A war reporter bravely faces death – but not from sniper fire

When you are a foreign correspondent and have covered wars in dozens of countries, the last place you’d expect a threat to your life to come from is your own cells. Yet this was the predicament in which the New York Times reporter Rod Nordland found himself in July 2019. Despite close shaves in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America and Darfur, he only really became aware of his mortality after collapsing with a seizure in India and discovering the existence of a ‘space occupying lesion’ (SOL) in his brain – a euphemism for a growth, benign or malignant. On transfer to a hospital in Manhattan, Nordland learned that his was

Could I be pregnant?

At the age of 59 I thought it was time to get my body thoroughly examined. So last week I trotted off to a health clinic in west London. Not surprisingly, I got a mixed report. Mostly As and Bs, a couple of Ds, and several must-try-harders. The health check consisted of an hour with a man in green hospital scrubs, who I think was a nurse, followed by an hour with a female doctor. It was all trundling along nicely – my weight and BMI were both within the ‘healthy’ range – when something unexpected happened. After attaching electrodes to my body for the purposes of carrying out an

Tales of the Midwest: The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard, reviewed

Jo Ann Beard has said that one of the stories in this collection, although she does not specify which, took her more than 20 years to write and that there was a gap of eight months – during which she was working on the piece five days a week – between two of its sentences. It is true that her writing is remarkably condensed, not least in ‘Cheri’, the story of a real woman who had a particularly hideous case of terminal cancer (exacerbated by the fact that all pain medication made her vomit). Cheri Tremble contacted Jack Kevorkian, a euthanasia expert sometimes nicknamed ‘Dr Death’, so that he could

The farming year in 18th-century Sussex

You may (or may not) already know this, but researching the long 18th century in 2023 is rarely a life-affirming, paradigm-shifting conversation over wine with Plato in the groves of academe. It is seldom, even, a couple of tins of warm lager on the train home after guesting on an episode of Start the Week. It is sometimes, though, sitting in an archive transcribing the traces of long-vanished lives, conscious of the passing of time, quietly excited but still wondering if any of this actually matters, whether the partial recovery of someone else’s life really is the fullest way of living your own. Reading Ian Marchant’s deeply moving new book

My week alone in a mess of morphine foils

After commuting to Marseille for nine days of radiotherapy, I spent the week alone in the cave, in bed, in a mess of morphine foils and empty coffee cups. Sister Catriona was in the UK overseeing the birth of her first granddaughter. Friends and neighbours kindly kept me supplied with staples. Every day the sun shone. The astounding insolence of the mosquitos and flies in this Indian summer has to be seen to be believed. Maybe I ought to change the sheets. The martins who live up here on the cliff are enjoying the unseasonal airborne feast, circling and swooping just outside my permanently open bedroom windows. Far below, the

The 100-year-old opiate had lost none of its potency

Our neighbour Michael is a keen and knowledgable attender of vides-greniers, the equivalent of our car-boot sales. His focus is on old bottles, full or empty, and old china, but he’ll pick up anything that piques his fancy. Some months ago, for example, he bought for €1 a glass tube of opium tablets issued to the French infantry during the Great War. Last week he reissued me with three of these little brown pills knowing that I had an abiding interest in the first world war and was using a modern version – white crystals of morphine sulphate in a red gelatine pill – to mask the pain I was

My battle with an ant

At eight o’clock in the morning a nurse injected me with a radioactive marker and told me to go away and amuse myself for three hours. The metal chairs in the waiting room were uncomfortable and there was nothing to rest my head against. So I wandered outside the 19-storey hospital to look for somewhere to lie down. Every outside space was taken up with parked cars, thousands of them everywhere you looked, some of them jammed in opportunistically at fantastic angles. Eventually I found a patch of rough grass between two car parks. The grass was strewn with stones, rubble and litter but I lay down gratefully, resting my

Richard E. Grant’s tribute to his wife leaves us shattered for his loss

Richard E. Grant pulls off a feat here. The title is twee but the content isn’t. With unselfpitying dash the actor-writer recounts caring for his wife, the dialect coach Joan Washington, through lung cancer last year (‘Living grief. Raw. Savage.’). He thoughtfully interleaves the heartbreak with glitzy showbiz recollections which help keep our peckers up, so we ricochet through time, from the Golden Globes to the Royal Marsden, from sedative injections to Star Wars. It’s an unusual structure, but it works – so, to use one of the author’s expressions, ‘Why bloody notsky?’ Grant’s daily diary-keeping is what makes the book. The quotes are verbatim, the chronology precise and studded

The joy of morphine sulphate

Two football friends, brothers, Mick and Pete, came to visit last week. We’ve been going to matches together since 1969, aged 12, in the good old skinhead days when the police enjoyed a punch-up as much as anybody. We used to travel all over the country on Lacey’s Coaches for away games and looked up to the older hooligans as gods. Those dockers were good honest scrappers, kind, fearless and very fun, in an era long before the sociologists or politicians started paying attention or hooligans wore designer jumpers. Mick still goes with Arthur, his son. Me and Pete haven’t been to a game since the team moved to its

When the bone pain gets bad, my inner NCO keeps me in check

In Frederic Manning’s classic Great War novel, The Middle Parts of Fortune, the shattered battalion shambles out of the line after battle to parade briefly before being dismissed. Noting a general loss of soldierly comportment as the infantrymen limp into camp, a watching NCO urges: ‘Come on, get hold of it now.’ As my bone pain worsens, passing milestone after milestone with dismaying rapidity, Manning’s anonymous fictional NCO speaks that expressive army phrase into my mind. He gives the order sternly, with unmistakeable undertones of regimental pride and kindliness. Milestones passed so far: single site intermittent bone pain easily tolerated; single site continuous pain, easily managed by half a gram

