On headphones in the day case ward and in my kitchen late at night, Mogwai’s New Paths to the Helicon, Pt. 1 (aka Helicon 1) became my go-to piece of music while I was being treated for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2006.
For three years afterwards I could not hear it without crying.
I had heard it for the first time the previous spring, in my brother Martin’s kitchen (that’s him in the photo), over his aubergine bake with a glass of red wine. One of the many things I love about my brother is that he does not do cosy-dinner-party-music.
Helicon 1 is so bound up with my treatment for cancer that I find it almost impossible to write about. It assaults the listener with what the Pretentious Music Journalist from Steve Wright In The Afternoon used to call ‘a sonic cathedral of sound’, bludgeoning them into acceptance, submission or withdrawal. Or perhaps all three.
It does not require the greatest leap of the imagination to make an analogy between the studious causticity of this music and the poisons being pumped into my veins. But beneath the fury of its surface, Helicon 1 is hummable as a lullaby: there is balm in its toxins.
Ultimately I think of it as closer to sacred or devotional music than metal or punk.
It makes no reference to anything outside of itself, daring you to accept or reject it on its own terms. You have to deal with this, it seems to say. There is only this, and you cannot avoid it.
Love for Now did not begin with an idea but an illness. As I have written elsewhere, there wasn’t a plan. I was formally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Valentine’s day, 2006. A week before that date, I began writing a diary which detailed the events –being hospitalised, scans, biopsies, diagnosis– which were evidence of my rapidly deteriorating health.
I would sit at the end of each day, propped up on pillows on my bed, and try and recount what had been said and done to me as faithfully as possible. If you are interested in knowing these things, I wrote longhand in A4 French exercise books, on tiny grid squares, with an old LAMY fountain pen given to me years before by one of my brothers. I filled three and a bit of these by the time I stopped writing.
The final, published version of Love for Now is much shorter than the diary in its entirety, beginning one week before my diagnosis and ending with an entry in late October of that year.
In the first instance I wanted to record what was happening to me. But as I went on writing it became more of a debt of honour, not so much to myself as to the process of writing about something so enormous and life-changing.
I found that stories about cancer, in the culture at large and which had probably always been there, began to follow me around. I felt surrounded by it. Writing about this was, to use Robert Pinsky’s phrase, somehow to try and ‘answer’ this new situation which I had not chosen.
The subject of Love for Now is cancer, but its message is about living. I noticed half way through my second exercise book that I was signing off my emails to friends with that exact phrase: love for now… Perhaps I was unconsciously insisting to myself to make the most of each day, whilst dealing with a daily reminder that each one is so short.
Towards the end of my treatment for cancer in 2006 I had one of the most profound conversations of my life. It was with my friend the poet Jean Sprackland, who had travelled across the country just to visit me for the day. She brought stationery from Muji. I still think of this as an act of great kindness and affirmation, not just because of the expense involved, but because my confidence in my writing was at an all-time low.
Shuffling along the Exe at a snail’s pace I told her that along with most of my immune system my chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments seemed to have done a pretty good job of nuking any lingering literary ambition I might still have had.
To give her credit, Jean did not collude with the premise of my complaint.
She looked at me: ‘Except we’re not really ambitious as poets are we really? Only for the next poem. The rest is meaningless.’
Each time I feel myself about to spiral into a funk of panic about my deep lack of profile and my extreme lack of fame and wealth, I remember that walk by the river with Jean, wheezing though I was, and taking smaller steps than before.
It was great to hear the BBC’s Deputy Political Editor James Landale’s interview about his experience of treatment for cancer on World at One this lunchtime. He was kind enough to recommend Love for Now, my memoir of treatment for the same disease, to listeners who might be going through similar experiences.
In particular it was great to hear James’ beautiful dismantling of the notion of cancer as a ‘battle’.
You can listen to the whole of World at One on iplayer here. You can listen to the whole of the cancer piece from the programme, including James’ interview, here