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.( ). 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.


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?