Archive for October, 2003

busy busy busy

Wednesday, October 29th, 2003

I have been running around like crazy for the last few weeks, and will continue doing so. If there are any readers resident in NYC who’d like to meet, I’m there in the latter half of next week. Also, I think, in Boston, but I have to fix that still.

Occupation: Irish outlaw

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2003

One of the most valuable things that I erm backed up when I left the Independent was a CD of the DNB running up to about 1995. I always use it for researching the ancestors of my profile subjects. I found a Redmond O’Hanlon there this morning:

O'Hanlon, Redmond d. 1681
Name                 O'Hanlon, Redmond
Otherwise            Count Hanlon
Dates                d. 1681
Active Date          1661
Gender               Male

Field of Interest    Anti-establishment
Occupation           Irish outlaw
Spouse               An innkeeper's daughter
Sources              Carte MSS. vol. xxxix.; Carte's Life of the Duke of Ormonde, bk. viii

There is much to enjoy in the full entry, and a chilling reminder of how close 17th century Ireland was to present-day Afghanistan.

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My Old School

Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

I was talking last night to my very county friend Neville about schooldays, a subject which has been much on my mind since going to interview Redmond O’Hanlon, who was at Marlborough about seven years before I was (I was removed after two years; he was expelled in his final term). We all owe a debt to our boarding school which we agreed could only be fully repaid with a heavy machine gun mounted on the chapel roof.

But it turns out that Neville quite literally owes the school his life. He is the child of a second marriage. The sons of his father’s first marriage went to Marlborough, where conditions were so bad during the war that one of them came back with hepatitis, which he gave to his mother, who died. The detail of the story which really tells you how the British Empire was built may not be obvious. Neville’s father was a doctor. After the death of his first wife, he married again, and had two more sons. He sent both of them to Marlborough in their turn.

sick geek chic

Saturday, October 18th, 2003

I am in bed with a stinking cold, unable to think. So I play with computers instead. I finally put VNC on the big machine, so that I can now — well, I’m not sure what I can now do that I couldn’t before; but it feels very chic to be able to read the screen of my desktop from anywhere in the house.

Perish the Thought (2)

Friday, October 17th, 2003
One difference between PR and news is that in PR you try to put the big lie at the beginning o fthe piece, and in news, you put it at the end. A very fine example of this technique came in this morning’s Daily Telegraph report on US Lt General Willaim Boykin, who is in charge of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
“Gen Boykin has repeatedly told Christian groups and prayer meetings that President George W Bush was chosen by God to lead the global fight against Satan. He told one gathering: ‘Why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. He’s in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.’
In January, he told Baptists in Florida about a victory over a Muslim warlord in Somalia, who had boasted that Allah would protect him from American capture. ‘I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real god and his was an idol,’ Gen Boykin said.
He also emerged from the conflict with a photograph of the Somalian capital Mogadishu bearing a strange dark mark. He has said this showed ‘the principalities of darkness. . . a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy’.”
Several paragraphs of balancing flannel follow; then comes the kicker at the end.
“Gen Boykin told NBC that he would be curtailing his speeches to religious groups. ‘I don’t want to come across as a Right-wing radical,’ he said.”
Let’s just terminate that thought with extreme prejudice, then. No. That’s wrong. Let’s terminate it with extreme moderation.

Perish the Thought (1)

Friday, October 17th, 2003

One of the questions asked of any journalist applying for a visa to the USA is this: Have you ever been afflicted with a communicable disease of public health significance or a dangerous physical or mental disorder, or ever been a drug abuser or addict?. The only answers offered are “YES” and “NO”, but every single journalist under fifty whom I have ever known would wish to reply, with Nigel Molesworth. “Perish the thort!”.

It’s out

Friday, October 10th, 2003

And it’s beautiful. All you American readers, go and buy this book at once. Columbia University Press have done a wonderful job on the worm, including illustrations, which Simon and Schuster never bothered with in the English edition. This is the best produced and published that I have ever been. Naturally, I can’t find the damn thing on Amazon.com. The cover is there, and the publisher is correct. But it appears from their text that I have co-written, with John Updike, a history of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Perhaps there’s something in the AA catechism about this: “Have you ever woken one morning to discover you have written a book with John Updike? Has this happpened often?”

Adverbs to avoid

Friday, October 10th, 2003

Enormously, suddenly, hugely, vaguely. I don’t know about you, but those are all polyfilla words for me.

Notes from the dying room

Friday, October 10th, 2003
My friend’s wife is dying. She has been headed undeviatingly to this end, to this room of her own at the far end of the neurological ward on the seventh floor, for fifteen years at least, ever since she started to stumble when she was sober. I don’t know if she ever grasped this was her destination: by the time she had the diagnosis, her memory was as wobbly as her ankles. For the last five years or so, she left her wheelchair only to be lifted to bed. She has been in hospital for ten months now.

Her mother has stuck old snapshots on the wall. They curl away from the drawing pins on the pinboard. Her hair came halfway down her back then: a huge bear’s pelt, as vividly red as natural hair can be, that she would wear in a ponytail, as if embarrassed by its exuberance. She always wore dark-rimmed, heavy spectacles which failed completely to make her look severe. In one family group her expression is eager, anxious, with the sort of smile that looks as if she’s breathing through her mouth. That one, he says later, was taken when she was already ill: it shows in her face. Look at this one instead: and there she is as I first met her with that powerful smile, like a cold gust over the downs, her face already averted from us.

