Monday, 7 June 2010

Surprisingly, life goes on

Maisie has re-established her cat food testing centre in the kitchen. We have three dishes of different flavour, all the cheap brands she likes, a bowl of biscuits and the remains of some fresh fish, but she doesn’t fancy any of them.

Glorious sunny day so I visited the Lambeth Palace Exhibition of treasures with my friend June from Guildford. Most of the exhibits are manuscripts and books inside flat glass cases. You have to lean over to scrutinise them and I find myself jostling with some very determined elderly ladies in smart cardigans, Clarks K sandals and specs on chains. In fact the vaulted library looks as if it's having a mass invasion by the W.I.

Among the stout, elbowing ladies I spied the actress Clair Bloom. She gave me one of her withering glances, which said, “How dare you recognise me?”
I have interviewed her twice, once when she was still in a relationship with Philip Roth. She was alone in London while he was far away in the US. In her smart town house, with its stripped wood floors there was no sign of a man. I felt her lonliness and uncertainty, although I didn't feel that sorry for her, as she had already had a good crack at Richard Burton and Rod Steiger. Something was obviously wrong, but she would say nothing, one of those major stars who invite journalists round because they have been told to sell something,a book or a film, but do not intend to give a real interview. Not long afterwards she and Roth parted and he wrote a bithcy novel including an unpleasant character study of a wife. The second time I met her was at an after show party, for a diary story, after she had appeared in a musical which quickly closed. She looked very uneasy then too.

From what I could see, through the struggling home knits, some of the exhibits were touching; a note from Charles I, “Dum Spiro Spero,” “While I breathe I hope.”
This sad fragment suggested to me that he had already given up.

Worse, an illustration of three women being hanged for witchcraft in “Chelms-ford,” in 1589. This pictorial evidence including one of the women being affectionate to her cat, who was according to the prosecution, was named “Satan.” I wonder what happened to him, nothing good I shouldn’t think. I don't think either of them had a defence barrister. The text revealed a chilling certainty and relief that these women and their pets were convicted and executed.

June is not only descended from St John Southworth, one of the last English Catholic martyrs, whose effigy in Westminster Cathedral looks just like her, but another of her ancestors got mixed up in the Pendle witch trials of 1612. She escaped but a woman called Anne Whittle hanged.
We agreed it was such a pity as if she’d got off she could have been known ever after as “Whittle the acquittal.”

The best thing was seeing Richard III’s prayer book found in his tent after the Battle of Bosworth, and later re-bound by Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII.

We struggled out past a table selling tea towels and paper-weights, without buying anything, and in the café/gardencentre we realised we'd completely missed seeing Mary Queen of Scot’s death warrant, perhaps the most interesting thing in there.

We couldn’t face going back to join the cardigan brigade which was getting thicker all the time. The café was also soon full of middle aged, middle class women, as if the men of England had died off of in some mysterious plague. A plague called having to go to work I suppose, but a lot of the women were probably widows or spinsters like us. I dislike seeing them en mass for some reason, although I expect that I now look just like them.

In the evening I went to Corpus Et Sanguis Christi, a “solemn concelebrated Mass and procession of the blessed Sacrament” to celebrate Corpus Christi, at St. Michael’s in Bedford Park.

It began at 8pm and as it's now light, I could walk there without fear of mugging. It was a blazing service, literally, masses of candles on the altar and I was almost smothered by incense.

Seeing the priests lined up, bowing before the altar and then their ecstatic movements, finally holding up the Host, I felt enthralled, like a child looking at a particularly glorious Christmas tree.

Apparently James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus once said that he wasn’t going to Mass anymore as he had “been there, done that.” Joyce replied that his attitude was equivalent to saying, “I’ve heard Beethoven and Mozart once, so I’ve done that.”

He always valued the church for its aesthetic experience. I hear that much of this ritual has gone from the RC church, but it still remains in the Anglo-Catholic churches. Sadly these are mostly in London and it is very hard to find bells and smells elsewhere. A young C of E priest explained to me recently, rather bitchily I thought, "In the countryside they can't afford real churchmanship."
I did discover a High Church, to say the least at St. Clements, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. At Evensong they carried the vicar in on a covered Sedan chair with a canopy, called a palanquin. I thought bearing the vicar about in a litter was going a bit far, even for me, but they explained that they didn't do it every Sunday, this was their patronal festival.

At Corpus Christi our sermon was preached by a toff who looked about twelve, who apparently goes to services on horseback. His sermon didn’t exactly trot along, in fact it was a bit lame, but he did give us an interesting quote from St. Silouan, a nineteenth century monk from Sovsk in Russia, who went off to live on Mt Athos in Greece, that place where there are no ladies. Prince Charles once went there while he was having a lot of trouble with Diana.

Silouan was praying one day, “after months of demonic attack,” which could mean anything from sexual frustration to a headache, when he heard the voice of God saying to him, “Keep you mind in hell but despair not.”

Very good advice I think.

After the Mass we processed around the church holding up the monstrance, sadly not the vicar, under a canopy and singing hymns, accompanied by a trumpeter. A whole crowd of young men in the Tabard pub fell completely silent as we went past. Probably stunned by such a rare display of Christian practice or do I mean practise, not sure.
After that, in the parish hall, we got down to the more usual St Michael’s canapés and champagne.

