I had been preparing for the next stage of my thyroid cancer treatment for weeks with a low-iodine diet and the withdrawal of my Liothyronine and eventually – as was intended all along – ended up hypothyroid (a condition caused by the lack of thyroxine in your body) And along with the physical side to what happens when your hormones go AWOL and your metabolism melts-down, also came a sense of melancholia and desire for solitude which many creative folk often seek out voluntarily and learn to deal with as part of their armour. I prefer the word ‘armour’ to ‘make-up’ to describe things here, because it’s often forgotten that many Artists along with being ‘sensitive souls’ are also often hard and resilient bastards because of the unhealthy amount of time they spend on their own overcoming rejection or failure, dealing with the crisis in confidence that often follows, and yet still managing somehow to continue to dream and think the unthinkable. Add to all this angst/artists in torment stuff a general lack of mental focus, the fact that I wasn’t allowed to eat crisps, cheese or seafood (because of my low-iodine diet) was existing in a state of permanent fatigue, had blurred vision and that whenever I actually did look into a mirror or at a camera, what I saw staring back at me was a physically grey, grumpy old fucker then you probably wouldn’t really want to get the whole picture anyhow. Thankfully though alcohol was still permitted during my special diet, and I can safely say that under the circumstances I probably owe more to drinking a few lagers than I do to any attempts to embrace the dubious powers of positive thinking, or the kind of wonky feel-good management theories and snake-oil self-help therapies that are become all to prevalent in the ‘creative industries’ (whatever they are). The clinical logic behind what was happening was simple: Starve the remaining thyroid cells (cancerous or otherwise) of the one thing they crave: iodine and then trick, cheat and zap them with a single-shot, iodine rich, radioactive pill (iodine 131) that’s about the same size as an antibiotic or small bullet. The radiation over the days and months that follows, then sets about destroying any thyroid cells left, while leaving everything else and also everyone else around me unharmed by it.
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Beat-up in the Beatson
When treatment day finally arrived at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer centre, it was handled professionally and in a typically understated Glaswegian fashion by a nurse and radiologist who having removed my iodine 131 pill from a steel container with a radiation warning sign on it – and she did emphasise the fact that it was my pill – a pill that I was entitled to because that’s why we pay our National Insurance-to support an NHS service and not fund another colonial war; placed it in a plastic tube in front of me, stood back behind a lead radiation shield and watched from a safe distance as the medicine I’d been preparing for went down. Job-done: “Nae playing with yersel’ – because we’re watching you on CCTV – And naw! – You’s will nae’ glow in the dark – or turn into the incredible Hulk in case yer asking” For the next 24 hours I was allowed no visitors apart from the medics who came and went to check-up and feed me from a safe distance, or who sat watching me via the Big brother CCTV camera installed in the room, while monitoring the radiation levels from the Geiger counter/sensor that was suspended on the ceiling above my bed, which would over the next 48 hours be naturally wasted down a toilet (which I was instructed to always flush twice after use) The isolation room itself had been especially constructed for this kind of treatment and some attempts had been made to make it seem less like a cell with a small window and more like a room in a budget Travel Lodge. Also in the room were a premium-rate phone-line which – just like in a Travel Lodge – wasn’t working properly and that only allowed for incoming calls at a city-banker bonus rate (just a small example of New Labour’s sneaky-backdoor NHS privatization for you at its worst) While to keep me entertained, there was also a TV with a Free/next-to-fuckall to-view/box attached to it and a library of irradiated books and DvD’s left behind by the room’s previous occupants, who (judging by the number of copies) had either been on some kind of a spiritual quest while undergoing RAI therapy that involved reading DaVinci Code novels, or alternatively were trying to catch an adrenaline buzz from reading Andy McNab’s SAS bang-bang pulps; While in-between cracking secret papal codes, discovering what Opus Dei is all about, or learning how to kill Arabs with your bare hands with Britain’s finest, it seemed that many of my fellow-patients had also in the past been more than happy to pass their time watching eye-candy Hollywood romances and geek comedies on the DvD player.
