Sidebar to LRB memoir: Fish, there are fish!

I took my broken wrist, along with my pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer, for a review at Addenbrookes. Not a good review. The fracture in my radius has dilated and shifted, like tiny tectonic plates, maybe, so it’s now a complex break. I could have an op to shore up the structure with a metal plate, or I could let it mend in my smart new goth black cast and have restricted movement and a degree of deformity. Question, will I be able to type with this deformity? Yes, the side to side movement would be a problem but I’ll be able to type properly with both hands. Solved. I don’t want an operation to fix it back to new. I’ve got cancer, fibrosis – I don’t care to have the most elegant wrist in the graveyard.

I was accompanied by my new friend Giles, who is trailing me this week for a profile in the New York Times Magazine (it’s like a prize you get with cancer). Giles wanted to see the oncology waiting room I’d written about in my last instalment of my diary/memoir in the LRB.( http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n03/jenny-diski/was-that-when-it-was-beaming-me ). So off we shuffled to the circle of doom, with its brightly coloured but fishless aquarium I ‘d spent some time worrying about. And lo, there were fish. Spritely minnows, little clown fish, a yellow one, a blue one, as perky as you please, racing around each other where none had been before. It takes very little for me to lose faith in myself. Surely there weren’t any fish in it when I passed every day for a month? Had I made it up? I’m a novelist, I do make things up, but I’m supposed to know when I do it.

I flushed with shame as Giles stood and observed the fish. Really, there weren’t any. Really. Was this going to be another writer scandal. Nonfiction piece by J. Diski contained fishy untruths. Or, said Giles, maybe they read your piece and rushed out to fill the tank. Which would mean that I’d had an effect in the world. Giles and I looked at each other for a second at this monumental thought, and then we shook our heads. Probably not. They’d probably been swimming around like torpedoes while my radioactivated eyes just failed to notice.

Also my broken wrist hurts. A lot.

A Sidebar: How’s It going?

In the London Review of Books (starting with A Diagnosis in September) I’ve been writing a more or less monthly memoir of my life in the sixties and seventies when I lived with Doris Lessing, and my continuing relationship with her until her death last year at 94. It is also an ongoing portrait of my incurable cancer. The 7th instalment will be in the next issue of the LRB. They are broodings, considerations, questions about my life then and now. But they are long pieces taking a long view. In the meantime, stuff is going on that hasn’t got a place in the LRB essays. Everydaynesses. I’m going to try to use this blog as if it were a running sidebar to the longer pieces, and see if it’s useful. Things that crop up in my cancer and memory world that don’t fit into the format of the essays I’m writing.

I’m writing a kind of partwork which will, with rethinking and editing, perhaps become a book, a patchwork of the partwork. These more immediate ‘diaries’ on this blog will be included when and if the whole thing comes together as a single text.

What’s made me want to do this is the past week of my medical life.  You can catch up on the merry tale, as well as my arrival at Doris Lessing’s house aged fifteen, in the LRB online. Their website has several of my pieces available to read for free as well as some that need you to be a subscriber to read.

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I have finished the initial treatment (or the only treatment) for my lung tumour and its travels around my lymph nodes. Little sidebars themselves? I’ve had the chemo and the radiotherapy, and next week will be scanned to see what the results are. I already had mild pulmonary fibrosis before the cancer arrived. That is as incurable as the lung cancer I have, but it depends on how fast it progresses, and it was still mild at the time of my annual scan that showed up the small tumour. There was a known risk that radiotherapy would inflame the fibrosis, and it has, in spades. Last week I found myself so breathless after very little movement that it brought on the first panic attack of my life. Or so I realised that’s what it was when the terror died down. A coughing fit caused by me walking a few feet into the bathroom left me gasping for air, unable to take in enough to live through the next moment. I did, and it has happened twice more. So now I know I won’t die of the attack and have been given some ways to deal with it(a hand-held fan, a small dose of oral morphine before I prepare to move, and a special kind of breathing.) Now I’m simply terrified of going through that terror again, even if it won’t kill me. I am reluctant to get out of bed, move snailwise very small distances, have lost all courage.

