The photo diary of a “hungry” NI patient who kept a record of every hospital meal

Please see a piece on Slugger O’Toole for full details.

A Northern Ireland hospital patient kept a photo diary of every hospital meal she was served during a stay in December 2015.

Her log of the (vegetarian) food provided includes details of main meals she said she found inedible, occasions when food had to be brought in by relatives and ‘no meal provided’ sections where an apparent communication issue between staff led to no vegetarian meal being ordered.

She stated that, although she had been hungry after meals, she did not complain due to lack of energy caused by her medical condition. 

See Slugger O’Toole for more details.

Sunday 6th December 

Breakfast – Rice Krispies, tea and toast

Lunch
– Vegetable burger (not eaten), reheated frozen vegetables, mashed potato and roast potato (not eaten), yogurt and apple

Dinner
– No vegetarian meal provided, didn’t eat.

Supper
– tea and toast

Monday 7th December

Breakfast – Rice Krispies, tea, toast

Lunch
– tomato soup + yogurt

Dinner
– No vegetarian meal provided, offered mashed potato, beans and cheese, with ice cream and jelly, tea

Supper
– Tea

Tuesday 8th December

Breakfast – Corn flakes, tea 

Lunch
– Tomato soup + yogurt *Fruit and potato salad brought in by family

Dinner
– No vegetarian meal provided, offered beans and chips (declined). Ate ice cream and jelly and cup of tea

Supper
– tea *fruit brought in by family

Wednesday 9th December

Breakfast – Corn Flakes, tea 

Lunch
– Cheese omelette, vegetable soup (not vegetarian – chicken stock)

Dinner
– Mashed potato, vegetables and onion tart (“I think”), ice cream, jelly, tea

Supper – tea

 
 

Thursday 10th December
Breakfast – Rice Krispies, tea 

Lunch
– pasta and cheese, orange, yogurt

Dinner – vegetarian “kiev” (“potato, flecks of vegetable and gloopy white garlic sauce…ate around the edges”), corn, mash potato and roast potato (not eaten), ice cream, jelly, tea

 
 

Random Reykjavik: ignoring the guide book in Iceland’s capital 

(Dedicated with love to Elle)

It started with a delicious breakfast Dunville’s whiskey in Belfast International Airport and the pair of us laughing like a pair of children.

I’d told a friend I was off to Iceland and my phone pinged with the response: “Aurora?”.

My reply: “Couldn’t afford to take a lap-dancer, so Elle is here instead”.

And so it continued on the easyJet flight: Elle threatened to ask the pilot to do an about-turn after seeing puffin mentioned in the in-flight magazine as an Icelandic attraction for diners as opposed to twitchers.

Impatient to arrive, a decision was made at that to spend our four days in Rehyjavik without the benefit of anything as sensible as a guide book, map, tour, hire car or anything remotely approaching a plan. We aren’t shoppers or fans of tourist pubs either so we couldn’t wait to see what else Iceland’s capital had to offer.

And it responded with plenty: from a random, remote birthday party with locals to a very long cold, heavily-layered walk to try to catch the Northern Lights.

Friday

We touched down and promised our 4am-awoken selves the 10am lunch our stomachs believed they were owed. 

And then?

– Supplies: Well, we did think about picking up food for our main street apartment but we we couldn’t wait to see the city. We did have a bottle of excellent  Northern Irish Ruby Blue vodka from the airport though.

– First impressions: Rehyjavik has the look of a fashionable, urbane city but in the morning has a strange feel due to the streets being fairly dark, the open shops keeping their lights turned low indoors. We later found that the heating inside shops is usually turned to an Equatorial setting.

– Apartment not hotel: Being January, it wasn’t expensive and meant we had our own kitchen to take a break from eating cheap stodge or very expensive non-stodge for four days. Watch out, though, as ‘kitchen’ might not include an oven. Oh, and McDonald’s left Iceland (apparently during the recession) and haven’t been back.

– Old records and vintage clothes: A bit of wandering around the city brought us to Lucky Records, a superb and huge record shop, near the centre. There are any number of vintage clothes shops too.

– Stocking-up at last: A trip to a Polish supermarket and a main street grocer meant we found out the unusual licensing laws in Iceland mean only ‘light’ beer is available from a grocery shop. The reminder comes from officially-sanctioned off-sales which seem to close at 6pm.

