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Every afternoon now around 4pm, when more civilized people are taking tea beside the croquet lawn and a somnolent church-bell across the indolent meadow calls the faithful to their knees, I slide into the belly of the machine. I’m up on my linear accelerator with high speed electrons flowing, like a Hawkwind song from 1972. But the sundial on the distant church tower still shrills ‘Tempus vincit omnia‘.

Having to stay rigidly still while surrounded by high-tech isn’t the most straightforward of asks, so it helps to let the mind wander and fixate on something else. Anything else.

So I’ve been thinking about my newly-installed auricula theatre. Allow me to articulate about my auricula theatre. I may not believe in a ‘bucket list’ but I still have pet projects that I want to do.

An auricula is a small alpine plant from the primulaceae (as in primrose) family. They have waxy evergreen leaves and flower in a wide range of colours from purple-black to palest yellow-white. They’re mostly tri-colour with either a gold or light flower centre and two circular bands of colour. They look for all the world like round enameled metal badges.

They are cheap and easy to grow but the challenge with auriculas is to protect a waxy flour-like coating called the ‘farina’ from rain drops. It’s also better if you can view the pretty flowers at eye level.

auricula

The solution is an auricula theatre. It’s a bookshelf mounted on a wall and painted black. It has a lead roof to protect it from the elements. But when all is said and done, it’s about aesthetics. The weathered terracotta, the lush green foliage, the black wood, the slate-grey lead, and of course the jewel flowers. They add up to something antique. The classic ‘more than the sum of its parts’ Gestalt.

That’s the botany part, but there is a social history part that is just as interesting. The auricula is one of those ‘florist’s flowers’ that are ideal for competitive growers who want the best specimens and most spectacular new hybrids. The story has it they were brought over to England by Huguenot refugees fleeing France around 1685. One of the main places they settled was around Spitalfields in the east end of London.

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries the auricula societies became more organised especially in the northern cities. Being small and with easy demands, you could grow a lot of auriculas in the back yard of a back-to-back terrace. A typical day out involved the showing and judging followed by a simple ‘shilling supper’ and a good supply of fine ale. I’m sure they were always a great affair.

Rich people liked auriculas too. My first proper exposure to them was at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. I like Calke Abbey. The NT has left it in a dilapidated, non-restored state to show what the decline of an English country house looks like. Not that this affects the garden quite so much. Calke Abbey has a unique auricula theatre that is more like an altar or a small temple than a bookcase. The first time I saw it in the summer of 2004 I was a bit snooty because it was populated with Geraniums and I ‘just felt it was wrong’. What a pompous thing to think. They’d probably temporarily replaced the auriculas for a summer display of colour as the auricula is over by end May. That’s what I have decided to do for the summer. I’ve put my auriculas in a cool bright spot and I’m using Gerberas as a summer replacement. It’s an experiment.

To go back to the weavers of Spitalfields, they were noted for their love of flowers and plants. The first artisan botanists, using their natural knowledge. It’s one of the main reasons why the Columbia Road flower market in Bethnal Green exists and persists even to this day.

What I didn’t know is that the Huguenots were soon followed by Irish weavers in the mid-1700s following a crisis in the Irish linen industry. The market for silk had its share of downturns and taxes over the decades, but still employed 50,000 homeworkers working for master weavers on a ‘putting out’ basis. Think freelance, zero hour contracts. There were regular protests and riots against threats to wages, with the usual reprisals. In 1769, for example, the Spitalfield riots ended with an Irish and a Huguenot weaver being hanged in front of the Salmon and Ball pub in Bethnal Green. Poor John Doyle, poor John Valline, hanged December 6th 1769 on false informer evidence paid for by a master weaver called Lewis Chauvet. Over the following years, many of the Irish left weaving to work on the building of the nearby London docks.

So, I had to have an auricula theatre of my own. I dithered over it for years so it was lucky when it showed up as a birthday present back in May.

