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Low life

That’s another year gone and, against the odds, I’m still here

I expected to be pushing up the daisies in 2014, but it was a year of stubborn good health and, well, euphoria

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

A fruity voice on the train’s announcement system said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, make sure you have all your belongings, family members and what have you with you when alighting from the train. We are now arriving in the naughty little station of Newton Abbot.’ This carriage was empty. The Teign estuary sparkled in the Sunday morning sunshine. The line from Totnes in Devon to Paddington is a lovely journey at any time of the year across the farms and pastures green of Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Berkshire. Always I have good intentions to read, but usually I rest my chin on the heel of my palm and look out of the window for the entire journey, giving leisurely thought to non-urgent matters, or fantasising, or simply letting the passing English countryside speak to its most fervent admirer. Having said my sad goodbyes in the station car park, while my grandson spray-spewed all over the back seat of my son’s car, I was in that meditative frame of mind now.

As we neared Exeter, a perfect rainbow arising from the medieval cathedral’s lead roof parenthesised the city. So that’s another year gone by, I thought, and I’m still alive and kicking. I haven’t written about my cancer here — thank the Lord! I hear you say. I’ve written about my cancer business instead in a weekly column for a Sunday newspaper magazine. Me and my cancer, week in week out. Strewth. But a few weeks ago the editor wrote me a brief email saying that they have had all they can stand of it. The magazine was having a ‘refresh’ in the new year and my column ‘hadn’t made’ the back page, she said. (She introduced herself as my editor for the past few months, though I’d never even heard of her.)

I didn’t blame the poor woman. Even if bloody Chaucer wrote a cancer column every week for the Sunday papers, it would quickly pall, and I was genuinely amazed that I’d lasted a whole year. But the money: oh, the money! Throughout 2014 I was getting £600 a week on top of my Spectator pay, which might not sound a lot to you Spectator readers, but that 26 grand changed my life. I bought three cars, wore new clothes, and was spoken to more nicely by the kind of people who narrow their eyes and make on-the-spot calculations about their interlocutor’s wealth. I bought stuff on Amazon while lying in bed in the morning, and, moron that I am, I believed that I had gone up in the world and was now a person of consequence.


The camp voice on the loudspeaker piped up again to announce that we were now arriving in ‘exciting’ Exeter. Seconds later, the voice’s owner appeared at my side asking to see my ticket. Silver earrings (both ears); enamel rainbows for cufflinks. ‘Any idea which way to the buffet?’ I said. ‘There’s a trolley service only, I’m afraid, sir,’ he said. ‘You can’t miss her when she comes clattering through the doors. She’s a little peach!’ Then he was gone, and I looked out of the window again and pondered some more on my miraculous year; a year of life when I expected to be pushing up the daisies; a year of stubborn good health; a year of, well, euphoria.

Of love, too. The other day I read A.N. Wilson’s terrific biography of Hitler in a sitting. While considering Hitler’s love life, A.N. Wilson offers the following aside concerning the nature of love. ‘The British poet Stevie Smith, who led a maidenly existence, unmarried, in a dull suburb of north London, once angrily reacted to a person who told her she did not have any experience of love. “I do,” she replied. “I love my aunt.” Love,’ A.N. Wilson levelly reminds us, ‘takes many forms.’

This past year, I have been consumed by a love affair with my grandson. He’s had a difficult year adjusting to Mummy not liking Daddy any more, then finding someone she does like, and last weekend marrying him instead. So I talk to my grandson about his life, and about life in general, and I run a few popular philosophies of life past him to see what he thinks. He’s five. Driving home in the dark the other day, I was giving him a sententious little lecture about how lucky we are to have been born in 21st-century England, where there’s enough to eat. ‘I’m not bothered about having enough to eat,’ he said. ‘I’m just glad I was born with you.’

With a tremendous clatter, the buffet trolley appeared in the carriage, recklessly driven by the peach. I flagged him down. I was very glad to see him, I told him, because I was Hank Marvin. And for the first time in a year, my choice of fare was dictated to a certain extent by the cost.

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