Home » 'Impossible things' » Strangers in the night and other stories

Strangers in the night and other stories

I read this morning that, while I drunkenly slumbered, nightowls were out and about photographing a spectacular display of the Northern Lights over, er, northern Britain.

The phenomenon (notice, I know that ‘phenomenon‘ is the singular form of the word – you probably don’t – while ‘phenomena’ is the title of a 2014 film starring Dame Judy Dench) of the Northern Lights is caused by ionisation in the upper atmosphere of particles charged by a massive solar storm.

Solar storms as we know can severely disrupt electronic communications.

This probably explains why, when I powered up my li’l laptop thing just now, instead of the Home Page it opened directly into a small window containing Internet Explorer. I’ve never used Internet Explorer as my browser before, but here is its wee icon, pinned to the taskbar where Firefox should be, instead of over on the far end along with stuff I don’t know about.

Was I really that drunk? No, not really, just a well-chilled bottle of Mr Morrison’s finest unoaked Chilean Chardonnay’s worth.

And I recalled that on a similar damp and rainy morning last week, I came down and raised the lid of my li’l silver Asus with the vanishing keyboard letters, only to find it was running the abhorrent  BBC Breakfast TV show, live. I certainly had not asked it to; the machine is set to go to sleep after 20 minutes, and to shut itself down after an hour. But there was no sound!

And how on many such damp and rainy mornings – there are no longer any other kind – there have been mystery format changes in the night; so that I can close a tab at midnight and when I open it in the morning, the window reappears at a different size, or with a different resolution.

Yet I am the only one living here, and I lock The Little House on the Prairie (my garden room)  at night. The only one who has access through the half-open window is Mogwai, my most excellent cat. Surely not?

Do computers secretly watch TV while we sleep? (I have heard this morning, 9 March, of the spectacular conquest of the Go! master, Lee se-Dol, by Google’s DeepMind Alpha program. This historic feat of Artificial Intelligence design will go down in machine history as the night that spelled the end of the dominance of the human race.)

Is GCHQ/NSA reading my thoughts?

Or are there ghosts in the machine?

It’s time we knew.


As time goes by

Toothache. Gnyaaa!

I’ve been avoiding going to the dentist for the past four years. A walk through my mouth would be like stumbling through a rocky gorge. Broken cusps, missing crowns, a curious spike where he prepped me for a new crown, only I missed two appointments in a row and couldn’t face going back. The one molar I have left that still makes contact with one below, broken and missing its old filling, that fell out piece by piece; but I could still chew with it.

And my magnificent bridge, spanning six top front teeth with a single porcelain smile. It’s one of the bridge engineering Wonders of the World.

I think the ache is an abscess under one of the old teeth it’s fixed to, I can’t be certain, the pain is quite general and moves around. It would be devastating if I lost my bridge. For a start, it cost £3,000. And for seconds, I would have to give up acting, and being a jazz singer. Fitted with a set of plastic gnashers on a plate, grinning inanely out of a glass by the bed, I would lose the will to live. To be honest, I haven’t got a lot of that left as it is.

My front teeth died long ago. I was 14. I braked stupidly to avoid a car I thought was turning onto the hill in front of me and flew over the handlebars, landing on my face. After that, I had a succession of caps and crowns until, over 40 years later, I bit hungrily into a toasted Pannini in a motorway service station. It had been overcooked to the consistency of hot, gooey ham and cheese oozing between two sheets of plywood, and it drove both my front incisors and their crown posts through into my upper jaw.

Did I sue? No, I didn’t want the poor dumb country girl who was all alone in the cafeteria that night to lose her job. I’m pretty stupid, to be honest. I stumbled out into the car park, clutching my aching face, and drove 80 miles home in misery. Not long after, the service station changed owners and that was the opportunity, gone.

The next day, the dentist extracted the wreckage and fitted me with an emergency pink plastic plate with two absurd little white fangs on the front. I put it in, and promptly threw up. You’ll get used to it, he said. I never did. I threw it away, and for two years kept my edentulous gob firmly shut.