– No oasis for gamblers: Iceland has no casinos or bookmakers. The closest things are slot machine shops similar to the UK ‘Oasis’ arcades.

– Birthday with a difference: We met with a local I already know who kindly talked us into taking a seat in a 4×4 packed with his friends to make our way, charging over piles of show, to a party in ‘an apartment’ outside town. The apartment turned out to be a very large rental venue with a high-end band (including the birthday boy). They even played Van Morrison for us, or so we liked to think.

It was the first chance to answer the question: what do Icelanders in the capital wear at night? The guys were dressed like Conor McGregor and the girls like they have stepped out of modelling for a knitwear catalogue. Us? Shirt and jeans. my shirt even had a pocket, practically formal wear by Belfast standards.

Saturday 

– Barry Bru!: A corner shop off the main street sells the biggest collection of fizzy drinks from around the world you’ll ever see and will arrange a quick and cheap burger and chips. We spotted Irn Bru, always a welcome taste of home. Apparently the shop does a roaring trade selling can after can to hungover UK visitors.

– Flea-market: Could be a Marmite place, especially if the plentiful posh shopping is more your thing. But we chatted to  sellers of old books who were passionate about their stock and about local history, even picking up a stunning 1930s postcard which was written by a traveller to his young son at home in the North of Scotland. Vinyl is plentiful too.

– ‘Liquor store’: These are the government-approved places but watch out as they seem to close at 6pm. Again, the beer you buy in corner shops etc is light beer at around 2% alcohol. Best to stock up at the airport in any case.

– A shopping speciality: The rows of upmarket bags and boots and jackets didn’t hold our attention but the choice of local silversmith shops did. These workshop outlets have a range of unusual and beautifully-crafted items which are often made on the premises. An exception worth seeing even for non-shoppers. Our favourites were ‘Gudbrandur Josef Jezorski’ and ‘Orr’ on the main street, both had beautiful stock and were extremely friendly.

– Street art: It is stunning and it is everywhere. We saw some incredible works of art wherever we went.

– Lights the thran way: We decided to walk, layered up and faces near-covered (if we ever go for a career-change to become burglars we’ll be well-equipped) for an hour out of the street lights to try to catch the Northern Lights. After a few wrong turns around a very dark harbour – the western obsession with health and safety doesn’t seen to have reached this, a country where more than a little determined drinking can be seen being done – we found the right path and eventually the shadow of a lighthouse far from the city along the shore.

And the lights? They began just as we sat down with a hip-flask, snapped us from our enthralled viewing by fading away and then starting again with green streaks across the sky just as we stood up to leave. It was even an emotional experience to share such a remarkable phenomenon together. 
Afterwards, thrilled and giggling (“I could see some red in the lights too”, “yeah Elle, but you’re a bit peshed”), it was a joy to see the city’s streets late at night.

Sunday 

– The bells!!: Sunday morning bells in Rehykavik seem to go on for the entire, well, Sunday morning. It seems a cruel punishment for a city famous for all-night partying by the younger locals but it doesn’t seem to deter anyone.

– Breaking the rules: Well, we would have if we’d have set any rules to our ‘plan not to plan break’. So we jumped on a tour bus to feed our new-found Northern Lights addiction, this time going further from the city lights and armed with a iPhone app to capture the moment. Amused on the way by a local host (try it in a local accent…”I will tell you stories about Iceland but the truth often sounds very close to it being that I am telling lies to you”) we heard tales like the development of an app local people – many being related – can use if they meet a potential mate in a pub to check that the family lines don’t cut too close.

The guide, just outside the city, was launching into his schtick about the uncertainty of the adventure and the night of lights-hunting ahead being full of the joy of the chase when a passenger pointed and said “emm…aren’t those the lights?”. And so, the bus was hurriedly stopped to watch a remarkable display its shimmering and flicking green streaks. Simply breath-taking.

Monday 

– Force-feeding: Our local friend refused allow us to leave Iceland without trying the national dish of the crunchy, rich hot dog. The weather deteriorating fast, we were even driven to the harbour to the best spot for hot dogs to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahhh’ in delight at their moreish taste. 

