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On blubbing

In a long life, I don’t thing I have ever cried so much as I have in the past few weeks – since I knew I have incurable cancer. It’s really quite strange: I can be going along quite normally, even talking lightly about my condition, and then a chance remark, a kind gesture or a stray thought in my head sets me off. The throat tightens, the lip quivers, the voice shrivels and the eyes overflow.

If I am alone, of course, I can let rip, have a good howl, and feel the better for it. But in company (because men don’t cry, do they?) one has to fight to regain control; stiffen the lip, clear the throat, try to regain the manly voice. But it’s not easy to switch it off.

And why am I crying? Who am I weeping for? Myself? Perhaps; but it is not self-pity. It is as though I am grieving – grieving in advance for all the things I am shortly to lose: love, friendship, the beauty of the world; seeing one’s grandchildren growing up; all the things that constitute ‘life’ and which we mostly take so much for granted.

Ah well – I start my first cycle of chemotherapy next week, and if I respond well people tell me I should feel much more positive. I hope to report soon that the ‘weepies’ are behind me.

Late Summer

The swallows gather on the wires

Chattering, impatient to depart,

To leave their summer lanes for foreign skies.

For me too a leave-taking draws near.

With the spring, the swallows will return.

But I may not  be there.

The enemy within

It struck me the other day that being told you have cancer is a bit like a woman being told she is pregnant. Suddenly, you are aware that something, unseen and unfelt (initially, at least), is growing inside your body – something that is not you. Beyond that, of course, the comparison fails. Pregnancy means the beginning of a life; cancer, all too often, means the end of one. Still, the initial sensations must be rather similar.

The Final Curtain?

I have been thinking a lot about death lately. OK, so we all know it’s inevitable, but most of the time we push it firmly to the back of our minds. Until, that is, something brings us up short and we suddenly find mortality at the forefront of our thoughts.

In my case, it all began in mid-July, when I went to my doc with a stitch-like pain under my right ribs. Antibiotics were prescribed – and did remove the pain; but the doc was worried by the amount of fluid he could still detect in my chest. He referred me to the local hospital, where, last week, they drained over two pints from my thorax and took tissue samples for biopsy.

Yesterday, I received the verdict: the biopsy showed ‘abnormal cells’.  In a word, I have cancer.

The verdict – but not the sentence. They need to do further tests, and I have to have a CT scan, before they can tell me what the treatment options are – and how long I have got.

Nevertheless, even the possibility of a terminal condition ‘concentrates the mind’ wonderfully. In fact, it’s quite extraordinary how it colours all one’s thinking. It’s like a pounding ground bass that throbs away under the melody of everyday life. The most trivial of tasks suddenly take on a new significance. You catch yourself visualising future events – and then having to remind yourself that you may not be there when they happen. Sometimes, at more intimate moments, the thoughts well up over everything – and with them the tears. Tears of regret, mainly; regret for things not done, opportunities not seized, loves not expressed . . .

Still: I must not get maudlin. I have lived 78 years, most of them blessedly free from ‘the ills that flesh is heir to’. I have achieved many of the things I hoped to do. I have children and grandchildren who will carry my genes into the future. For the time left, I must live as fully as I can and make the most of every day. I am an actor, after all, and now I know the lights have gone up on the last act of the play. Until the curtain falls, I hope you won’t mind if I share my thoughts and feelings with you.

As You, like, Like it

I was listening to my nine-year-old grandson this morning as he described to his grandmother a practice session at football:

“Another thing I like to do is, like, when another boy is, like, just about to, like, kick the ball I, like, rush in and tackle him. That,” he added, “is really cool! I really, like, like doing that.”

How on earth, I thought to myself, did I manage, when I was his age, without this peculiar piece of verbal padding? And where did it, like, come from? I suppose its equivalent in my day was the  simple “um“.  Or possibly an “er“, or the slightly more high-faluting “ah” beloved of Ann Widecombe.

Come to think of it, though, modern English speech is full of such meaningless litter. There is the rather tentative “I mean” and the ubiquitous “you know” made particularly fashionable by our last prime minister. (In Mr Blair’s case it was,  I presume,  intended to sound ‘matey’.  Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, used it in an entirely different way, intended to convey her conviction that you very obviously didn’t know. With her it would always begin a sentence, as an alternative to “Look . . .”, whereas with Blair it was always, you know, in the middle.)

And then there is that curious sound which started life as the six-word phrase “do you know what I mean?” but which, with the aid of a glottal stop, has now become compressed into a single verbal blur; something like “joonowo’imeen”.

I knew a distinguished economist once who found it almost impossibe to start a sentence, or even a subordinate clause, without the words “in fact . . .”. The more speculative his pronouncement, the more he was likely to use it. In fact I once heard him preface a reply to a question with “In fact, in fact, . . .”. But that’s an economist for you.

I suppose such phrases have a function, in that they give one a moment in which to think of what to say next. But I feel sure our ancestors managed to converse without their aid. Try to imagine Hamlet saying:

“To be or, like, not to be. I mean, that is, you know, the question. Whether ’tis, like, nobler ….”

Well, well, well!

Those who read this blog – if there are any – will know that I am prone to grumble about the way our English language is changing. In part, this is the routine reaction of an old pedant who sees ‘rules’ that he learnt as a boy being flouted and disregarded by the young. And I am, of course, well aware that such changes will continue long after I am gone, and that any living language is bound to change over time. I just find it regrettable that so many of the current changes are, in my view, changes for the worse  in terms of clarity of meaning.

Even when I am not grumbling, though, I remain fascinated by questions of how, when, where and why such changes arise.  The use of the word ‘cool’, for example, to indicate approval (as opposed to low temperature) still sounds alien to my aged ear. I believe it originated in the jazz culture of the American South – but how did it acquire this new meaning? And why has it been adopted by almost every English-speaker under forty?

Again, I am puzzled when I ask someone how they are and they reply “I’m good!” – as though I had enquired about their moral welfare. What’s wrong with the “I’m well, thanks!” that I grew up with?

And talking of the word ‘well’, I find it equally odd to hear it used as a qualifying adjective in place of ‘very’ – as in “He was well angry!” To me, that sounds wrong; but then I sheepishly remember that there are precedents, even in such an authority as the King James bible: “… in whom I am well pleased.” And, come to think of it, I have written ‘well aware’ in the first paragraph of this post. So I must declare myself  a ‘logophage’ (a word I have just invented, from Greek roots, to signify ‘one who eats his own words’.)

I suppose, then, I must accept that I am fighting a losing battle on the language front. I will continue, however, to man the ramparts, and decline to adopt what I consider inappropriate usages. Ah well . . .

Striking the happy media

Time for another of my moans about linguistic infelicities.

Many years ago, man had really only one way of communicating – the spoken word. Then came writing, and printing; a few centuries on came the telephone, and then radio, and then television. Soon there arose the need to have a single word that would embrace all these different methods. Each was – is – a medium of communication; so it made sense, when referring to all of them, to use the plural of medium, which – because of its Latin root – is media (though it could be argued that mediums would be equally acceptable, and even perhaps preferable).

Anyway, the media soon became part of common parlance. But far too many people nowadays (including some journalists who should know better) seem to forget that it is in fact a plural word, and come out with remarks like “The media is to blame” – which seems to defeat the whole purpose of having a word that refers to  many entities.

I know there are words – such as the public – which can take a singular or a plural verb depending  on the context; but I don’t think this applies to the media. Anyone want to argue?

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