I noticed that Fr Cadwallader had shaved his head for summer. How odd that a man can do that and no one thinks anything of it, whereas if a woman has to go bald it is a major trauma.

The last consultant I saw said, “most women are very distressed by it.” That made me think that I should be distressed, there was something wrong if I wasn't. Real women have to start consulting wig-makers and Selfridge’s hats and scarves department.

I said something to him about it, but he shrugged it off. * Some women standing around began talking about people they knew who’d had chemo, and their own experiences of illnesses that lead to baldness. Their warmth and friendliness buoyed me up.

* I was tipped off later that he was in fact rather sensitive about his hair loss, and this turning slap head was a manly ruse to avoid it. It seems both sexes are oddly frantic about the luxuriance of their follicles.

4.6.10 Friday

Getting ready to go out, realised that I will have to change all my shampoo. After fifty three years of being greasy and needing washing every other day, my hair is now dry as a clump of spinifex grass in a dust bowl. I suppose this is due to my sudden lack of ovaries.

Received a letter from the hospital from my consultant, the same letter which is sent to my doctor. It contained phrases I'd never heard before, such as "transient paraneoplastic manifestation, endometrioid cancer and worst of all, "dirty necrosis."
Not a word of explanation for any of it. I didn't bother to look up all the terms on the internet as that might have put me off my lunch. And lunch was going to be very special, with my former colleagues from Grub Street.
It was very hot and I felt a bit alarmed at tackling the crowded tube, then finding the place in Lower Belgrave Road near Victoria.

I arrived early and quickly realised that the waiters were mostly tiny Dirk Bogarde look-a-likes. The first one furiously flared his sharp little nostrills at me. When I gave my host's name he reluctantly led me to a table out of sight then ignored me. I had to ask pointedly for a menu, which were being given out freely to male diners, then beg for a drink. One of the waiters told me sneeringly that they didn’t serve Pinot Grigot. Since I last ate out it had somehow dropped to the level of Blue Nun.

The men at the tables were all in couples. One Italian with long, smooth blonde hair and big sun-glasses looked like Steffi Graf.

Eventually the boys arrived puffing as journalists do, to suggest that they are still on a story and only popping out briefly. Waiters began to circle and bottles of Pinot Grigio appeared, in fact at least five of them.

** the rest of this has been censored as journalists are fragile plants and can't stand people reporting on them**

It was a very sportive lunch, knock about as only journalists can be, when I spoke I was often told to shut up, and my ideas shredded. It was like being in the House of Commons in the good old days of Punch and Judy, or real politics as it used to be. I like boxing and I was really glad of it. The food was wonderful too; I forget what it can be like now that I no longer have an expense account. I had cuttle fish for the first time. It looked like the sole of a Japanese sandal, and was hard to cut, but it tasted delicious. I followed that with linguini with crab and chilli.
I had given up eating crab as I don’t like the idea of anything being boiled alive, but unfortunately I read somewhere that crab meat is very good for you and I am now ruthless in my determination to use diet to deter cancer cells.
We followed up with a blueberry dessert, another tumour busting food.

As they ordered the fifth bottle I had to leave as I had arranged to meet a friend at the Renoir cinema near Russell Square. As I left there was a chorus of: "Now we are going to beat this thing, Jane, aren't we?" And I felt absolutely certain that I would.

I arrived at the cinema five minutes before the film started.
I hadn’t seen this friend for several years so I didn’t want to be late. All was well between us immediately. Amazing how this illness has demolished all the narcissistic barriers and petty resentments that had sprung up over the years.

The film, The Time That Remains, by Elia Suleiman, about the destruction of Palestinian society after 1948, through the eyes of a young boy, was fascinating but I did have some trouble in the snoring department, a bit like the average London theatre critic.

Alcohol can have a depressing effect and afterwards, sitting out in the sunshine I felt scared of the people smoking near me. I began feeling my groins for fresh tumours. I'd got pains in my neck, did that mean that my my lymph glands were swelling with cancer? I had a pain somewhere in my arse; didnt a BBC journalist recently die from a tumour in the buttock? Perhaps that was where it was. I suddenly wanted to be at home with Maisie, safely under my duvet.

When I got home my wound was still open and oozing. It had got three days to close before I am supposed to start the chemo.
On the phone my mother said, “In the old days they would have put a drain in and you would have been in bed for six weeks, then you would have been sent to a convalescent home.”
“You were always on your back in those days,” she said. “And when your Uncle Bill had a cataract done he had to lie down flat for a week.”
I vaguely remember that, as it was in the late 1960s.

By Saturday I just wanted to be alone to listen to Lord Peter Wimsey on the radio and concentrate on my hole closing, so to speak. Of course by the evening I wanted company – the perennial problem of single people.
I thought of people saying to me, “you shouldn’t go through this alone,” as if I can somehow move someone in.

But I am certainly lucky in my friends. June sent me some beautiful head-scarves, for the moment when I have to face up to being bald. This present really did help. Looking at all the pretty options, some sewn up like caps, the dread of what is to come drained away for awhile. Human love is the only thing that helps overcome fear.

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