– Ski hats and topcoats: Back in the (extremely) warm Keflavik airport we loved seeing the huddle of Belfast folk still hugging giant coats and ski-hatted heads making our corner of departures look like a Where’s Wally convention. We spotted a Linfield FC scarf and enjoyed reminding each other that the Icelandic for ‘yes’ sounds a lot like the Northern Ireland-owned official national shout of ‘yyyeeeoww’.

Off, then, for a look in duty free (great for local drinks and Scotch, not so much for Irish whiskey) and a flight home apparently full of Belfast travellers but few – if any – people from Iceland making the trip to Northern Ireland.

Overall, a stunning, fascinating place and not just for the headline activities of shopping, guided tours and tourist bar-crawling.

Ignoring occasionally frosty customer service, we were met with a generally friendly welcome as we took in the remarkable city of Rehykavik.

As an aside, a local friend told us few Icelandic people take advantage of the cheap Belfast flight to explore our city and we hope some day this will change: with cheaper alcohol, clubs with fewer family ties among the clientele, beautiful old pubs and relatively lax gambling laws we have much to offer.

Finally, the two big questions everyone seems to ask: how expensive was it and what to wear.

Cost: Long story short, if you rent an apartment (try to get one with an actual oven), try not to eat out, settle for junk food when possible, drink during the (long) happy hours and leave the shopping bug at home the cost won’t be much different from a trip to London.

What to wear: An easy one…a thermal layer if you are going on a tour or walking lots on a cold day, normal clothes on top and a good big coat with a hat and gloves as needed. It felt just as cold in Belfast when we arrived home as it had done for much of the time we spent wandering the city streets.

Oh, and if you want to start conversation, ask a local how Iceland discovered North America.

Thank you again, Elle, for your part in a perfect trip and random adventure. 

To readers from Iceland: we’d all love to be able to show off Belfast to more Icelandic visitors, especially since a direct flight now exists.   

You may well find that Belfast has much more to offer in 2016 than you think.

   
     

Book review – Any fool can be unhappy? The heartbreaking yet witty world of James Hannah’s Ivo 

The A – Z of You and Me by James Hannah, Transworld Publishers

It would be disservice to the author to describe how The A – Z of You and Me initially unfolds by merely saying that the opening pages take us to a patient’s hospice room.

What is more important to underline is the speed with which the sights and sounds – the very world inhabited by ‘Ivo’ – become the reader’s world, and all delivered with a striking and skilful economy of writing as Ivo unwraps and wrangles with his past.

Similarly, an image of the important characters, such as his magnificently talented and loving nurse Shiela, forms very quickly and even becomes familiar and sensory with startling speed.

This occurs through a writing style with maintains a snapping, sharp tone yet says so much in very few words. It does so with flickering observations about the slight actions of those in the world we have entered.

At times I even found myself skipping back a few paragraphs to marvel at how so much could be said in such a way and yet the story can still slice its way from dialogue to dialogue with such clarity and in such an illuminating and involving way. 

In an interview I had read with the author before buying the book, James Hannah noted that something supernatural occurs where really great writing is found, a point I’d very recently made online.

I suspected before the book was opened that we would get along well and it is certainly the case that the magic of author’s craft is at work.

We find ourselves almost living through the thoughts and actions of Ivo as he carries out an A to Z of his body parts and associated memories, tackled as a thought exercise suggested by Shiela. The task, however, dredges up difficult memories and difficult relationships along the way.

Structurally The A – Z of You and Me reminds me a little of Irvine Welsh’s darker and more free-wheeling Marabou Stork Nightmares, and thankfully the leaps from past to present are at no point anything less than completely clear and engaging.

However, it is some wonderful turns of phrase that really stand out and move the story along beautifully, raising quite a few smiles and even laughs as Ivo’s struggle with the past unfolds.
Some youthful wisdom and dry observations (“two’s company, three’s a political situation”) early in the book are especially enjoyable. And you’ll also get to discover the glorious word “doot!”. Thank you James.

The interactions between the characters are wonderfully lively and rich with real depth brought to every interaction.

In particular, the relationships between Ivo and Sheila – who dispenses such wisdom “any fool can be unhappy” – and ex-girlfriend Mia are fascinating: they are the two people who seem to seem to bring to him the greatest love and have the greatest effect on his morose nature. “It’s nice when people presume I’m nice, it makes me nice”, he observes in response to kindness from Sheila yet recalls when his “mind searches for emotional response, comes back blank” at one point in his life prior to becoming a hospice patient.