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Container for Iodine 131 apparently
There was a simple rule for all who came into the room for treatment: Whatever you took in with you, you didn’t take out, so in that respect we would all leave a physical as well as a radioactive trace in the room behind us when we left.The same rule obviously also applied to Notebooks, pencils and paper, Go-Pro cameras, laptops and mobile devices. My original idea had been to buy the boxed set of Breaking Bad but in the end cost rather than my sense of humour and sick optimism, prevented me from doing so; Instead I opted for a new film: A Field in England and a copy of an old film that had a huge impact on me when I’d first seen it as an art student in Maidstone back in the 1980’s and was possibly part of the reason why I ended up pursuing some of the things I have done as a war-film-peace-maker. Briefly A Field in England followed 4 geezers dressed-up in period costume (something all actors like doing) as Cavaliers and Roundheads, who find themselves in a field together after deserting a battle during the English Civil War.They then set about getting whacked on magic mushrooms, sing crazy songs, treat their syphilis with herbal remedies and dig a hole in search of Templar gold, before eventually killing each other – after a bit of Witchfinder General occultism and shamanism has also been thrown-into the mix. In the end it was all a bit like watching an occultish version of Danis Tanovic’s: ‘No Man’s Land’ set in a field somewhere in Norfolk or Essex, instead of on a battlefield in Bosnia during the 1990’s.
The copy of the Deer Hunter had been given to me by my son (Danny) and it came out of my former family home’s DVD collection. Setting aside the argument about whether it’s a left or right-wing propaganda movie, the Russian roulette sequences still stand as an example of what cinema can be at its visceral best, creating a powerful allegory about the horror and absurdity of war that’s missing from Catherine Bigelow’s recent films set in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I sat and watched it for the first time in many years, isolated from the world, in the room, the radioactive pill also started to have an effect: A One shot, One pill deal they told me – I’m watching a game of Russian roulette: The Vietcong are forcing their American captives to play and are taking bets on who’ll die first. Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) traumatized and shell-shocked are being forced to play a deadly game by their captors, while their injured friend Steven (John Savage) is outside dying in a cage of water that’s filled with hungry rats – one shot – one bullet – one pill – Michael bullies and eventually forces Nick to pull the trigger if he wants to live and help save Steven – click – Nick grins manically, obsessively – I’ve taken a pill – a one shot deal – would it work? Michael ups the stakes with his captives, hangs tougher than they do and demands more bullets for the game in the gun – The Vietcong reluctantly agree – What happens if it – the pill that is – doesn’t work? What can go wrong – either now or in the future? Nick puts the gun to his head – click – the Vietcong laugh they know Michael’s a dead man now – Michael forces a pretend smile, laughs and tells his captives to go fuck themselves – He holds the gun to his head gets ready to pull the trigger – Heat and stale air, the effects of mild radiation-sickness kicking in – blinding headaches, closing my eyes re-running scenes – Was I actually watching the Deer Hunter again, or was I now just dreaming about seeing it? Repeating – one shot – A throbbing head, helicopter noises from the Deer Hunter on the TV and outside the room voices, my neck swelling-up – symptoms I was told to expect – One gun – A single bullet – Michal holds the gun to his head he knows he’s as good as dead anyway – he quickly turns the gun onto his captives, shooting his Vietcong torturer, a slaughter follows in a hail of machine gun fire – The 3 friends escape down the river – I’m drinking a lot of fluid now to help sweat and piss-out the radioactivity, flushing the toilet twice, as I was told like a model patient – The 3 comrades are separated and their paths are followed in the next part of the film as Michael searches for his lost friends. Steven he finds in a wheelchair playing Bingo in a veterans hospital in Washington DC and Michael forces him to go back home to his family where he belongs. Michael himself can’t fit back into normal life as he’s suffering from PTSD – Nick meanwhile is missing in action, presumed dead, until the film’s final act – Saigon is in chaos and the Americans are pulling out (they’ve let’s face it lost the war) – Michael eventually finds Nick and tries talking/reaching out to his now heroin addict friend, who no longer recognizes him and spits in his face. Michael buys his way into a Russian roulette game with Nick at a high price – his life not just the dollars he’s paid to take part – He puts the gun to his head says he loves his friend – click – silence – He talks to