Anthony Burgess, on being told he had a brain tumour, and only a year to live, was jubilant. Great, he thought, a whole year in which I’m not going to get knocked over by a bus, or die in a car crash. Worried that his premature death would leave his wife with nothing, he threw himself into writing. The brain tumour disappeared, Anthony Burgess established himself as a major novelist.
This little story, which Burgess describes in his autobiography, may or may not be true. I doubt that it is. But regardless of its veracity, it’s been going round and round in my head for some time.
Like everyone else who writes and reads this blog, I am writing a book. It’s a book I’ve been working on for five or six years. It’s the one I’ve always wanted to write. I’m sure you all have one like it. But like plenty of novels writers write, I have struggled to finish it.
However, I had an Anthony Burgess moment.
In April this year I had an MRI scan that suggested the arteries in my head were unusually thickened, and I was at risk from a developing an aneurysm. I’ve written about this in an earlier blog, so won’t go through all the gruesome details again. I’ll just mention that the specialist took five months to tell me, by which time, I thought, I’m lucky to still be here.
More recently I had a second ‘enhanced’ scan, using state of the art MRI that, if the first had something of the 1970s about it, this one was 2001. I was sucked into the mouth of Hal. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
This second MRI machine was right next to a bank of monitors displaying my skull, brains and all that mazy Hampton Court stuff. How I longed to see a little homunculus sitting there in the middle, arms pulling the levers, sweat pouring down his little brow.
“Look!” I imagined yelling to the radiographer, “there, in the middle, a tiny man! And he’s gobbling chips!” The radiographer frowns. “That’s very common,” she says.
Look, not all of this is true. The truth is not that exciting. I had the scan, I went home. The radiographer didn’t say anything at all. She smiled and nodded and I wondered, as I got my coat, whether she was looking at me that way because I had six months to live, or because she thinks I’m an idiot.
What if it was both?
But, when I got the report, it was reassuring. Whatever was on the previous MRI scan, it was not on this one. “No abnormalities in the brain, no lesions, the orbits, pituitary, corpus callosum, brain stem” and so on, all normal. Things are flowing as they should be. The homunculus needs a new armchair, but otherwise, nothing.
What, I asked the specialist, has happened? Why has thickening, or arteritis, or aneurysm, or infection disappeared? I thought these things were either irreversible, or cured only by colossal amounts of steroids.
No answer. A shrug. “An over enthusiastic radiographer,” he muttered.
“What?” I yelled, picking him up by the collar and holding him against the wall. “Are you saying my illness was the product of someone’s imagination?”
“Please,” he said, “it’s not my fault!”
He reached out and pressed an alarm button, two orderlies charged in, and in seconds I was strapped up, restrained, and couldn’t move.
“I just want the truth, doc,” I said, struggling to free myself.
“Put it this way,” he said. “Perhaps we in the NHS love to create fictions, too. Why should all the imaginative stuff be left to writers?”
For whether I was ill, and after a long rest, am cured, or whether there was nothing there in the first place, the fear that I had something eating away at my brains was the spur I needed. It wasn’t that I was afraid I wouldn’t finish my book before I died, it was that writing kept the worry away. As long as I wrote, I didn’t dwell.
I have nearly finished my book. I’m proud of what I’ve written, but know that finding a publisher for it will not be easy. It is, to say the least, very idiosyncratic.