If yesterday was a little short of laughs, today makes up for it (for me at least!) They begin with an early morning email from my friend Jim who finishes with:
‘Just noticed your next post, so I’ll break off here. It’s compulsive stuff: like awaiting the next episode of “Homeland”, minus the explosions.’
Don’t know why precisely, but that really tickles me and sets me on the path to a very positive mood. So keep those gags coming, folks!
It makes the more serious stuff easier to deal with. Given my ‘pessoptimist’ strategy, (remember that I’m proceeding as if I have only six months, while fully anticipating a great many more.) To this end, yesterday I began thinking a little about my public ‘legacy,’ puny though this will be. First off, I want to place what I’ve written so far of my Palestine / Israel book in journals, just in case. So I write to my old friend and colleague Robert Young, now at New York University, who edits the most influential journal in my home field of Postcolonial Literary Studies, proposing that I adapt my Introduction as a manifesto, a call to arms for PCLS to engage more whole-heartedly with Palestine / Israel. There are many reasons why it hasn’t done so, notably the neo-Zio (a label I’ve pinched from Haim, which usefully distinguishes between today’s perverted varieties and some of their more honourable historical predecessors) persecution of scholars in other fields who’ve tried to do so. In the US this has led to people losing their jobs, or being denied tenure, or having appointments they’ve been offered revoked. Still, whatever the power of the neo-Zio lobbies, it’s high time that more of us in Postcolonial Literary Studies stand up in solidarity with their victims.
Complementary to this, I make a direct approach to a very powerful literary agent, whom Richard Skinner introduced me to, to see if she’ll read a novel I completed a couple of years ago but which I haven’t managed to get anyone in the business to even agree to read. As I said earlier, the environment for literary publishing in the UK’s very hostile at the moment, as the industry faces up to the challenges of competition provided by the spread of new (self-)publishing technologies – as well as the Tory-induced recession of the last five years. If it ain’t obviously commercial, forget it – at least if you’re a newcomer. For apprentices like me, addicted to the detail and slow-burn majesty of writers like Thomas Mann and Rohinton Mistry, the odds are even longer.
Fortunately, the three of us had dinner at the Chelsea Arts Club in the last week of February and Clare Conville, of Conville and Walsh, and I got on well – not least because we discovered that we’re near-neighbours in Battersea. I didn’t make any reference to my novel, though Richard did kindly puff up the critical reception of The Setting Sun for her benefit. So now, with nothing to lose but a rejection email (you should see my file for the memoir, the moral of which is ‘if at first you don’t succeed’…), I fire off a message asking whether, in the circumstances, she could give me a quick opinion.
Together with small bequests to a couple of charities I’ve been supporting long-term, I also want to put aside some money to set up some sort of prize to encourage greater engagement with Palestine by humanities students – perhaps a reward for the best essay of the year on the topic within London University or ‘The Goldsmiths Palestine Prize,’ or something similar. Given zero interest rates, however, I can’t see how such a fund would be anything but very rapidly depleted, and quickly becoming unviable. So if anyone reading this has any ideas, I’d be grateful…
From the vanities of ‘legacy’ and the practicalities of legacies, I move on to more mundane stuff. I finish the tedious task of getting ‘Lasting Power of Attorney’ for the moment, but still have to draft the new will. Besides, I have an increasing tide of messages to deal with. News of my illness is rippling out further and further afield, to colleagues, friends of friends, others I’ve lost touch with, and so on. Some of the (literally scores of) emails I’m now getting every day make me feel bad. Perhaps I should have contacted many more people than I did with the news. But as I said yesterday, I can’t ever remember being busier, just as my energy is depleting (I estimate I’m losing 1% capacity a day at present; it doesn’t sound much, but as the days pass and so much dross accumulates… Yet I can’t just ignore people’s kind concerns. How would I feel if the boot was on the other foot?
Perhaps I’ve made a further rod for my own back by contacting a couple of cancer charities to see whether they might be interested in posting details of my blog on their web-sites. I did so on the basis that my experience might be useful to other (new) sufferers and their carers, by detailing, for example, the kind of steps one goes through, both in terms of diagnosis and how one might respond. Not to mention all the administrative drossy which has to be dealt with subsequently. A very nice message has come back from the James Whale charity that they’d be delighted to do so and outlining the services they offer which might, in turn, help me. Do I have a recent picture to front their link? I certainly do. I came across it earlier this week while I was comparing photos where I look healthy with ones where I look sh**, trying to work out when this wretched thing might have started.
Then, while I’m looking at possible places by the sea for our honeymoon, my mobile goes. It’s Pippa from C and W, Mr Khoubehi’s Registrar, confirming arrangements for the operation in the wake of this morning’s multi-disciplinary meeting. The radiologist and oncologist have concurred with Mr K’s prognosis and seconded the way forward he proposed. I ask some of the questions I asked before and one or two others.
‘We’re optimistic about how long you have,’ she assures me, ‘but now it’s in the lungs, you have to take on board that we can’t cure you.’
I like her directness, though I struggle to understand exactly what the words signify. Does it mean they can at least spin things out for longer than six months with ‘biotherapy’?
‘I hear there’s a special event coming up, she interrupts my thoughts. ‘Congratulations.’
When I confirm, she asks if we’ll be going away after the wedding. I tell her I was researching destinations just as she called.
‘If it’s glorious beaches you’re after, I really recommend Jersey.’