One relationship does seem to help Ivo’s levels of empathy and emotion find a way the surface early in the book when he talks with a patient’s daughter aged in her late teens. We see a new side of him; a glimpse of new potential for himself and for others as well a capability for communication which is perhaps being aired for the first ever time.

Whether these characters manage to embrace or educate away his emotional insecurities and immaturity, as well as help Ivo see what they see in Ivo, remains for the reader to discover. However, in our current age of ‘talking therapies’ and awareness I found myself screaming for someone to tend to the character’s mental health as much as his physical health. In 2016 you’d hope someone as tortured by the past and ill-equipped to process its events unaided would have been given help and support on this front before he reached the hospice door. 

Where the responsibly fell between Ivo himself to find help and others to recognise (and be capable of recognising) the need is another point, as his self-perpetuated emotionally dulled state seems perhaps an easier medical puzzle to treat earlier in his life than the present, critical physical situation.

In short: if “any fool can be unhappy”, who is responsible for helping with the fool’s unhappiness and to what extent?
Two small observations from an ordinary reader: the writing arguably loses its flavour in the very closing pages – but not in any serious way – with an ending that may push your belief in what was practical and likely, especially if you are very rationally-minded.

In addition, the complexity of the book, which has a wonderful clarity overall, does increase a little towards the end. This may also be a matter of taste.

How you feel about the direction the book takes as the tale unfolds will depend how you feel about the power of a loving environment in the present to help a person reconcile the past and the methods of doing so used.

A point worth noting is that the book feels like an outstanding account of the priceless nature of nursing, especially when carried out in the deeply-talented and devoted way shown by Shiela.

It would be worth reading for this alone, however the sharp writing, snapping pace, readability and immersive, gripping world are among the further reasons.

You may not return from the the world James Hannah has created without some lingering questions for yourself about our emotions, our relationships and our past and, of course, a visit to a hospice room is never going to be entirely easy.

But while you are there you will experience a story laced with a tactile richness, a clarity and sharp turn of phrase that will leave you very glad you took the time to call by.

And the heartbreaking power of the book could even be further underlined in the future: if you ever seen a crocheted heart or ‘yarn-bomb’ in a tree, even years from now, it may stop you in your tracks and take you back to your time immersed at Ivo’s bedside 

What did you learn from your partner in 2015?

I don’t have any resolutions for 2016, and my endless thanks go to my partner Elle – who is my inspiration and constant supporter in life – for that fact. Aside from some rough goals we like to recognise the ways of thinking worth taking forward and then see where the new year will take us. We can’t wait.

What would your list for 2015 look like? Yours might be very different, but here are some thoughts about the year we’ll be bringing into 2016:

– Plan not to plan: For us, the best laid plans are easily distracted (“squirrel!!!”), so we don’t bother any more. Spontaneity and an eye for something random tend to work better. 

– The best things in life really are free: A random adventure might turn out to be brilliant or a damp squib, but how many days spent in a shopping centre will you remember years from now? We almost never buy expensive presents or have any temptation to ‘upscale’ our lives (which is a way, in our humble view, of mortgaging ourselves against future changes). For us, shopping bags are for books and movies. After that we become bored.

– Nothing more valuable than time: We like to use money to create time for ourselves, not more money. One is more valuable than the other.

– No dress codes ever: Life’s too short.

– Look for the soulful: We live near Belfast, a stunning city. Not everyone sees the place this way but with a little looking the city has a great deal of heart and soul (and fun too). 

– Don’t say or imply ‘should’: To anyone.

– Don’t make me happy: Our happiness, we find, is our own responsibility to find, communicate and help each other with. It is down us to do these things. We can only make each other ‘happier’, not make each other happy in the first place. This approach really works for us.

– Do the things we’ve always wanted: The words, said in passing, “I always wanted to…” are a huge green light. Is it a bad idea? Maybe. Better to do it and know the outcome than spend ten times as long wondering. We can always laugh about it afterwards either way.

This was our 2015, the year of a lifetime. 

Here’s to your 2016.

*Dedicated, with love, to Elle