Just before that happened, I fell down a couple of steps to the bathroom at four o’clock on Friday morning, and broke my right wrist. Now it’s in plaster and won’t mend they say for 8 weeks. really not helpful and is a new kind of ongoing pain. My left hand is OK, and I’m left-handed, but it’s a slow and wearying effort to type one-handed. One other thing in what my wonderful palliative care ‘key worker’, S, calls ‘my awful week’, is that the fibrosis flaring up is now more likely to kill me through an infection, than the lung cancer. What started out as 2-3 years if I had the treatment is now an unknown quantity. I’m a miserablist, so it’s not surprising I’m feeling that death is rather imminent. My feelings and thoughts about that are for an instalment of its own in the LRB.

So I’m not cheery or brave or serene at the moment, whatever the tone of my memoir writing. I’ve got a broken wrist which has nothing to do with my condition(s), but which gnaws away as if it had the priority of a wrist of someone who was otherwise healthy. it hasn’t been a good week, and I’m fucking fed-up. And sorry for myself. What, should I keep a stiff upper lip?

Depp and Desire

Back at the beginning of this year, the celebrity timetable that decrees what is going to be in our gossip columns and fill acres of newsprint and internet pages in any given week, reminded editors around the world that Kate Moss was having her fortieth birthday. The inevitable series of ‘Kate Moss this is your life’ photos showed us how she had or hadn’t aged from a child into a woman, taking in what the press decreed were her ups and downs (Vogue front pages/drugs) along the way. I vaguely glanced at a set from some online paper or other, celebrating and secretly rejoicing in Moss’s inevitable ageing process. There was one taken in the 1990s at the Cannes Film Festival, that held my attention. It stopped me dead in my tracks, and made me really look, and then wonder what it was I was looking at or looking for. It was a red carpet shot of Kate Moss and her then boyfriend, Johnny Depp. They are standing hand in hand, posing for the camera. She is wearing a plain grey shift dress, very little make-up and her hair down around her shoulders. She is looking elegant, easy and elegant, not much sign of the hippy waif. Depp is dressed for the occasion in a tuxedo. He has no facial hair or dreadlocks, not even a hat. He’s smartened himself up for the evening, as has Kate Moss, but you get the feeling, smartened up at the last moment before leaving the house.

It wasn’t Kate Moss who caused me to pause and look at the picture and then look at why I was looking at it. I read about her doings and look at pictures of her, but only if they happen to be on my screen or pointed to by someone. I understand she is very photogenic, but her style seems to me to be a layer or series of layers on top of something that’s fairly ordinary. I’m not very interested in Johnny Depp’s life either. I noted that lately he had separated from his wife, who I knew to be Vanessa Paradis, French, an actress or a singer, I’m not sure which. I didn’t know they were a couple until long after they got together, because the news just hadn’t come my way. I’ve seen a number of films with Johnny Depp, but very few made in the last decade or two. I gather they are mostly turkeys. They don’t much appeal, so I don’t think to bother, though I watch the latest iteration of Pirates of the Caribbean for it’s silly lush, backward glance at old adventure movies.

But there is something about the two of them in that posed picture, that I still think of from time to time. Him avoiding a direct look at the cameras, trying to keep the public gaze at bay; her letting her mask slide, not looking like a glazed model, but like a woman who can’t help smiling for the requited desire they are both feeling and trying to keep it under control in public. Clasping each other’s hand for help. They are young and charming and crazy for each other.

