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On vomiting

I am recently recovered from 24 hours of hideousness: food poisoning courtesy of an oyster that I was foolish to leave in the fridge for three days prior to consumption. Like I wanted to kill myself?

I vomited 17 times. The gaps varied between 10 minutes and an hour. And then it started to come out of the other end too.

Having a delicate stomach I know the score and grabbed a pillow to kneel on over the toilet bowl. Knowing the score I had a hand towel ready to absorb the copious sweat.

I got over the worst of it eventually with help from medication. This time it was pills. I’ve needed an injection before.

Where did my voice go though? And my ribs hurt. I daren’t cough.

In the middle of this I made my GP laugh, female, has a young family. I was sitting there hoping not to be sick with one of those papier-mache sick bowls. She asked if I had a fever. I said that after a few minutes of retching I built up a sweat and collapsed in exhaustion … ‘I guess it’s the way a woman feels during childbirth.’

As I’m writing all my waking hours, when not being sick, I have been writing up how it feels to vomit like that. So something good came from it. I can now have a character die from poisoning, or maybe I can have a shot at describing a difficult labour? Or transmogrification from man to half-beast?

Robbie and Juliet share digs in second floor flat in Willesden. He’s in his fourth year doing an MA in Fine art at St.Martins. She’s five years behind him hoping to get onto a foundation year. They met through Robbie’s kid sister. They call themselves a couple. They’re both in bed, but not for long.

Robbie knows what’s up, as he gets out of bed, snatches at a pillow and heads for the bathroom. He drops the pillow in front of the toilet, drops to his knees and drops his hands either side of the seat. A series of uncontrollable gut wrenching tugs at his insides follow. He is sick in short spasms as if a shark hook is caught in his stomach, each tug he hopes will turn him inside out and open gates to the poison that swills inside him. Each tug might pull him through the brick outer wall, through the trees around the side of the garden and deposit him like a freshly caught lumpsucker fish on the neighbour’s tiled roof. His determined body, when it fails to rid itself of anything at all, tries with even greater and greater force producing little more than Copydex sputum and flat-beer froth. Exhausted, one more blast and like a bucket of slops thrown from a 15th century window into the street below he empties slurry into the U-bend. Feeling relieved, though washed out Robbie flails about for something to clear his nose and wipe his mouth. Juliet appears with a hand towel, and as he remembers his mother doing, she mops the sweat from his brow. It’s the nicest thing she’s done for him. They’ve only been seeing each other for a week.

He doesn’t need to say it: it is written on Robbie’s face. Maybe the oysters and champagne Juliet had brought round to seduce him hadn’t been such a good idea.

‘I hope you’re getting this. I would.’

Juliet looks at her idol aghast as back in his bedroom he points at her art materials.

‘From life, as it is. Bloke vomiting. Has to be a first. It’ll be something to talk about at your interview. If you get one.’

Robbie returns to bed where, in a dressing gown and under a duvet with an extra blanket he shivers from exhaustion and cold. He lies legs crossed and arms over his chest as if in a coffin, the only way he feels able to hold himself together, concentrating on one thing – if he can clear his head, he may fall asleep, and may not be sick again for half an hour.

‘Draw this. Man dying. You’re always criticising me because I won’t keep still.’

Robbie sick 17 times in all over a 12 hour period, the hideousness of these extractions feel as if a gnarled hand has gone done his throat and is pulling him inside out which is just about what Juliet draws.’

Collapsed after every one of these sessions I felt like a three-year old in a playpen.

Helpless. Entering the GP surgery I shook with tears for just a few moments with a sudden sense of my mortality. Death doesn’t bother me so much as how I go. Not in a fit of vomiting, or drowning, or burning. Sleep, even if drug induced will do.

Time to move to Belgium?


Death in the Ypres salient

Had the public seen, and seen repeatedly, what death looked like between 1914 and 1918 perhaps the public outcry would have brought it to an early end. Or not. The dead then are the cartridge empties of today. Beyond comprehending the opportunities of open learning and the theory behind the processes that occur we as ‘educators’ still need to deliver content, to create an event, put on a show, get attention, set the tone for a programme of work. Martin Weller thinks that being media savvy is to add some downloaded graphics or snapshots to a slide, actually, the art and skill of communication as anyone in advertising will tell you is far more able to leave an impression. Making a bar of soap interesting is a challenge, making war interesting should be easy so long as you stick to what attracts interest: fighting and death. Three decades listening to my grandfather and I can only now take on board what it must have been like to be stuck, repeatedly, in a confined space, in harms way, with a buddy or two at your side, horribly wounded and slowly dying. 75 years after these events my grandfather returned to the very spot where this occurred and he broke down to think how they died, and why they died and the lives they never had but deserved, let along the wife and kids one left behind. He never recovered from that trip and died himself a few months later – it was as if death had touched him to the soul and after 97 years he could put it off no longer. The art of George Leroux comes to mind – horrific, gutsy, ante-war, hell on earth.

Tutor Marked Assignment Blues

It doesn’t get any better.I thought I was on top of this by now, like riding a bike, but you don’t really know what kind of a beast you have a hold of until you tackle it. All the more reason to get an early draft written and give yourself a week or two to work on it. This would have been fine but the entire process leading up to H818 TMA1 has been to expand, share, search, explore … and so it went on until like the incredible stretching man my arms reached west to Dublin and east to the Urals. Part One had a work count limit of 1500. My first draft came in at 4,600. I hacked this down by 50% then did the wise thing and began again from scratch working on the basis they I had some juicy content in my head, I just needed to focus.