There needs to be a lot of optimism in gardening. When I was a Psychologist, I had to know about things like the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ). I can’t recall which test it was in, and it may have been revised many times since, but one of the questions that often made me smile was whether you planted spring bulbs in autumn. It was an indicator of optimism.

Me. I plant trees.

As you may imagine, cancer and optimism are tricky companions. Too little optimism, and you may ‘turn your face to the wall’ with negative survival consequences. Too much, you’ll be annoying at best and may turn to radical solutions such as only eating raw vegetables as your alternative to chemotherapy. You have to be realistic and aspire to becoming what Philip Larkin calls ‘The Less Deceived‘. Cancer is your death growing inside you. It probably likes raw vegetables. Keep the body healthy for us, for we are many and our name is Legion.

All around me are plausible reasons for pessimism. This week, for example, the Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist died aged 56 after “a year long battle with lung cancer”. He was in the original ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘ film. Born in November 1960, he was a bit younger than me. But, a “year long”? That’s no fucking time at all. What am I doing still kicking along after 8 years?

There is a recently published online tool for people with a diagnosis of colorectal cancer called the QCancer®-2017 (colorectal, survival) risk calculator. It’s driven by data obtained from many thousands of GPs in the UK. If I pretend it is 2009 again and I’ve just been diagnosed with my stage 4 CRC, it gives me an overall survival probability after 10 years of just 2.6%. If I tell it the truth that I have already survived for 8 years, then the probability of making it 2 more years to 10 years goes up to 60%.

I’m going to plant at least one more tree.

Like Jonathan Richman, I’m in love with the modern world. I may not be driving around Massachusetts these days, but I’ve got my radio on. Only it’s radiotherapy. I started last Monday. Every day for two weeks they clamp my head into my own personal mask and put my brain in a microwave. Or the equivalent of, let’s not quibble over frequencies. Maybe I can smell burning. It’s actually not at all painful but it leaves me a bit more dizzy than usual, and these days I am Normal Dizzy the great jazz musician at the best of times.

So, slow me down. Let me build a garden which is a haven of peace and quiet beauty. And live in it a life full of respair where despair is repaired by hope, or at least calm acceptance.

But please don’t confuse me for some apolitical moron on a path to personal discovery and heightened spirituality. I still spit with indignation at mindless repeats of old history, where right-wing bigots use the misfortunes of “destitute foreigners” to advance their own interests. I snort with incredulity that anyone can believe that the Tory agenda for the NHS does not involve causing it irreparable harm. I laugh at ex-Army types who talk about “terrorist sympathizers” but clearly have never had a serious conversation with someone jailed for planting a bomb.

Maybe I’m just more aware of the passage of time. The average human lifespan in the UK is 972 months and we sleep for 324 of those. My current personal target is to have stayed alive for 720 months. Maybe I’m aware that a high probability of early mortality was once common with World War 1, Spanish flu, etc. Maybe I see the things around me with sharper acuity.

My English teacher at the Irish seminarian school was straight out of Chaucer – a short, billiard ball of a man rigged out as a priest in his black robes. He was an 8 ball. Round glasses in a moon face on a round head attached to his round body. ‘Cream buns’ was his nickname. If we only had a bit more culture in us we could have called him ‘Skoleboller’ (‘school buns’), which are Norwegian cream buns.

He tried as teachers will do to instill some love of literature in the unwashed sons of farmers and small town solicitors. “Boys, shur ye’ll like this one, he was only a youngfella like yersels”. He was talking about Francis Ledwidge (1887–1917). The centenary of his death will be on 31 July. Ledwidge was a war poet. He survived the battle of Arras (where the English poet Edward Thomas was killed), only to die at the next one in Ypres.

The poem that the portly priest was praising prolifically is called June. It begins:

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down.

I didn’t have much time for the pastoral in those days, but it was so easy to visualise that country cottage that I was a little bit impressed. A woodbine is the folk term for honeysuckle, in case you didn’t know. The Victorians didn’t like young girls bringing honeysuckle into the house because the smell of the flowers was believed to cause erotic dreams.