Nick – A different dimension now cinema/room/radiation/dream time – Nick briefly thinks he recognizes Michael but it’s too late – he pulls the trigger – He’s wearing a red bandana, his blood seeps out – The toilet again, I flush twice, piss, sweat, shit – Early in the film after the wedding sequence – a naked Robert DeNiro is seen running through the Pittsburgh streets and talks to Nick about their chances of survival: One Shot it’s all you get – This is this – all you get – one bullet – One pill – One shot – Fast forward De Niro/Michael/The Deer Hunter sets his rifle’s sight on a Stag – a big beast – a Monarch of the Glen – He lifts his gun into the air, fires a bullet – one shot – looks at the still living and breathing Deer, which earlier in the film we see him kill – says: OK!! Futility – Life’s more important. The message I got from experiencing the Deer Hunter in the radioactive room, was the same one that an idealistic young video art student got who was trying to look at the world differently and search for experiences and adventures in life more than 30 years earlier got: War’s always a gamble – a human abattoir – like a game of Russian Roulette and yet it still has a strange attraction for many of us and some people over time become not just traumatized by it but also addicted to it. And even if you think that the Deer Hunter either ends with a muddled, patriotic and jingoistic message (Jane Fonda accused the film and the Director Michael Cimino of fascism) or with the kind of ironic understatement about the futility of war that’s lost on Hollywood and the New World Order (they all sing very badly ‘God Bless America’ after Nick’s funeral) you are – either way – still left with those Russian Roulette sequences.The headaches passed as the effects of the radiation began to wear off and the levels in the room soon became safe enough for friends to visit with the kind of iodine-rich junk food which I craved and that had been banned from my diet over the previous weeks. In the days that followed, the radiation levels continued to fall, until eventually the radiologist came back in and told me I could go home, leaving behind me forever an irradiated copy of a film that I don’t think I’ll ever want or need to watch ever again.
In the week that followed RAI therapy I pretty much adopted the same 3 foot rule we often apply to documentary making when filming other people, to my own life, keeping a metre/arms length distance from those close to me and avoiding all intimacy until the risk from radiation had finally dropped to a low enough level for me to touch people again, visit Glasgow pubs and Indian restaurants, before finally heading back across the North/Nordic Sea without risking setting off the radiation sensors at the airport (it has happened before apparently in the US) Which brings me to the one other object I’d taken into the room with me and left behind and which – as it turned out – I didn’t have the time to tackle while in the room; A copy of an audio CD: Learn Danish in 1 hour. All I do know is that if any future occupants of the room do decide to tackle it, they too will soon discover that the hour that it takes to learn Danish in, is in fact the hour’s duration of the actual course on the CD, which has to be stopped, started and continually repeated, rather than the hour it claims it will take you to miraculously Learn Danish in. It’s a difficult language – even harder for someone with bomb-thinned ears like me – and the closest parallel I can find for anyone who like me has a secondary modern school education, who speaks with an Estuary English accent (despite living in Glasgow for 30 odd years) and who just about scraped through their English O’ level, is with the medieval English you encounter when you first read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Although I intend to make a serious effort to learn Danish once my treatment is completed (I am loathed to use such a word as: cured here) I get the feeling that even if I do get a handle on the spoken word (which I can guarantee would take even a quantum physicist let alone me – more than 1 hour to master!) I already know that like many who may have tried before me, that I will still find myself excluded from a lot of what’s happening in the land of milk and honey. Because even though most Danes speak Americanized English and the TV schedule here is heavily polluted with subtitled Americana, English-language life-style programmes (food porn mostly – brought at some Doco-market by the refuse skip load) repeats of Taggart (which is the real influence behind Nordic Noir btw) and endless Nazi-Night archive documentaries that are voiced by some of England’s ‘national treasures’; That the real key to getting on in Film or TV here is not talent, skill or the money you will need to bring to the table as a migrant film-maker – which any Danish Producers will gladly and quite rightly take even if they don’t need it – but a mastery of a language that they live in and which creates their homeland and which defines them and their culture as Danes and you or I as outsiders.