A mind map with a mere 7 links on it did the job. 200 words for each and 100 words to share across an introduction and conclusion … sort of.

I’d references the longer version in my enthusiasm so had to unpick that – there is only one thing worse than missing out a lot of references, is referencing a lof of stuff that is no longer there.

Then part two.

For reasons only known to the OU IT team I couldn’t zip two documents on my Mac so emailed the documents to my wife – I am sitting at her laptop now. The period between sending these files from my office 11 miles away and cooking supper (I do) gave me a chance to dwell on a sentence regarding part two

Students are encouraged to be bold and innovative in setting forth a project proposal.

A breathing space, a chance to reflect, a deadline fast being overdue … so I went for it. Controversy gets attention. So does death. This has both. And if I play my cards right I’ll need to find an actor, dress him up, get some make up then film them in their final moments.

Johnny got his gun


Few films have left me so moved and shocked. I saw this film in passing, perhaps twice when I was in my teens. Half-hearted attempts to give it a name failed until I clicked through an IMDB list this morning. It is gripping, moving and wonderfully told. You can never again lie awake in bed at night and not imagine how you would cope with such a nightmare. It poses so many questions about what it means to be alive, violent conflict, war, nursing and treatment and the right to live or die – even the 21st century question of what defines ‘to be alive’ and ways today to communicate through brain wave activity when there is nothing else to monitor. This should be seen by anyone with an interest in the First World War alongside documentaries, thrillers, romances and comedy about conflict on this scale. Indeed if you have an interest in any conflict that results in lasting, significant maiming without death then this is a story to read and view. It questions what it means to be alive and whether we or others have a position when it comes to letting us live or die.

An odd poster which totally misrepresents the story. Without arms or legs, without any senes at all or ways to communicate – yet aware and able to feel the sun on what is left of his face.

Henry Gartendfeld & Dick Piper R.I.P OCT 1917


Fig.1. North of Poelcappelle approaching Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917.

(This action takes places around the pill boxes of Egypt House, a three compartment German concrete block house and Courage Post. It was becoming chilly – 13 C, and was overcast with a little rain).

When I arrived at the pill box (Courage Post) there were four of them.

‘Gartenfeld’s head was split right down the middle as if he’d been hit with an axe’.

They’d dragged him out round the side.

(Henry Godliph Gartenfeld died on Monday the 22nd October 1917)

Dick Piper was in the pill box.

‘Dick must have been standing with his head ducked down just outside the pill box’.

A piece of shrapnel had dented his helmet, scraped his face and gone into his guts.

Blair had dragged him into one corner of this pill box and put him on his trench coat. When I found him he had a sandbag tucked up under his legs so that his knees were up over his elbow.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked and took a look.

His guts were hanging out all over the place.

“How are things?” I asked Dick.

“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”

So I packed another sandbag under his legs to stop his guts falling out.

You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use.

He died some time in the afternoon.

I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up; that’s what you did. They were easier to move like that. I got his pay book and credentials, dragged him out of the pill box and covered him up with some bits of rubble – whatever I could find. That’s all you could do. Imagine – having to bury your friends like that.


Dick Piper was 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there.

He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Another one who died on the 22nd October 1917. His body was never found. I knew the spot though. It broke my heart to stand there 90 years on, dwelling on the lives they had missed, their families and how they had died like that all those years ago.

Such a waste.

Fig.2.  August 1992. Mr John A Wilson MM ‘Jack’ – recalling events north of Ypres on the Passchendaele Salient. He marked the spot where Henry Gartenfeld and Dick Piper died. He was a corporal in charge of two guns, one in a pill box constructed against Egypt Farm, known as Egypt House, the second called ‘Courage Post’.

Further north there were the remnants of the Belgium army … there had been this attack to try and get this forest. It was doomed to failure from the start.

The beastliness of rotting bodies – July 1916

There was this occasion I was brewing up some tea in this dug-out.

I’d set up a bit of a fire with a couple of bricks and a canteen. You used your bayonet to scrape off a few shavings so that you didn’t make any smoke.

There was this dreadful smell

I pushed my bayonet into the soil and there’s a body. I don’t know if it was a Jerry or one of ours. I was burning a hole into their stomach


Single postcard depicting four ghastly images. Ca. 1916

Another one, at the Briqueterie – a whizz-bang went straight through a signaller called Walters – he was a range finder. Just ripped him apart. It was a dud otherwise there’d have been nothing left of him.

I turned twenty out on the Somme in August 1916

There was no day to remember though. You never knew whether it was Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

When they started the war, Jerry had those helmets with a brass peak.

One day I saw this spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench and I thought it would make a nice souvenir. I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get a hold of it. My fingers came away with the skin and hair and all the rest of it. Another time I had the helmet in my hands only to find there was a skull inside it.

We went swimming in the Somme when we were out of the line at Happy Valley.

We were taking over the line from the French bit by bit. About a mile at a time. We were at the extreme south of the line towards Caix and Peronne.

I remember these French soldiers pointing at me and having a bit of a laugh at my expense.

“Petit soldat,” they were saying. ‘Boy soldier.’

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