Towards the end of my treatment for cancer in 2006 I had one of the most profound conversations of my life. Jean Sprackland had come down to visit me by train. She handed me a bundle of notebooks and pens that she had bought at Muji, which she knew to be my favourites. 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.
During my treatment I had published a new book of poems. It was a book I was especially pleased with, a book I had high hopes for, a book I knew, just knew would get me noticed. After the initial shock of my diagnosis I quickly realised I would be able to do nothing to promote it. Even if I had had the energy, my doctors strictly forbade me from interacting with groups of more than 15 people. As they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.
Doing my best to practise what my therapist would later call acceptance, I decided very quickly that maybe, just this once, the book could be left to look after itself while I got on with living and/or dying. Not only would there be no book promotion to look forward to, I also felt poetry itself had left me. No longer was I able to concentrate on reading the poets I loved, and I certainly had no desire to join them and write any. In the bitterest way imaginable I began to discover the truth, that, whether we are conscious of it or admit to it or not, every writer I know buys into what Anne Lamott calls ‘somebodyism’. It’s not our fault. It’s inevitable. It’s in the culture, from the moment we draw breath, this competitive urge to be noticed and accepted and loved for what we do (in this case, write). Having cancer was a great way to discover the essential bullshit of this premise.
I thought: if I die before my book comes out and is then deemed to be rubbish, or worse, ignored, there is nothing I can do. In the event it did come out, I did not die, and it was still ignored. And that is fine. Really. I discovered I was loved for reasons other than my writing, and began to practise acceptance for those people and things, often most close to me, I had previously and perilously come close to ignoring at the expense of ‘work’.
But that day, tearing up at Jean’s present, a mere three radiotherapy treatments from being given the all-clear one month later, I knew none of that. I was lost and afraid. Worse, I felt completely invisible. Shuffling along the River Exe in late September sunshine I said to Jean that along with most of my immune system my chemo and radiotherapy treatments seemed to have done a pretty good job of nuking any lingering literary ambition I might still have had.
To her eternal credit, Jean wasn’t having any of it.
She looked at me: ‘Except we’re not really ambitious as poets, are we? Only for the next poem. The rest is meaningless.’
Speaking to Jean that day was the moment that this new awareness began to dawn on me as a possibility I felt I could live into.
With the benefit of hindsight I can see that the seeds of this new way of thinking were sown during my chemotherapy treatment, when I gave one of only two readings from my new book, at the Arvon Foundation’s writing centre at Totleigh Barton, an hour’s drive from my home. I came off the chemo ward at half past three, was picked up by Andy Brown at my house at four, and we arrived at Totleigh shortly after five. It had been booked months in advance by the editor and publisher of Worple Press, Peter Carpenter.
As is his tradition, Peter had brought a group of boys from Tonbridge School to the centre. Their tutors (lucky people) were Ann Sansom and Alan Brownjohn. We sloped around the place drinking tea and catching up on news with Peter and his colleagues. Ian Marchant, the centre director, paced around in a livid mandarin linen shirt in an alternately friendly and frenzied fashion on account of just having given up smoking. Burned into my retina is the way Alan greeted me with a slight bow; Ann with her hand on my forearm; and Peter with a kiss on both my cheeks.
I remember the way Andy stopped the car at the top of the hill above the house, to take in the view and the early spring light, the trees just starting to tinge green. I remember Ian’s speech to the bread and butter pudding; the conversation in the snug afterwards, played out ever more raucously to Dylan on somebody’s iPod…and that I wanted to throw up, with a mixture of nerves, reaction to my chemo and overeating, throughout all of it. Handing me my cheque in the office Ian said to me two things. First, that he was certain I would be OK (how did you know, Ian?). And second that one day I’d look back on this as great material. He might have been right.
But the point about the reading is that I don’t remember any of it. I remember the food and the banter and the gossip. The human stuff. What Richard Ford calls ‘low-grade high jinks’. The more I think about it the more my poems and my trembling attempt to put them across seem a frail kind of pretext to engineer the real event, which was to have the time of our lives. Of course I would rather cancer had not happened to me, but I can say truthfully that the same level of rabid disappointment and jealousy no longer greets both my failures and the successes of my peers. 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. I am pleased to be breathing at all, you see. If that includes a day with a poem, written or read, then the bonus is mine, a delight, pure gravy as Raymond Carver would say, pure gravy.
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