Talk about deserting the battlefield, what is the saying? “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” thats been me I’m afraid, truth being I haven’t been ‘A1 top of my game’ for the last week (hardly surprising really as I am building up as nice reservoir of lovely chemo in me), and, if theres one thing I hate its self pity. Boy have I been wallowing in it for the last week. Like some hippopotamus in a murky Kenyan lake I too have been truly wallowing in the murkiness of dark depression and self pity. No-one wants to read that let alone me write it. So to be kind to both of us I absented myself from the battelfield.
Its also been a time for reflection and anxiety, reflection on who I am, what I have achieved, and what makes me tick, what makes me ‘whole’.
Anxiety with regards to the ongoing treatment, the physical challenges that poses and what the future holds.
During the reflection period I pondered about the sort of person that I am, of course, like Mary Poppins Im ‘Practically perfect in every way’ , but within that statement (which is not an absolute) there is room for improvement, and like most people I have numerous shortcomings. Whilst not being the most heinous of shortcomings one of my ‘blind spots’ is the objective nature of my way of thinking, a definite aid when problem solving and solutioneering but stifling in terms of creativity and free thinking. I listen with envy when people talk about ‘their favourite literary novel’, or how when on holiday they ‘take 3 or 4 good books’ and totally immerse themselves in them whilst relaxing on the beach or on the deck of a boat. This is not me, on the Darwinian scale of literary evolution I am sat firmly at Amoeba. Ask me to name the full works of Shakespear and I would be kicking the gravel after Macbeth, ask me about the role of ‘Russian Foreign Minister Molatov in the Yelta conference in 1943’ and I can regale modern world political machinations up to the current day. I just cope better with tangible things that I can make sense of more than the visualisation of fiction.
It was during this self flagellation of my character that I recalled in my mind that last time I actually enjoyed and engrossed myself in a good novel. It was in Mr Dare’s (Dan) English lesson, and the book was ‘Cider with Rosie’ by Laurie Lee. Part autobiographical it is an account of Lee’s childhood in Gloucestershire in the period after the second world war. For a boy such as myself on the edge of puberty with an unquenting appetite for knowledge of the world this book managed to tap into something within me that was both engaging and gave me a sense of enjoyment in its reading. It also introduced in very gentle manner the concept of something else that was to be the launchpad for another experience in the rich tapestry of life…. girls.
Alas this brief foray into the litteray world was to be my last, I have never (that is not to say I haven’t tried) been totally engrossed, totally immersed in a literary novel since.
This sense making objectivity ‘blight’ also means I have developed a complete bemusement of the concept of ‘musicals’. ‘Man chats to woman one minute then breaks into song, subsequently going back to chatting to her, as if nothing happened’. I just don’t see the point of them. Im not knocking anyone that does, and indeed I can appreciate that there are some ‘very fine’ musicals out there, its just not my bag.
Hold on though, during my deep reflection I did recall how I enjoyed Dennis Potter’s ‘Singing Detective’ – a highly successful musical drama that was shown on BBC2 in the late 80’s. Staring Michael Gambon (Dumbledore) and Jim Carter (Mr Carson from Downton Abbey) it was a psychedelic roller coaster of a production where the main character Phillip Marlow hallucinates various scenes many of which surrounded his childhood after the war. The resemblance in many instances with Cider with Rosie is uncanny , so it is no surprise that there was an addictive appeal for me.
The author of the ‘The Singing Detective’ and his other major success ‘Pennies from Heaven’ was the playwright Dennis Potter. I began to take and interest in Potter mainly because of the honesty in the way he wrote and spoke, he was non conformist, and I loved the way he ‘shunned’ the norms of the literary gene pool that was around at the time.
In those days taking an interest into any subject (particularly the visual mediums) was more challenging than it is in todays internet driven world where interviews and photographs are available within a few clicks. Nevertheless I would hunt down every opportunity to see Potter’s work on either ‘The South Bank show’ or some obscure ‘arty’ show on BBC2.
Out of the blue at the start of 1994 it was announced that Potter was terminally ill, I mean very terminally ill, I mean like weeks to live. Within days of this news being relayed to the general public it was announced that he was to give his ‘last interview’ to Melvin Bragg (he of South Bank fame). Now at this stage of my life death was a distant ‘thing’ the happened to ‘old people’, yes I had experienced the loss of my grandparents, but, well, they were ‘old’, and thats what happens when you get older, that is the order of life.
I had no reason to dwell, I was aware of my mortality, but I had a young wife and family and was too busy living to worry about anything else, especially ‘death’. I was nervous about what to expect, ‘Iv never seen anyone that is , well…dying’, ‘What do people that have weeks to live look like?’
Almost with a sense of voyeuristic intrepidation I sat down to watch. People often say that terminally ill people bear there fate bravely, as did Dennis Potter, in front of a nationwide television audience.
Filmed simply in a empty studio with just Potter and Bragg facing each other in two comfortable chairs (Akin to a classic Parkinson interview of the 70’s) Potter talked about the prospect of his own death with equanimity and candour which was simply humbling to watch. Almost chain smoking throughout, and swigging white wine with liquid morphine Potter talked about his childhood in the Forest of Dean, and without malice or fear about the advanced pancreatic and liver cancer for which there was no hope of treatment let alone a cure that would take his life in a matter of weeks.
The interview has subsequently gone on to be been defined by a section where Potter describes how he has now grown to appreciate living in the now;
“Below my window in Ross on Wye, when I’m working in Ross is a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it”
This wondrous, profound sentence that was brought to life so well by Potter really made me think, think about my life in a way that I had hitherto not done so. It triggered that short lived rush that we all get when we hear of a ‘death’ – you know the ones where the usual platitudes are spewed out – “You should appreciate what you’ve got….. Live for today… You never know whats around the corner” et al , we all know them.
But more than that, his words stayed with me, parked in the deepest recesses of my memory banks with the curator occasionally dusting them off but always putting them into the room marked ‘not required at this stage’.
Suddenly though the curator has removed them from the room and is attempting to put them centre stage , with a bloody big spot light on them (please lets be clear , this is not a thinly veiled attempt of me telling you Im terminal, not yet anyway)
But when the doomsday cancer clock hands starts rotating your do begin to view life in a totally different way. My hierarchy of fear begins and ends with death, everything else is a walk in the park. Certain things that meant something to me previously now no longer do so. The false profits that once I prayed at the alter to worship have been exorcised (oh my God he’s gone all religious, He’s going to tell us he’s discovered God any minute now), fear not dear friend, I’m still the scurrilous rogue that I always was, just a more thoughtful and reflective one.
This week the sun shone (finally) and in a Potter-esk way I looked up at the sky and marvelled at its ‘blue-ness’ I lapped it up like a cat with milk in a bowl enjoying every drop.
I have learnt to live life in the present tense, for a man that thrives on certainty, forward planning and control, that is , well, different.
But you know, it’s actually quite cathartic, you should try it