You could maybe pair it with a little bit of Seamus Heaney:

Were we not made for summer, shade and coolness
And gazing through an open door at sunlight?
For paradise lost? Is that what I was taught?

Even a shower of rain is good in June. Petrichor is the name for the earthy smell made when rain falls on dry soil. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) wrote about it:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

I try to see and hear things better now. Swifts that scythe the summer sky, madly and constantly screaming as they fly. The chuckle-cackle cry of a passing jackdaw. The mutually-reassuring chirps of long-tailed tits to the rest of their family group. A good day is spotting a Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly in the garden (and listening to Boris Johnson make a twit of himself on live radio).

Small pleasures.

Today I picked up a word. Literally. On the pavement there was one of those fridge magnet poetry words. The word was “much”. It was funny, because as I walked to work that day I was feeling less than my old self and I got to thinking about the quote from the Alice in Wonderland movie where The Mad Hatter says to Alice: “You used to be much more…muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.”

I feel I’ve lost much of my muchness this year. But who knows what that is any way? In the book the Dormouse gives a little speech (after a pinch from the Hatter) on things that begin with M, then points out: “you know you say things are ‘much of a muchness’ – did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?” Alice had not.

But things are panning out to be much of a muchness. After the disappointment in August of a hastily-cancelled operation for the vocal cord, early September brought the message from my Urologist that he didn’t think the bladder procedure we’d discussed would do much good. He seems to think that it’s a goner, probably paralysed in some way by collateral damage to the nerves from my 2009 operations. That doesn’t quite sit with the scan results that show enlargement and physical blockage, but this is the topsy-turvy world of hospital consulting rooms. Things make sense if you mean them to.

I’ve learned that the key thing is to buy yourself time quickly on hearing a “sorry, but…” speech from all doctors. Otherwise, you are out the door with no ticket to the ball and plenty of time to regret it. With a ticket, you can still decide to not go to the ball. Details are dull, but the end result is that I convinced him that the 30-40% chance of success was good enough for me, “under the circumstances”. By the time he wrote up the meeting and sent me the letter, the odds had gone up to 50%. Hurrah for us. Statistically significant. Not.

But even after my playing the “I have a short time left” card, it still looks like a 3 to 6 month wait for the procedure. Again, the general anaesthetic will play a role but this one can be done under an epidural / spinal anaesthetic, so not a game-stopper. When the time comes, should I do it? Another surgery to recover from, with no extension on months to live in return. But (maybe) a 50% chance of improved life quality.

And now, at last, I have a new date for take 2 on the larynx – it’s October 6th. Just a matter of overcoming the fear of the surgeon’s scalpel while lying awake under local anaesthetic. Fear masquerading as choice, as Karl Verdake puts it in this song.

 

Still, time drags on. Again.

If only it were a matter of dawdling along these halcyon days of Summer, maybe it would matter little. But there is less physical comfort to be had now, especially at night. It’s hard to sleep for long periods without the intrusion of the tube causing me to waken. Then, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in 1885: “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”. It’s tempting to stare into the dark room and think about it all, what’s happened up to now and what might come next. During the day, walking to work can be a right pain. Sitting for long periods can be a right pain.

It is all a bit Emerson now, living a life in quiet desperation. Although I am surrounded by love and indulgence, life with palliative cancer is like living alone in Thoreau’s log cabin in the woods. No one could ever accuse me of seeking out discomfort and suffering. I’ve made it my life mission to do quite the opposite. But sometimes the wilderness finds you.

There’s a recent article in The Atlantic by Diana Saverin, which talks about the way that terror and tedium can co-exist. As she puts it in “The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau“:

Most moments—in my life, at least—do not involve terror or euphoria. Most moments do not bring extreme pain or some unforgettable lesson about this weird world where we all live. All of them pass somehow or other, though. They make up minutes, and then days, and then a life.

But, to quote Lewis Carroll once more: “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”