Wednesday, May 06, 2015

the last post

So that’s it!

Nine years and one thousand posts later, I’m writing my last item as Spence Kennedy.

When I started Siren Voices I had no other ambition than to make a diary record of the people and situations I found myself in, to report what happened each time as sympathetically and non-judgementally as I could, and most importantly, to get myself into a routine of writing.

For a long time no-one outside the family read the blog, which wasn’t surprising, because I didn’t do a thing to promote it. But I kept going, and it was gratifying to see the word-count build up. I fiddled around with the style a few times, experimented with the voice. Innis, a good friend of mine (and a brilliant photographer), let me use some of his photos in the header. My writing style changed, and I started to feel easier about confronting the blank screen each time. The whole thing began to feel quite solid.

Still, nothing else would’ve happened if my wife, Kath, hadn’t emailed Suzi Brent at NeeNaw. Suzi recommended Siren Voices, and suddenly I started getting comments!

I was quite worried to begin with. I felt uneasy about writing under a pseudonym (‘Spence Kennedy’ because my mum’s dad’s middle name was Spence, and Kennedy because I was reading The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy at the time). I knew how important it was to protect patient confidentiality, but I couldn’t think how I’d be able to maintain the degree of intimacy that I wanted if I had to ask a patient for permission each time. The easiest thing seemed to be to change identifying details and stay anonymous, even though I really wanted to be honest about who I was. In the end I decided to stay writing as Spence Kennedy. Years passed. I became two people: Jim Clayton at work; Spence Kennedy on-line. It all seemed to balance out. I didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardise the blog.

When it came to self-publishing my first books, I stuck to Spence Kennedy because I thought the only people who might feasibly buy & read them were the followers of the blog. It was frustrating not to publish under my real name, but then again, I figured that I wouldn’t be in the ambulance service all my life. When I left, I’d be free to pull off the mask and start writing as myself.

So that’s what I’m about to do!

My day job will be with the Community Rapid Response Service – working alongside Occupational and Physiotherapists, District Nurses and so on, helping patients avoid hospital and stay at home. I won’t be blogging about my work with the CRRS, although if I come across some interesting stories I might conduct a more open interview and get permission from the patient before I publish.

The new blog will be much more general, I think. A collection of sketches, poems, stories – anything that occurs to me. I’ll try to make it as entertaining and interesting as possible, with more pictures and clips than before. I look forward to hearing what you think.

I won’t be posting on Siren Voices any more, but I will keep the site open for people to read and comment on if they want. I’ll certainly publish any comments that come in, and make a few of my own. I’m proud of what Siren Voices represents: as true a picture of life on a front-line ambulance as I could make it.

There are so many people I need to thank, I hardly know where to start. My wife, Kath, for reading everything and editing it into some kind of meaningful order. Blogger has been a great platform and I recommend it thoroughly. But most of all I’d like to thank everyone who’s ever read, followed, commented or Tweeted about Siren Voices over the years. I really couldn’t ever thank you enough. I hope you all stay in touch, because I feel like I’ve made some good friends over the years.

Here’s to the next nine years!

Jim Clayton
(feels good to type that...)

Check out the new site:

nora, nine years on

I remember Nora.

Early summer, a high blue day in May, bright and full of hope.

Which made me feel worse, of course.

I’d been in the ambulance service a year, working the non-emergency side of things, ferrying elderly patients to and from day centres, outpatient appointments. I liked the work. It was therapy after training to be an English teacher in a secondary school and crashing out in my second year. I was a failure, on the run from myself, from the Smoking Ruins of my One Last Chance at a Career.

Something like.

I’d taken the whole teaching disaster particularly badly because I’d always thought of it as my Ace, the one, sure-fire card I could play if things got tough. When it turned out to be the Joker, I panicked.