I used the time to campaign to be allowed to have dental implants on the NHS. I got as far as the Health Minister, who wrote me a long and weaselly letter saying why she refused to fund my ‘cosmetic dentistry’. I argued in vain that it was not cosmetic; the NHS Act provides specifically for repairs to teeth lost through trauma. It was complicated, as I lived in one health board area, and my dentist was in another. In the end, my dentist wrote to me to ask me to stop, as he was being bombarded with requests for information.

Look, he said (he’s Polish, you need the accent). I worked in a dental implant surgery for three years. Believe me, you don’t want to go this route. You could end up spending twenty thousand pounds on implants and they still might fail.

And he had worked out this clever piece of engineering instead, and for £3,000 he built the Golden Gate bridge across my smile.

And now it’s hurting.

Why have I never gone back? You know, I bought some resin compound you can use to fill your own teeth when your fillings fall out while you are exploring in the Mato Grosso, and the nearest dentist is a naked man with pliers and a bottle of Arak. I never used it. I was scared that if I filled my hollow molar myself I would sometime have to go back to the dentist and he would be angry with me. Anyway, so much could go wrong working that far back in my mouth. And now I just know they will yank it out, and my eating days will be over. Soup for lunch.

After I missed the second appointment, I just knew I couldn’t go back.

It was the memory of having my face invaded, week after week, driving forty miles and settling on the couch and my mouth filling with clamps and drills and fingers, God-knows what else, the endless x-rays, the stench of burning tooth enamel and polymers, the taste of blood and the pain as he cauterised my gum; carving and filing the old teeth daringly down into tiny, fragile needles (what if one broke?), building-up new ones; testing one version after another for size and fit; having a camera frequently shoved in my mouth, my lips held apart by a clamp, like a chimpanzee grinning, to record in detail the marvellous process, stage by stage.

Building that bridge took four months, until it was finished and he started on the next one, to give me new molars to chew with; and after the first session I missed one appointment, then another.

Of course I had no intention of missing those appointments, it just happened. I knew I couldn’t go back after that; I felt violated. And as time went by, and miraculously everything held, even as my old molars groaned and cracked under the strain of my gluttony, I knew I wouldn’t ever go back. All kinds of things had been going off at that time: my girlfriend dumped me for another woman, my father died, I was facing redundancy, living in increasingly difficult conditions as the house I worked in became a building-site, looking for somewhere else to live, another job… (I still haven’t found one. It’s been eight years.).

I’ve developed a psychological aversion to dentistry.

Until this morning, and I am in a terrible quandary. Living alone, you have no-one to tell you not to be so feckin’ silly. But should I find somewhere new and register? And can I face the looks I will get as they stumble through the arroyo, calling out derisive geological notes about my crumbling and missing boulders to the disbelieving nurse?

Gnyaaaa. Toothache.


This morning the pain has migrated to my head. Touch wood, the teeth are behaving okay again. I think rather than an abscess, I’ve got some kind of viral infection leading to a generalised neuralgia. Praise be.

Weirdly, I think my head is getting bigger with age. I lie in bed, cradling the side of my head in one hand, and it feels so massive here on the pillow. My hand cannot contain it all. It’s like Mount Rushmore. How will my neck ever bear the weight of it?


The end of an ear-a

So, farewell then, Sir George Martin.

You were the first producer, I believe, to make sound recording an integral part of the creative process of making music.

Before you, recording had been only about achieving the best possible sound quality that reflected the performance. After you, recording artists could be as lousy as they liked: as the technological possibilities of multitracking, synthesising and digital effects grew, the studio producer would always pull the rabbit from the hat.

So many have you to be thankful for.

But hasn’t it been an extraordinary year of attrition for the artistic movers and shakers of the 1960s? Gone too this week is the conductor who did so much to popularise the classics, Nicholas de Arnancourt. Chirpy TV conjuror and gameshow host, Paul Daniels has a brain tumour and has gone home to die. Rolling Stones’ bassist, Bill Wyman, has announced that he has prostate cancer. Nancy Reagan has gone to the great Western B-movie lot in the sky.

I find there is some comfort in failure.




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