As the weeks now turn into months since my RAI 131 therapy and the radiation continues to do its work, I’m once again riding my bike around a city that’s now as close as I have to a home – given what’s happened. Because increasingly as my treatment has gone on, it’s made me aware that although I may have physically moved my material possessions across the Nordic sea, I’ve not really left Glasgow yet nor have I truly landed in Copenhagen. Home I’ve learnt in between hospital stays, spare-bed surfing and recovery with the many wonderful friends and family I have around me, really is a place in your emotional DNA as much as it is a physical or psycho-geographical space that you inhabit, or the soil that you stand on, or the language that you find yourself living-or in my case – trying to live in. And a Safe European Home is certainly not just an address that can be found on the electoral roll, in a medical record, on a driving license or in a late tax-return. Because although I still do have a Scottish address I am now to all intensive purposes in the eyes of the UK state homeless, having given up my own flat a few days before I received my diagnosis last Autumn and starting out on a journey that I’ve been on ever since. My old flat in White St, Partick became known by all who stayed there, as the ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sheltering as it did over the years too many broken hearts, a failed asylum seeker from the Congo, a former Peshmerga fighter with PTSD, at least one ex-heroin addict, a Berlin Bear winning film director, several opportunistic lazy, wee shite-bags who will make big names for themselves as Film Director’s some day and a starry-eyed, American intern with our former production company, who’s Mother had sent him over from Montana to Glasgow to chase (or more often than not lose) girls and realize like all of us his dreams and worst nightmares in the film and TV business. All I can say to all of them is that the ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ lived up to its name right up until I finally handed the key back to the Housing Association – 2 days before I was diagnosed.
Living up in the air over the North/Nordic Sea, I know that at least I have the chance to create a place for myself in a different country (unlike the many sad and desperate African, Middle-Eastern and Eastern Europeans I see here in Copenhagen every-day, collecting the empty beer cans by the lakeside) and that I’m not so much (as they are) a homeless migrant (and I certainly don’t consider myself an ex-pat – an empirical term I despise – because people like Vinnie Jones are ex-pats!) but instead see myself as existing currently in a state of permanent ‘homelessness’: A condition that’s more nomadic than migrant. It’s something that I need to come to terms with before I can move life on and get on with doing the things that use to matter before all this happened. And along with learning a new language ( a 3-year-old could learn it faster than me!) I also have a strong desire to re-invent and reclaim film-making for myself and find the passion and magic that was in it once-upon-a-time, and which I saw in films like the Deer Hunter as an idealistic, thrill seeking, risk-taking art student. But before all that serious stuff takes over I’m heading back to Scotland in late May to (hopefully) chase and surf the Spring waves of the Atlantic and North Sea and what’s more this time at least with no hospital visits, until my next scan and assessment in late June/July – 6 months on from my RAI 131 therapy, my time in the room and watching The Deer Hunter for the last time ever – to find out if the one shot – the one pill – has done its job as intend. Finally if there’s anyone who’s stuck with reading this post, who might themselves also be facing RAI 131 therapy in the room at the Beatson, my advice is: Don’t worry – you’re in good hands – only don’t bother taking in a copy of the DaVinci code, or any Andy McNab novels nor any of those good, bad and easily forgettable pirated Hollywood films from the Barras that you’ve seen countless times already. And if you happen to come across a bonkers arty-film called A Field in England, or a copy of The Deer Hunter and are wondering just who the hell in their right mind would really want to learn Danish in an hour anyhow – well – you have an answer.
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