To begin with, the regularity of patient transport helped me feel less anxious about things. It was simple, practical, obviously useful. I was in amongst an entertaining bunch of patients who eased my bruised sense of connection with the world. If I was hopeless at everything else, at least I could drive a bus, chat to people, wheel them about. I had plenty of time to read. I stared out of the window as the world flew by: pylons, houses, trees.
After a while I started to feel restless. I wondered what it would be like to work on a frontline ambulance. Maybe I could turn myself into the kind of person you got when you dialled 999, the kind of person who’d Be Cool and Sort Things Out.

I applied for the EMT course but there were delays. It was a frustrating process. Administrative snarl-ups, rules that changed overnight, interviews that went well but led nowhere – bureaucracy rising up like thorns round an enchanted castle.

In the meantime I started this blog. I’d always loved reading, and for many years I’d fancied I could write something. Every time I’d tried in the past, though, the project had fallen apart. I didn’t seem to have the tenacity to see it through.

A lack of sticking power. Someone said that about me once. Were they right? Was that the common denominator in my ho-hum working life so far?

Maybe writing a blog would help. A useful distraction at least, a way of cultivating a more objective view of the world. Focusing on other people was patently a good thing. I was too self-obsessed. I was like that guy in An American Werewolf in London, except when I fell screaming to the floor I wasn’t turning into a monster but a moany old git.

The other thing was that blogging felt like a useful way of sneaking up on writing, doing it without it being a thing. Blogging was endless. It was practical. It was audience-less, too, for a while, but at least it was ‘out there’. People could take it or leave it – comment, in time, if they wanted. I could desensitise myself to criticism. And I’d be spared the terror of the finish line, the crashing moment when something would be done, judged, found wanting.

I decided to blog about ambulance work. And as it turned out, Nora was my first subject.

I remember walking alongside her as she shuffled with sticks from the day centre to the ambulance. I was intrigued by her accent, by the aura of contrariness that bound her as tightly as her scarf. The nurses were scared of her. They smiled when I said goodbye, but I half-expected to see them cross themselves as they turned away.

An interesting case, I thought. I bet she’s got some stories.

I was attending, so I had plenty of time to grill her in the back. I’d get to hear all about it, the country she came from, the love affairs and hazardous escapes, the heartbreaking family break-ups, the inspirational recoveries. It was a long way back to her house. I’d get a comprehensive life history.
I made myself comfortable.
I made sure she was.
I was ready to be the chatty ambulance man, innocent, open, inquisitive. Ready to memorise the good stuff.
Nora was as brutal as a hip replacement.
‘Why do you want to know these things about me?’ she said.
'I'm just curious.'
'Well maybe I won't satisfy your curiosity.'

And that was that.

The rest of the journey I was back to staring out of the window.
Pylons, houses, trees.

When I got home that evening and sat down to write my first blog entry, I stared at the blank screen and rubbed my face. I reviewed the day, moment through moment, trying to visualise each patient, what they looked and sounded like, where we picked them up from – any angle I could think of. But the one who really stood out was Nora. For want of anything else to write about I gave in and wrote a short paragraph about what had happened.
Later, when I read it back, I saw that the reason she’d made such an impact was because she’d subverted my expectations. She hadn’t behaved like I wanted her to behave. Despite my best efforts she was simply Nora. Crotchety, complaining, cussed old Nora: headscarf, two-sticks, murderous demeanour.
I carried on and wrote a few more, one a day. And when I felt brave enough, I posted them.
There were no comments, of course, but I didn’t mind. I’d made a start. I was getting myself into a habit of writing, a habit of thinking about writing, and it felt good.

Nine years on, I can still feel Nora’s eyes on me in the back of that ambulance, the icy pause before she said:
‘Well maybe I won’t satisfy your curiosity.’
I suppose as a first subject, it’s ironic that Nora was so flatly uncooperative. But like it or not she’s there at the beginning, a quirky kind of guardian, perhaps. Cerberus in a Headscarf, focusing her fury, challenging me to get past with what little I had, to struggle on regardless and get something written.

I suppose, as figureheads go, that’s actually not too bad.