At the age of 25, the poet and critic William Ernest Henley lay in hospital suffering from an illness that had kept him bedridden for three years. He had been diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone at the age of 12 and his left foot was amputated just below the knee. He’d just been told that he’d lose his right foot, too. It was in these circumstances that he composed ‘Invictus’, the poem that ends with the following verse:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Those are words to live by — and, indeed, Nelson Mandela did just that. In his darkest hours, when he was rotting away on Robben Island, he would recite Henley’s poem from memory in order to boost his morale.
As 2009 draws to a close, I like to think I am the master of my fate. Things are certainly looking up compared to the same period ten years ago. On December 31 1999, I was planning to propose to Caroline but we had a row over dinner when a group of Scottish men in kilts at the next-door table invited her to a New Year’s Eve party. We were in Val d’Isère at the time and I had a bottle of champagne on ice back at the chalet. I was planning to get down on bended knee just before midnight and my hope was to toast our engagement as the clocks struck 12, not ring in the New Year with a bunch of drunken Scots. She was so angry that I refused to go to the party — particularly as I couldn’t explain why — that she insisted on heading back to the chalet and going straight to sleep.