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The books that have kept me alive

I expected that being poisoned would be rather invigorating – similar to a whiff of tear gas in a riot

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

In bed

Safety measures — I’ve never been good at them, so inevitably I inhaled and got soaked by the toxic agricultural chemical I was out spraying on a windy day in Kenya. At 49, I’m not worried about triggering distant future tumours — or infertility — and I’m still waiting to pay back on the mortgage of my misspent youth. I expected that being poisoned would be rather invigorating — similar to a whiff of tear gas in a riot, which I like as much as bee stings, or dragging my hand through nettles. I spent the next few days wondering if I might drown in my own lungs or that my coughing might turn me inside out, a frothing slug sprinkled with salt.

Happily I didn’t die and then I remembered what a joy it is to convalesce. The horrors are past, replaced by the contemplative solitude of a bed in a quiet house. People are nice to me. They withhold silly requests. I have excuses to avoid doing things. The most delicious stage is when the mind is clear, but the body is weak. ‘I can barely walk! I’m afraid I shall have to go back to bed — and read a book…’ Not a film, not the radio, not a movie, not a magazine — only a book.


My revelation in this month of sickness has been Parade’s End. I think of the other books that led me out of illness. Huckleberry Finn recovering from mumps or measles at prep school, when instead of chilblains and morning bells I was drifting down the Mississippi. Anna Karenina with a low fever contracted in equatorial Sudan that produced black bubo swellings across my body.

Unable to produce a diagnosis, the perplexed doctors dispatched me to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, where I was well enough to get drunk at Damian Fraser’s engagement party and make the first of multiple failed attempts to get my future wife Claire into bed. Outside Jerusalem on quinine sulphate after an old malaria parasite returned to haunt me, yellow and with roaring tinnitus, but at the singing wells with Thesiger in his Arabian Sands or with Newby in his Love and War in the Apennines.

Without the time to be ill, or rather getting better, I would have lost so many fresh inspirations for reading. I remember my sickbed books with a special clarity. Anna Karenina was my redemption and it set me up for love — whereas War and Peace is sadly polluted by the memory of the voice of a deeply irritating television producer I was trying to mentally escape during two weeks of filming stuck with him in an Asian jungle.

I didn’t think Ford Madox Ford could get any better than The Good Soldier, which I read for the first time only last year, but Parade’s End has given me such pleasure. I look up from the antics of the depraved, narcissistic sex bomb Sylvia Tietjens and there through the picture window is the farm in Kenya where my cows are munching grass newly greened by the first proper rains. A giraffe is browsing among the acacias below the house.

My lungs still feel like plastic shopping bags and I feel very stupid for my poisoning, which set off a chain reaction of other maladies that remind me of my age, of my past excesses and of all the things I still want to do. Through binoculars I can watch a Samburu warrior across the valley in all his finery of beads and redness wondering if he can smuggle his flock in to poach our succulent pastures — and then I return to the Great War trenches where Christopher Tietjens is trying to stay alive. If you haven’t read Parade’s End I recommend that you do in this centenary of that conflict.

For me, it’s already a book that is setting me on a new path. I promise that I will read more good books rather than waste my time on bad ones or on too many TV series boxed sets. I will work harder and do one or two good deeds. I will be kinder to my family and take them on holidays. I will get my courage back in the months before I turn 50 and surf a big wave in Madagascar. And I will not be stupid and poison myself ever again.


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