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!”

Written for the Guardian Travel Section

I had gone to a friend’s place in the South of France intending to forget my broken heart by writing a comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. Arles, as occupied by Romans and painted by Van Gogh, is an exquisite little town but, for 3 days, all I had done was to moon joylessly around the house sipping brandy. I felt little enthusiasm for France, life, comedy, or anything really. Disconnected. On the third evening it occurred to me that I needed to get out.

So the next day I crossed the Rhone, hired a bicycle and set off South into the broad, even, watery Camargue – home to horses, bulls, mosquitos and many breeds of bird, most famously the flamingo. The flat terrain suited my mood and empty roads smoothed my way. After a couple of hours I spotted a spire on the horizon and turned towards it. The crooked old church was now a crooked old bar, dark and gloomy after the bright blueness outside.

Inside an old lady in black with a sad, distracted air served me a cold beer and a sandwich jambon. Poor old girl, she seemed even glummer than me. I decided to try my French out. ‘Do you ever get flamingos come into this bar?’ I enquired.

She stared at me, totally baffled.

It was not much of a gag (though I was planning to follow it up with a question about them falling over) but it seemed to pole-axe the woman. Flamingos in the bar? What was this peculiar foreigner talking about? Then I saw it dawn on her – it was a joke! She broke into a broad if toothless smile. The thought now tickled her. She started chuckling and I could see that this silly remark by a passing tourist had suddenly, somehow reawakened in her the memory of laughter, that I had, by chance, unlocked something in her. The chuckling gave way to cackling and full bloodied hooting and her bleak introspection seemed to dissolve to reveal a wrinkled but open and beautiful old face. After my lunch she came outside to wave me off as I set off cycling again out into those broad Mediterranean skies. Arriving back in Arles later I sat straight down and started writing.

It is now fifteen years since my cycle in the Camargue and I am preparing for another tour of my solo show (the ‘gentleman’s tour’ – a handful of dates in agreeable places) and I will, wherever possible, stay over after the gig in a nice hotel, breakfast on porridge and kippers the next morning, then spend the day rambling in the surrounding countryside (note to self: get OS maps for Abingdon, Frome, Stratford and Barow). And, at some leafy point along the way, I will no doubt remember once again the encounter with the lady in black, which has become mythic in my mind; that marvellous old woman, laughing, laughing, laughing.