Bittersweet memories: Ti Amo, by Hanne Ørstavik, reviewed

This is a deceptively slim novel. Its 96 pages contain multitudes: two lives, past and present, seamlessly interwoven. The narrator, a Norwegian novelist, and her Italian husband live in Milan. ‘Ti amo,’ they frequently tell each other. Easier to say ‘I love you’, than for him to say he’s dying, and her to say she doesn’t know what she’ll do without him. When did it all start, she wonders. ‘When did you actually become ill?’ We’re encouraged these days to view everything as a journey, including marriage, and theirs has been a marriage of many journeys, emotional and geographical: literary festivals, seminars, conferences, interspersed with private time – dinners in

A dying doctor’s last words

Facing up to the prospect of one’s own mortality is always jarring; but when you’ve spent your life trying, and sometimes failing, to save others from a terrible death, it carries the knowledge that the journey may be more traumatic than the fear or grief of the end. These are the concerns with which Henry Marsh, the eminent neurosurgeon and author, grapples after his own diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer more than a year ago. He believes this book will be his last and, unsurprisingly, he seems to be cramming everything into it. It makes for a discursive read and jumps about chronologically and topically, as if he wants to

The power of prayerful washing-up

My days pass largely in a state of inanition. The fit and able-bodied express their sympathy, claiming it’s much the same for them. ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m sleeping all the time.’ ‘Oh, but so are we in this terrible heat!’ Meanwhile the young get browner and more beautiful every day while going on with their energetic lives as if affected by the heat scarcely at all. For instance, I look at the cheerful lads digging up our road, putting in fibre broadband in 40 degrees of heat. I want to run up to them and implore them, with the fervour of a dying man preaching to dying men, to enjoy

It is time for me to ‘get right with the Lord’

‘But you look so well!’ How many times have I heard that lately. Kindly meant by most, but for a few it’s outrageous, after all they have heard or read about my health, and they feel cheated of the mushrooms growing out of the side of my head that they’d been hoping for. Either way I’m surprised by the compliment. Yes, the tan and this expensive shaving balm Catriona bought me, and now hair again, make me appear unravaged from the neck up. ‘But you should see the rest of it,’ I laugh gaily, detailing the bulge in my neck where the chemotherapy tube remains in place; the young Brigitte

The art of oncology

The main side effect of the six-month course of chemotherapy was ‘fatigue’. The main side effect of the three-monthly hormone injection is ‘fatigue’. The one and only side effect of the expensive, new-generation, last-chance-saloon anti-prostate cancer drug that I’ve been started on is ‘fatigue’. I’m clapped out. At night I sleep for 11 hours and wake up tired. Then I have about three hours to spend doing things in an upright position before lunch. After lunch I sleep for another two or three hours. After a long afternoon nap I wake up tired again. But I can read lying down on the bed or the terrace recliner. Then it’s a

The call of opium-based analgesics and introspection

On the morning of my last day in England, I drew back a curtain and there in the garden, browsing one of the flower beds, was a brown hare. It hobbled cautiously but not timidly among the spring bulbs, choosing thoughtfully like a discriminating shopper. I leaned on the window sill and watched it for perhaps ten minutes. The hare was in the process of exchanging its tatty winter fur coat for a shorter, smoother, lighter-brown one, visible underneath. Overnight late spring had turned to the softer air of early summer and I was sorry to be leaving the country at the exact point of the season’s changing. In the

The nature of luck

I was walking across a fallow field to the pub with my two grandsons. ‘What’s this?’ said my 11-year-old Oscar, showing me a bone he’d noticed embedded in the footpath and prised out. I rubbed the mud off the delicate, strangely beautiful thing with my thumb. ‘That,’ I said, with more authority than knowledge, ‘is the shoulder blade of a hare. I’ll clean it up when we get back and if you keep it in your pocket it’ll bring you good luck.’ ‘What is luck?’ said Klynton, aged ten. ‘Hard to explain,’ I said. ‘Lucky people have mostly good things happen to them; unlucky people mostly bad. But nobody believes

The call of a blackbird’s full-throated song

Speaking pretty good English, Dr Tayeb came straight to the point. Was I eligible for the ground breaking new cancer treatment? He was afraid not. The radioactive test scan had illuminated the bone tumours very nicely, but the more dangerous one in the liver had remained occluded. So in my case the new treatment – a series of targeted infusions – could have only a ‘suboptimal outcome’. He was therefore not recommending that we go ahead. This was at 8.30 in the morning. I’d been in a taxi since 6.30. I’d hardly slept the night before, due partly to anxiety about what Dr Tayeb might or might not say, and

Britain is facing a cancer care timebomb

As many as 100,000 patients had a cancer that was missed, or had their diagnoses or treatments delayed during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. That’s the shocking finding of a recent study by the Institute of Cancer Policy at King’s College London. The experts conclude that some patients will already have died, many still haven’t been diagnosed and others will already have a more advanced cancer as a result of the delays. And it is likely this figure of 100,000 will continue to rise as more data from 2021 and early 2022 is analysed. In other words, there could not be a more important time to fix cancer care

My oncologist has a new weapon in his arsenal

‘We’re at war!’ said the taxi man as I installed myself for the long drive to Marseille. I put a fist to my mouth and tooted my imaginary bugle. But world war three – as he saw it – was no joking matter. My tootling bugle irritated him and his voice rose by a querulous octave. Didn’t I realise? Everything has changed since this morning! European politics had changed! French politics had changed! Who was now going to vote for a political novice like Zemmour, for example? Horizontal in its dashboard holder, his smartphone was showing a three-cornered TV debate on a rolling news channel. He turned up the volume.