A Perfect Day And The Shocking Clarity Of Cancer
There is a place near Leicester called Wistow. It’s a bit special and a great place to walk the dog. Park at the church, follow the canal towpath, over the bridge, across the field to a second church and then work your way back following the meanders of the river Sence. We’ve walked it in all seasons, ice and snow, high wind and summer sun.
It is a place with an energy, and a good energy at that. When the last eclipse occurred we decided on a whim to go there to view the eclipse. I don’t know why: it’s not high ground or anything. But when we arrived a surprising assembly of people had alraedy collected there, drawn by a similar unconscious force.
Any English place that ends with the suffix stow or stowe means “holy place”. Wistow got its name because the Anglo-Saxon Saint Wistan was slaughtered there, right outside the second church I mentioned. There is a depression in the field outside the church where his blood was said to have flowed, and one day of the year you can actually see Wistan’s hair grow from the grass. Let me be honest: I’m told this is actually a rare grassy herb and not hair at all. But it’s a good story. Well, some of us think it is. I once took the American writer Jonathan Lethem, who was visiting me in Leicester, to see this depression in the ground. He was underwhelmed. In fact he was so unimpressed I don’t think I heard from him again.
So maybe it’s just a grassy field. But, with the weather being high, we took a rug and a picnic and settled on the bank of the river for a lazy afternoon. The Sence bubbled away gently, flowing as it does towards the River Soar and into Leicester in the distance. I put my head down and gazed up at the clouds and thought: why would anyone want to die? Then my old friend the Heron flew up from the river. Did it fly from right to left or from left to right? Oh, let’s not get into that. It’s just beautiful.
If you half close your eyes and let your imagination run free you can watch another remarkable historical event unfold right in front of that same church where Wistan was put to the sword. You can see both King Charles 1st and his military commander Prince Rupert galloping past and up to the mansion hidden by trees just a hundred yards or so from the church. They are riding for their lives. Their army has just been routed by Cromwell at nearby Naseby and they are pursued. They desperately need a change of horse in order to get to what they hope will be the safety of Leicester. In their haste they change horses but leave the royal saddle behind. I’ve seen the saddle. The owner of the house let me look at it. It is crimson and silver and enormous. A thing of great beauty.
So if you’re prepared to put your head down on this grassy spot, you are of course courting ghosts. Anyway as the clouds drifted by overhead something glooped in the water of the Sence and I let my eyes close.
I won’t tell you what I dreamed. That is, I think dreams are fascinating and life-renewing but I don’t like writing them down. Even though much of my writing has the flavour of dreams I rarely describe a character’s dream. It’s somehow a cop-out, or like freewheeling on a bicycle. The act of writing is not dreaming. In any event, when you’ve had your go at analysing the dream all you’re left with is the shiny pelt of a once-beautiful creature.
But I did dream and I had the notion that something was speaking to me, only to wake and find that a dragonfly with a wingspan the size of my hand was buzzing my ear. As I blinked up at the sky that buzzing turned into an aeroplane’s drone, high, high, in the blue. I wondered where those people were going for their summer holidays. Oh this mysterious life, full of cloud formations and dragonfly language and the auguries of herons and aeroplanes and the kingdom of dreams.
Then I got back home to find that another plane, a different plane, had been snatched out of the sky over the Ukraine, carelessly, casually, with the cost of almost 300 lives.
It’s not the diagnosis of cancer that will shock you, though that is enough. It’s the shocking clarity you are left with about life.
I await a promised drug. The cost of the drug is beyond the imagination of mere mortals (in other words pennies but the Big Pharma Wheel is cog-to-cog with the Giant Insurance Wheel so that each pill must be seen to be rarer than rubies). However there is a window of possibility in a special programme for me. But while I wait in the holding pattern, it’s back to the chain-gang of chemo, breaking rocks.
I have a brilliant team of doctors and nurses, trying to unlock time for me, at great expense, working hard to help me. An NHS system that is the pride of the world in its dedication to helping people to live. And just across the Ukraine someone of unspeakable low instinct can let go a missile and end it all for 300 people, quite casually.
This is what I mean by the shocking clarity that cancer brings.
You know we won’t do anything. Trade might be affected. What does that mean? Lots of people losing their jobs? They don’t mean trade. Trade is simply the means by which we all rub along together in the daily course of our lives. When they say trade we know that they mean growth. The wolf that eats its tail. What they mean is that if the wolf is not fed the income gap between rich and poor – widened over the last fifteen years instead of narrowed – will be minutely squeezed for a very short while as growth is restricted.
And if a dragonfly buzzes my ear like an aeroplane I’ll still be going, ‘What did it say?‘ Because the screw that has for so long been loose in me hasn’t been tightened by cancer.
Actually I know what the dragonfly said. It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.
And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?