The ward is so long that by the time you reach the end of the corridor where she is dying, you are already accustomed to the sweetish smell of disinfectant, sharpened with urine, that greets visitors at the end. When we first approached her room there was a terrible noise of malfunction, not at all human, like the groaning of machinery. But it was her wheezing, trying to cough. She has the reflex, but the muscles are weak. He rubbed her chest, and gentled her, encouraging: “That’s good, mate. A cough will make you feel better.”

When I last saw her, in the observation ward next door in Spring. she was completely immobile, vegetal, in her wheelchair. Now, when she lies in bed there are fragments of sudden movement, none of which seem to be connected to anything. It is like watching an ocean liner go down, as the water floods the different switchboxes: lights go on and off in the ballroom; in the cargo hold a crane rattles across the ceiling, chains swinging. The master’s wheel suddenly twirls decisively. But the master and all the crew fled long and long ago.

In the last years one of the carers used to sing for her, and she would finish little snatches of a tune long after she had lost the power of speech.

When her eyes were open, they darted and flicked around the room like a doll’s eyes when its head is moved. When she slept, her little fists would clench under her chin. Sometimes, when her face went slack, her eyes skated round, and deep wheezing groans shook her upper body, she looked, appallingly, in the grip of pleasure.

“I feel that she has come down to a core”, my friend said. He was haggard, unshaven, half manic with lack of sleep. “The illness has whittled away everything from her, and now there is only the core of her personality. I find it deeply lovable.” I thought of the Velveteeen Rabbit, a children’s story about a stuffed animal that comes alive because it is loved. Doug Watt uses it in his talks about consciousness. But this was the Veleveteen Rabbit in reverse. All the love in the world hadn’t kept her conscious; all the love in the world couldn’t keep her neurones wrapped in myelin. Once upon a time, she must have played with her own furry animals, rubbed at their plush and loved them until they were almost alive. Now they are more alive than she is.

We sat together, talking, for four hours by her bedside; when I left to sleep, her husband stayed. He has slept beside her bed, in snatches, for most of the last fortnight. Sometimes she punches out with her hands and snaps the oxygen mask off her face. Then she drowns. He listens, even asleep, for the changed sound of the mask, and rescues her. By eight in the morning, when we met again, he had had about three hours sleep. A new doctor came round: they’re almost always new; and it seemed to me that the woman junior with him was trying not to cry.

A fortnight ago, they stopped the nourishment, deliberately. Tubes take away the urine and the phlegm. Tubes bring in water and heroin. This is modern medical care at its best, and it is very terrible. I really don’t know how anyone can stand it. They want her to die, and, by withdrawing nourishment, they have ensured she will. I don’t dispute the decision. There really is no hope that she will ever get better. But if they’re prepared to kill her, why must it take so long? Why can’t they treat a chest infection with an overdose of heroin? Officially, her life is not worth living. Why, then, must it be so dreadfully prolonged? I don’t know if a doctor could really answer that. If any honestly can, please write to me.

The only answer that occurs to me is that this terrible, hard case is the price that we pay for respecting other lives. I don’t know that the dying woman ever expressed a wish for euthanasia. If she had ever wanted to die, she could have done so long ago. So I suppose this calvary is what we have to go through if we are to maintain the principle that no doctor should shorten anyone’s life against their will.

“Goodbye Joan”. I said, when it was time to return to work outside the hospital, so very much less exhausting than the waiting by her bedside. “Goodbye. I love you.” Die quickly, I added, not aloud. Die quickly, please.
I don’t normally crosspost but I can’t easily write about anything else at the moment. This was the Wormseye column from this week’s Guardian, which is almost a contemp note, dressed up with a little social comment in the penultimate paragraph to make it look like journalism. I really don’t have time to do very much more with it — went straight from the hospital to hotel to Redmond O’Hanlon and got fluthering, disfocussed, walking-under-water drunk. Now I need to write him up, get my hair cut, record a piece for Newsnight on gay bishops, fix up a Radio Four programme I’m supposed to make in December and go into town to meet Dan Dennett. For the first time since I became a freelance, I have work solidly commissioned for three months ahead. And Julian, my clever, witty, talented friend — anyone who’d known us at school would have thought that he was the one who could write — will just about now be waking on a mattress on the hospital floor, beside his velveteen rabbit.

Not always wrong

Sunday, October 5th, 2003
About a year ago, I wrote here that the war planners could not really believe that Saddam had weapons capable of destroying Tel Aviv, because, if he did, the risk of his using them far outweighed any possible benefits from killing him. This morning, we see from Robin Cook’s diaries that
“The most revealing exchange came when we talked about Saddam’s arsenal. I told him, ‘It’s clear from the private briefing I have had that Saddam has no weapons of mass destruction in a sense of weapons that could strike at strategic cities. But he probably does have several thousand battlefield chemical munitions. Do you never worry that he might use them against British troops?’ “[Blair replied:] ‘Yes, but all the effort he has had to put into concealment makes it difficult for him to assemble them quickly for use’.”
“I had now twice been told that even those chemical shells had been put beyond operational use in response to the pressure from intrusive inspections. I have no reason to doubt that Tony Blair believed in September that Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing within 45 minutes. What was clear from this conversation was that he did not believe it himself in March.”
As usual when dealing with this gang, I am astonished that they thought they could get away with such bare-faced lying; and still alittle relieved that they did in fact know they were lying and that someone somewhere kept a firm grip on reality. Of course, it remains to prove that they were wrong to think they would get away with it.

Now back to bloody work.