like Michael Jackson's doctor.   I'm there nearly every day asking for stronger stuff.


And what it means is that much of the advice I have lobbed the way of my kids over the past three decades is now invalidated.   "Breakfast, most important meal of the day, dad?   Is it?   Really?   Run us through what it did for you again."


I had to sit here on Sunday, and watch my daughter Martha, home from London for the weekend, eat a Kit-Kat and a packet of crisps for breakfast, super noodles for lunch, and round off the day with a Chinese takeaway, and say nothing.   My illness has stripped me of my powers.   I am Kaiser Wilhelm in the Thirties.   Impotent.   A nominal ruler only, and this may be the cruellest cut of all.


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