10 Years Ago…

Balance March 2012

It was my first time in Geneva, that grand old town on the lake, but I cannot say I was enjoying myself; propped up on 3 pillows, I lay in my hotel room, desperately trying to ignore the pain in my stomach and the thought that this was going to be my last night alive.

Three months earlier I had spent 12 days in hospital – the first 3 in Intensive Care – with pancreatitis, or rather, to give it its full title, severe acute necrotizing pancreatitis. “You’re not out of the woods yet,” the doctors had said when I was discharged, and advised me to rest a while – another attack could prove fatal. I spent weeks living gently – but, as I grew stronger, began to feel the desire to return to work, particularly to do the Radio 4 programme about France I had been looking forward to so much. The Vosges, I want to go to the Vosges…

From the moment Sara-Jane, the producer, and I touched down in Annency I knew I was ill again.  Stomach cramps crushed my appetite, I felt enfeebled and my urine was the colour of a full-bodied Rioja. Our visits to the former residences of Rousseau and Voltaire were an endurance test. I took no pleasure in the mountains or the lakes and nearly vomited during the section about the strong local cheese. However I was determined to make it through the recording so that I might not end up in a hospital (or graveyard) in a foreign land.

I made frantic phone calls to my doctor brother, Richard, in search of medical advice. The three days became an ordeal – for Sara-Jane as much as me. Having your presenter die on duty abroad would look bad when she next had to fill in a risk assessment form. She is my friend; she fretted. On the last night we crossed the border into Switzerland where I sat in the hotel writhing and trying to will a postponement of the inevitable collapse – at least until after I had flown back to London. This agony was clearly the sequel to the pancreatitis I had been warned about and, like all sequels – except for The Godfather of course – it was worse than the original.

I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I was near their dangerous centre.

At 3am I went into a coma and died…… well no, obviously, I survived, but I was admitted straight to hospital once I had dragged myself home and was not finally discharged until a month later.

Why do I tell you this? Well, because it happened ten years ago and I want to remind myself on its anniversary that I survived, so that I might enjoy more fully the days I live in now. And to suggest to you that, sometimes, things do get better and that you should cherish the life that you have.

A couple of years ago I returned to Geneva and sat overlooking the water thinking “Phew!”

Blog about my Dad – Syd in Venice

I think the most successful sections of my autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax were those featuring my father – the letter of praise for Daphne I most cherished ended, “and thank you, above all, for introducing me to Syd.”

At the age of 70, prompted by my brother Richard, Syd spent several months writing his ‘memoirs’ (he laughed at the pretentiousness of the word) in his careful, copperplate writing. The prose is spare, occasionally ungrammatical and avoids introspection or rhetorical flourish, but you can feel the underlying turbulences

There are tales in Syd’s reminiscences, especially those from his war years, which, though narrated in a few sentences or a couple of sparse paragraphs, have a kind of epic quality, stories whose details and emotions I have tried to construct in my own mind. Of these, perhaps the most affecting comes when he is still a soldier, though now in the post-war turmoil of Yugoslavia:

To my delight, I was granted a week’s leave in Venice. I went with a tough, North country lad whose main interest was booze, but I wasn’t to spend any time with him. We were accommodated in the best hotel in Venice, called the Excelsior, which stood on the Lido. It was luxurious but I wasn’t to take much advantage of it.

Gosh, why not? I am hooked. Surely, after all those cramped shared quarters, filthy desert toilets, foreign prisons and army camps, he was exhilarated at the prospect of clean sheets, warm baths and uxorious service? It will be 30 years before he ever stays anywhere as grand as the Excelsior.

It had its own sandy beach and once I’d settled in I went for a swim. The water was beautifully warm. I swam out and climbed up onto a small jetty in order to have a dive. Laying sunning herself there was a girl in a white bikini, and she was to be the reason that I spent so little time in the hotel.

Ah hah, I see….  The bikini, then a fashionable and daring new garment in the wardrobe of young women, was named – obscenely you might say – after the Pacific Island that had been nuked in the recent atomic tests, and this particular white two piece, and more particularly the eager tanned body that filled it, were naturally of more interest to Syd than any bedding, however sumptuous…

As I recall, I think her name was Santa Maria Della Costello but I think that is the name of a Church. Anyway, I called her Maria. She told me that she had lost both of her parents in a bombing raid in Milan. She showed me all the delights of Venice: St Mark’s Cathedral, the marble-paved Piazza San Marco, The Bridge of Sighs, the island of Torcello, where women were sewing Venetian lace, which we went to on a gondola.

Although her English was non-existent and my Italian was about the same we managed to communicate remarkably well and we were both sorry when my week ran out. On departure I offered her money, but she refused the offer. I think I insulted her because she thought I was paying for her services. She later tried to get to see me in Pola but was stopped at the border crossing. I never saw her again.

However many stories end with it (perhaps in some way because they all do), ‘I never saw her again’, is a phrase that is always loaded with poignancy. Forty years after his Venetian encounter I rang Syd from the beach opposite the Excelsior Hotel and claimed I could see an old lady in a white bikini. He laughed but I knew he had always wondered what had become of that sad woman, poor beautiful desperate Maria, newly orphaned and homeless, hopelessly trying to bluff her way past the guards, praying she might be rescued from her despair again by the handsome, kind, sexy, English soldier…

I never saw her again.

 

Woman’s Weekly – Dealing with Bores.

Derek, who lived a couple of doors down from us, introduced himself to me and my girlfriend Jane one evening in our local pub and we invited him to join us. As he sat down he said, ‘A really funny thing happened to me at work today.’ This was nine o’clock. Two hours later I looked at my watch to see it was nine-fifteen. Three years later closing time finally arrived, whereupon Derek invited himself back to ours for a drink. I told him firmly about our early starts but somehow he ended up on our sofa anyway where he told more ‘funny’ stories from his repertoire. It was only when I had put my pyjamas on that he finally released us from the torment. ‘It’s nice to have met some new friends’ he said ominously as he lingered at the door on the way out.

 

We are all capable of being tedious (except his Royal Highness Stephen Fry of course) but Derek was a bore of international stature – long-winded, self-absorbed, repetitive and hard to shake off. He was as opinionated as he was ignorant and, although he seemed to have no sense of the anguish he was visiting on me and Jane, he had developed a way of breathing that made him impossible to interrupt. If you did somehow manage to interject a sentence, it served merely as a reminder to him of some further hilarious episode from his life.  Within days I was ducking behind hedges to avoid him.

How to deal with the bore without being arrested for murder? Most are quite genial people who make it hard for you to be rude to them, but, on the other hand, I feel aggrieved that they never themselves seem to want to hang out with fellow bores. My attention span is short and I am genuinely pained to be pinned in a corner by a bloke (and it usually is a bloke) telling me about his car or his latest round of golf. Having appeared on TV in Grumpy Old Men I sometimes get accosted by drunks saying, ‘I’m a grumpy old man too!’ ‘In that case,’ I want to say, ‘you’ll understand when I invite you to sod off and leave me alone!’ but I don’t. You can turn down invitations, invent sudden phone calls you have to make, feign heart attacks but, short of never leaving the house, you can never be fully guaranteed against the bore.

And in the end who is to say who is boring? Maybe I’m the boring one. Certainly I was surprised by the way I finally got shot of Derek. He ran off with Jane.