When I was young, but old enough to have discovered that I was desirable, I would sometimes see a face at a party, in the pub, in the street, and it would sledgehammer me. Sometimes, if the situation was right, I would do something about it, make myself known, available. It was and is called attraction, and I didn’t think about it very much. It was just what happened. Sometimes you are attracted to a face, sometimes someone is attracted to you. There isn’t always a matching response, and then there would be a slight moment of regret, and I’d get on with whatever I was doing. If it worked both ways, and other things were equal, we would get together, go for a walk, a meal, or perhaps skip the formalities and spend the night with each other. Maybe something else would happen and we would have an affair that lasted, weeks, months, very occasionally years. It wasn’t the only way I got involved with men, but it was the most thrilling. The sparking of desire and then fulfilling it.

In the photo of Depp holding Kate Moss’s hand, there is something wary about the eyes, on guard, as the bulbs flash. Nevertheless, the look is direct, it’s the gateway to all kinds of things we can’t know about him. Moss’s smile confirms what can’t be known, but anyone could guess. The other thing I noted about the picture was that the two of them, Moss and Depp, were almost perfect twins. When they looked at each other, as perhaps they didn’t dare to in public at that moment, it must have been like looking in a mirror. Did they know that, I wonder. Their twinship? The small rosebud mouths, the slanted eyes, a glazed, bored expression painted on as they look out at the world, behind which you could see the exhaustion from the pleasure they took in each other’s company. But that was a fleeting assessment before the sledgehammer. Perhaps more like a lightning bolt. A shaft, as of Cupid arrow in the heart, opening in me a memory of something, some feeling, ache, shock in the chest. The old remembered remnants of youthful desire.

I am 67. And I found myself filled with – well, something like grief. It must have been the grief of an old woman remembering youth and desire, when it hit you out of the blue, and was returned, and knowing it was possible and necessary to assuage it. I was suddenly overcome by the visual recollection of youthful sexuality beaming out from the couple. Someone once said to me with tears in his eyes on his 60th birthday, ‘No one will ever fall in love with me again.’ I stopped myself from saying sharply ‘That’s all right, no one ever has so far’, as a kind of punishment for what I took to be his drunken, mawkishness, which, even if true, really needed only a wry smile, not tears. I was in my forties then and not very tolerant of sentimentality. The moment of grief I felt looking at the picture of Moss and Depp also needed the wry smile, not tears. When I was fifty I met The Poet, who is the same age as me. We had each left it until the last minute to find the relationship of our lives. Before that neither of us thought of ourselves as finally committed to a relationship, although we had had marriages and children. Our living happily ever after together, at such a late stage in our lives, is something we both smile at as improbable. It still surprises us, but it works. I don’t really know why. I came across something new, when we met, that both took in and transformed the youthful desire; we had the attraction but built a relationship on top of it that made the already but not quite diminished possibility at my age of looking at someone else in a room, wanting them, seeing it mirrored, and doing something about it, a voluntary surrender thereafter on my part. It’s possible you can’t surrender completely to age and settled love. Perhaps you have to grieve a little – to look at a photo of a pair of lovers in the midst of an passionate affair and feel a pang but also a smile for the chances you won’t have and wouldn’t take anyway, and for the loss of the possibility of raw desire being reciprocated by a stranger.

Another original version of my monthly column translated into Swedish in the Goteborgs-Posten.

August 2014

This was written in August to be translated for my column in the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten.