It’s somewhere I’d have considered. But once she’s hung up, I start googling and soon fall on a cracking-looking hotel right on the edge of what seems like miles of beach. It’s a one-hour flight from Gatwick. Before I book, better check how events may have impacted my travel insurance. I phone the company and explain the problem. The woman who answers is very encouraging as she goes through the medical screening questionnaire. Kidney cancer is OK. Has it spread to the lymph glands? Even that’s OK.
‘Into each lung.’
I can almost see her face fall.
‘I’ll have to have a word with someone.’
She’s soon back with bad news. In the event of any incident attributable to the cancer, I won’t be covered.
The result of the call is to suddenly plunge me into despair. Insurers make decisions based on actuarial science. Cancer in the lung, even if it’s kidney cancer, is evidently a step too far for them. Pippa’s warning echoes in my mind, as well as Mr Khoubehi’s assertion that they may (not will) offer me ‘biotherapy’ after the operation. Suddenly Ames’s offer to come and nurse me takes on a sinister aspect. Does he, as a trained professional, know something about my diagnosis I haven’t – or won’t – fully face up to? Is he actually coming to see me though the final stages? Before my illness, I’d certainly always understood that once it’s in the lungs, there isn’t a lot of hope – even if some of my friends insist otherwise. Am I a goner? Will I make it even to six months? For a while the questions crush me. I’m so relieved to fall asleep in my arm-chair, where I’ve been sinking into ever deeper gloom.
I wake up feeling better, a trajectory accelerated by a phone call to Anna who, not for the first time, pulls me up by the boot-straps.
‘I don’t think they’d take out the kidney and lymph if they definitely thought you only have six months. Why put you through all that and waste a month of what you have remaining doing so?’
‘I guess. But what about what Pippa and Mr Khoubehi said?’
‘He didn’t say you wouldn’t get ‘biotherapy,’ he said you may not need it for a while. Could be years,’ she emphasizes, ‘if the lungs stabilise over the next few months.’
‘And the insurance people?’
‘No-one insures cancer sufferers on standard policies. Maybe you have to pay extra for specialist cover, but loads of sufferers travel. And so will we.’
She’s right. Several of my friends have told me of such cases. I’m so lucky to have Anna at my side in this. Had I been on my own, how would I have got out of that spiral of doom-laden decline?
Confidence largely restored, I turn my attention to a series of pictures which Yosefa, Haim’s wife, has just sent. Maybe you have to know Haim, but I’m soon in fits, I find them so funny. For me, this is a new side to Yosefa, which I’m delighted to discover. This couple is going to get a post to themselves in due course. Aside from the extraordinary love and support they’ve shown me, they’re something much more old-fashioned – comrades. As well as friendship, they offer unstinting solidarity, derived in the first instance from our shared political struggles, of which more later. Sumud is their watchword and has become mine, even if I falter from time to time.
I head to Anna’s for the evening. Her step-dad Jonathon and Maddy’s cousin Tara are there, tucking into what our little girl calls ‘jam cake’ (aka Victoria Sponge.) My former craving for sweet things seems to have entirely disappeared and I watch indifferently as they demolish one of my former ‘most favouritest’ treats, as Maddy would put it. Once they’ve gone, Anna produces a lovely alkali meal: avocado starter, broccoli smothered in the sesame paste which I made earlier, adapting one of Elena’s Ottolenghi recipes (mine tastes a bit like halva because I’ve used too much Manuka), a salad of chopped red peppers and cucumber. A sweet potato provides a bit of acid ballast. Is it the shift to alkali which has so blunted my sweet tooth?
While Maddy gets ready for bed, I catch myself in the mirror. To my mind, my face is undoubtedly gaunter. Illness or the new super-healthy diet? Hardy’s poem comes spontaneously to mind:
‘I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it had come to pass
My heart had grown so thin…’
For many years I’ve been telling my students that you can only really appreciate Hardy’s poetry when you’re older and life has knocked you about a bit. I only began to get the full range and nuance of his tones once I was in my mid-forties. Ever since, I’ve regarded him as one of the greatest in the glorious tradition of English poetry, one of the few things which gives me unalloyed pride in my country. His alleged ‘gloominess’ isn’t that at all; it’s a kind of honey-sweet melancholy at what’s inexplicable about life but has to be accepted; and if you read him in the right spirit, he always, in my opinion, consoles. Besides he does an occasional wicked turn in black humour which I’ve always enjoyed.
Once in her pyjamas, Maddy’s in jolly teacher mode. Anna has to be her and me Edward, another nursery classmate, while she’s the ballet instructor. We ‘kids’ are taught to bow and curtsey properly, some basic twirls, and then we have to march round the flat, following our girl while she exhorts ‘Knees up! Knees up!’
‘Thank you, Miss Kirsten,’ we end, adopting the slow distinctive sing-song of nursery gratitude.
Before getting tucked up for tonight’s episode of the adventures of Kaa, Maddy presses her giant Piglet on me for company in the night. Another great honour, after getting Elsa and Arna two nights ago? Or a sign that she realises something’s up and daddy needs spoiling?
In bed, I remember how Hardy’s poem goes on:
‘For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
My ‘equanimity’ (such as it is), I recognise with profound gratitude, comes from quite opposite causes. So many hearts surrounding me are warm – and growing warmer; except for relatively infrequent (as yet) moments like this afternoon, loneliness is the least of my concerns. Then I remember Yosefa’s pictures and I’m quickly cackling again.