29th August 2021
Billy Bunter’s Big Blowout
Recently I went to a party where there were lots of old friends I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. It was lovely to see them after lockdown, and there was so much of them to see. They were, well there’s no other way of putting this, fat, but dare I use that term? In my opinion it’s a cancelled word that needs re-examination. Men and women can get fat – it’s not a pejorative; that’s in the way you choose to use it. Or the way you skirt around it.
HATTIE JACQUES: I think I’ll knit myself a sweater.
TONY HANCOCK: Well that should solve the unemployment problem in the wool industry.
Instead I got this at the party (I’m paraphrasing):
Student: As a privileged white male you no longer have the right to express outmoded opinions. The term ‘fat’ is judgmental and a feminist issue that does not involve you.
Me: Oh, I thought it was a non-gendered part of speech denoting the opposite of thin in the same way that a bough of a tree may be described as thick without denigrating the tree.
Student forgets agenda long enough to tell me I’ll ‘be gone soon anyway’ before going back to her friends. She’ll get straight A’s when she leaves school because everybody does in Boris’s Britain, even the really dim ones. Oops, cancelled again.
You reach an age where none of this well-meaning but essentially pointless ephemera touches you. It’s the twittering of birds on a burning tree. Stop worrying about whether everyday conversation requires trigger warnings and concentrate on the climate catastrophe, you blancmanges!
‘The Honesty of the Lower Orders’
My friend Roger is a Falstaffian figure who loves to travel. (For their honeymoon he offered to take his wife to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.) He especially loves Iceland. Every time he visits that delightful country (Reykjavik to London is roughly the same as LA to Chicago) someone rings him and thinks he’s in Iceland, the frozen food store. After the prohibitions of the last year he can now fly there again and stop feeling like a prisoner here.
I understand now why prisoners draw bundles of chalk marks on walls and cross them through with diagonal lines. For the last year and a half my world was reduced to the point where getting out of an armchair became an adventure. I had to stop exercising and eating healthily, and my body changed very quickly. Signs of chemo quickly became visible, and just as quickly vanished, although everything was subtly altered; hair, skin, nails, even my handwriting changed, and the way I walk. I felt as if I had survived Chernobyl while knowing I would still soon die. I needed cheering up, so I went to get my hair cut.
MY ALBANIAN BARBER (A somewhat un-PC gentleman in his sixties): Why you no been to see me? Where you been all this time? Oh I see, you been ill, you got Cancer Hair, thin and fluffy like inside of cushion, we sort that out, one haircut two haircuts back to normal. I can’t do nothing about the cancer, you will still look like you got that, like my father, may he rest in peace. You need to eat more, there’s nothing of you.
This is what my father called ‘The honesty of the lower orders’. I don’t mind people knowing. I’d like anyone suffering mentally from this challenging disease to feel a bit better after talking to someone else in the same boat. I occasionally go to the Maggie’s centres. There are around thirty outlets of the charity, including three international ones (one in Barcelona!). They are largely self-funding and free to use.
They are also beautifully designed, RIBA award-winning buildings and very open, calming spaces, usually with a variety of therapies on offer. They don’t dispense solutions – that’s not something anyone can do – but provide plenty of balm for the soul. My local Maggie’s (above) is in Bart’s right beside King Henry VIII’s gatehouse and London’s only statue of Henry VIII. It is also virtually impossible to find.
The Return of the Homunculus
I am writing again. With the effects of chemo fog starting to recede a little, my handwriting has changed back to normal and my grasp of language is returning. In Barcelona I was able to conduct a conversation in Spanish but here I forgot the word for ‘pencil’.
But the mind-mist has not completely lifted. It hovers in wisps around the cool edges of the day. My keyboard skills are badly eroded. I was never a touch-typist; after writing thousands of pages I still cannot remove my eyes from the keyboard. Now I type like a child and leave a bigger trail of dropped consonants than a taxi driver.
In the pandemic I rigged a writing desk-cum-reading table around an armchair and made do with it as a work space. My shoulders were hunched, my neck folded forward, like a vulture waiting for something to die. A novel is a long sprint that you have to train for. It demands a straight back and a suitable distance between eye and screen. Instead I am a homunculus, but what to do? I’m back in London where the outside is as hospitable as the terrain in ‘Alien’. Yet other people venture out there; they gather, exercise, imbibe, convivulate (is that a word? It is now) and stand in downpours at super-spreader music festivals.
But I’m a writer from Central London; we don’t do outdoors. To quote Fran Leibowitz, the outdoors is the bit between the taxi and the restaurant.