Some things are best met with silence. If I were to proceed with this month’s column in an honest way, it would be a blank page, without words. The imaginary blankness of the page represents the other blanknesses I have already created in my life, these past few weeks. A friend just phoned to talk to me about a mutual friend who sadly is very ill. We talk about how she will manage, what we can do, how although we know her and she is our friend, there are thousands, millions of others, also struck down with severe illness. We must bear them in mind, but our friend is our friend and her experience concerns us directly. When that conversation is done, my friend on the phone says, ‘I’m sure we don’t have to talk about…how awful…the dreadful…Do we?’
‘No,’ I say, cutting off his hesitations. ‘We don’t have to. I can’t.’
‘Yes, the same with me. Well, you know…’
‘Yes, I know.’
That blankness. Once again the desire to look away has taken hold of me. The hole in our conversation is the equivalent of the imagined blankness of this page, and the swerving of my mind away from my responses, sad, angry, disbelieving, violent even, as I come across reports.
I no longer watch the news. The Channel 4 News with John Snow as an anchor has been my first place of detailed information about what is going on in the world. It is thorough and serious, it doesn’t have an agenda of the shorter, more popular news broadcasts on other channels, which cut the sadness or cruelty of the world news with upbeat human interest stories, or at least not so much. It does ask you to face what is going on, whatever it is, and it often enough isn’t good, often enough very bad. There are no other news programmes on television that have such a good daily, hour-long analysis of world events. After that, I read the Guardian, online these days, and then weekly and monthly news magazines, in print and on the screen, that fill in the political background of the news or present facets of situations that I haven’t thought of. I listen to some of the hourly bulletins on the radio as well as longer analysis programmes. Of course, there is Twitter, which has now become a kind of infinite curator of daily thought and writing about what is happening; tweets from various journalists or interested people linking to readings and videos on obvious and not so obvious topics, that I would never have found by myself. Keeping up.
I haven’t been my happiest self in the last few months, for no particular reason, at least to start with, just because I am made to have periods of not being my happiest self. But still, while my low spirits continued, I tried to watch the Channel 4 News regularly, to attempt to keep up with the world whose doings I’ve rather lost interest in, as my mood begins to circle its wagons and to look intently and pointlessly at interior reflections of myself mirrored in time and space, rather than out at the world. I know it’s important to know what’s going on. It’s important to witness, not to look away. But I really feel as if I’ve had some inner resolve taken from me, or that I’m missing some protective coating that enabled me to do that.
It has been like that since I saw the news several weeks ago that the three missing Israeli teenagers had been found dead. Of course, the news seeps in, and I find myself with all the emotions welling up. The shelling of schools, the claim that the opposition are using civilians as hostages, the reversal of the reality of who is weak and who is strong to make the aggressors victims and the victims aggressors. Of course, both are aggressors, but the two sides are radically unequal. The one side rich and with American and European weapons, the other deliberately impoverished with a population of 50% children. Not being young, I have nowhere to put the anger I feel, or any excuse for my disbelief. ‘How can they do that? How can they?’ I hear myself saying. And then stop because it’s a naive and foolish question. One that cannot be answered in any way that would be satisfactory to me. I would be on the street, marching with the thousands if I could. But although I have good reasons why I can’t, I also know that I am sure that all the marching by all the decent people in the world will not effect a real change. I know that change comes about in economic and diplomatic ways. If it comes about at all. Still, I am pleased that there is a presence on the street expressing their dismay at the absence of humanity.
I am living such a secluded life. There isn’t a single person I know, or who I correspond with who would take the other side, or disagree with me on more than minor points. No one who doesn’t believe that the motives are not really defence, but land-grabbing and ethnic cleansing. The death of the three students was known about by the government, but not the population, a month before the ‘retaliatory’ aggression. The population is, of course, being used, in the same way that the opposition is sidelined. There must be many who side with the stronger force. I do not put myself in the way of them, any more than I can tolerate seeing the news, except out of the corner of my eyes, or as links pointing to the horror of it on Twitter. I know I’m not alone in not wanting to look. The columnist Suzanne Moore, in the Guardian, wrote how she didn’t need to see those awful pictures of dead and wounded children to know that what was happening was wrong. Words are enough, even the word ‘civilian’ is enough. It isn’t only cowardice, it is also that we’ve seen it before, we don’t need it to show us other people’s pain, or to invade the privacy of those whose privacy has most terribly already been invaded by being killed. If I don’t look at the news or the pictures being put up everywhere on the Internet, it is only because I’ve paid attention to them for decades now. And all that time, I haven’t felt anything I might do could help. Marching, signing petitions, boycotting, of course, all those things, but finally all there is is helpless anger and shame that human beings behave in such a way.

4.8.14