L is for Lessons From Literature

Ever since I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity I’ve been a big fan of Top 5 lists. You can tell a lot about a person from their Top 5s, but nothing, perhaps, speaks as many volumes about someone as the books that reside on their shelves (or in their e-reader). Be they lifelong companions, formative friends, or fleeting acquaintances, books form the backdrop to our lives – a mirror to the characters we have met, the places we have visited, the knowledge we have sought, and the journeys we have travelled. At minimum they provide a retreat from the harsh and humdrum business of everyday life – reading a book, unlike almost anything else nowadays, isn’t something you can sensibly pursue as a multi-task activity – and at best they transform our understanding of ourselves, of others, and the reality in which we reside. Here then, in a category that can only be considered ‘niche’, my ‘Top 5 lessons from literature while having treatment for cancer’:

Summer, 2013

I was exactly 32 and a half years old, and I’d completely lost the plot – or as Nick Hornby might say, I’d lost “the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits, and the exit sign”. To be strictly accurate it wasn’t that I’d actually lost the plot, so much as it had just been dramatically hijacked by a sinister and malevolent force called ‘Cancer’. So, instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing as a healthy adult busily getting on with their life, I was lying in my childhood bedroom, staring at the ceiling, trying to catch up with the shock cliffhanger that had just appeared out of nowhere; trying to make any kind of sense of the fact that I was a person who had a ‘diagnosis’ now.

Somewhere, outside, in a world that suddenly felt hostile and uncertain, I knew that tests were being reviewed, plans were being formulated, and there would be consequences to be faced. But inside those four familiar walls I could safely retreat. So I just lay there, in stunned and silent contemplation, cocooning myself in the comforting memories of those innocent, carefree days when this was where I lived, when my CD player blared with Britpop, the desk was piled high with homework, and the shelves overstacked with books. And as I started to slowly come round from my daze, I remembered that there was one book from those shelves that I had to revisit. I had to remind myself What Katy Did.

Katy Carr is a headstrong 12 year old tomboy, with five younger siblings, who doesn’t know what she wants to be – though she concedes it might be nice to be beautiful and ride out with young gentlemen occasionally – but she knows what she wants to do, and what she wants to do is something grand like saving lives or leading a crusade. Unfortunately, before she can achieve any of this, she has an accident which leaves her paralysed with a serious spinal injury. This is a dark time for Katy, and she is (understandably) wretched that the curtain of illness has fallen on her ambitious dreams for the future. She is rescued from her despair by a visit from Cousin Helen who, by convenient coincidence, was also paralysed by a hideous accident as a young woman (19th Century New Hampshire being an unusually hazardous environment for accident prone young women). Cousin Helen explains that Katy has been enrolled in God’s “School of Pain”, where the rules are tough but you have the opportunity to learn valuable lessons – the lessons of Patience, Cheerfulness, Making the Best of Things, Hopefulness, and, crucially, of Neatness, because a sick person cannot reasonably expect people to visit if they, and their sick den, are smelly and unkempt.

Katy idolises crippled Cousin Helen, and so she takes these lessons to heart, and finds a new way to learn, and achieve and have fun, whilst staying on top of the absolute essentials like keeping fresh flowers in her room. Katy and her room become the heart of the household and – because it would have made for a pointless parable if she remained sad and paralysed for the rest of her days – Katy is rewarded for her efforts, and eventually makes a miraculous recovery.

I reread my old, battered copy of What Katy Did and concluded that if I ever actually met Cousin Helen I would have to tell her to put a sock in her sanctimonious preaching. Nevertheless, her sermons were not without merit. I too had been forcibly enrolled in the School of Pain, and if I had to be an ‘invalid’ (what an abhorrent word) for the time being, then surely I must find a way to be good at it. This was the polar opposite of how I wanted or expected this chapter of my life to unfold, but the world had not stopped spinning, and perhaps it was still possible to play my part in things – even be at the centre of things – despite feeling isolated on the periphery.

I thought about Katy a lot in the months that followed and, at Christmas, as my brother joined me in my childhood bedroom for film night (High Fidelity, as it happens), I reflected that Cousin Helen would probably approve. I was making progress in all my subjects, except Neatness where I have always wilfully intended to flunk out. It is not 1872, I have never possessed the capacity to be ‘fresh and dainty as a rose’, and my experience of illness has merely confirmed what I already firmly believed – that time spent tidying is time that could be more profitably be spent on basically anything else.

Autumn, 2013

It was a dreary autumn. I was settling into a monotonous routine of chemotherapy every 21 days – a haze of medication and immediate side effects on days 1-4, a false dawn of recovery on days 5-7, and then another crash on days 8-12 as my blood cells bottomed out and battled their way back to normal. The potent cocktail of medication made me feel utterly unreal and through the long days, and longer nights, my inability to bury myself in a good book was amongst my greatest frustrations. Eventually I concluded that enough was enough – I just needed a book so brilliant that it would hook me without me having to try. A close friend, with impeccable taste, had furnished me with a long list of book recommendations to help keep me occupied through treatment. At the top was a book I had heard of but never read. “Don’t read the blurb on the back, don’t read anything about it, just read it” was her advice. So I did as I was told, and I owe a book-lover’s debt of gratitude, because it went straight into my ‘Top 5 favourite novels of all time’.

Inspired by a true story, Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice is a novel like no other. A tale of two halves, the first is set amidst the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War Two, and the latter in the Australian outback, far north of Alice Springs. It tells the story of Jean Paget – a young British woman held captive by Japanese forces – and Joe Harman – an Australian prisoner of war. Without giving anything away I can tell you that it is a story about survival against insurmountable odds. It is a story about the power of women in a time and place that doesn’t grant them agency. It is a story about entrepreneurship, more inspiring than any business book ever written. It is a story about pioneers redefining the boundaries of the frontier. And it is a story about love – lost, found and unrequited.

Stories, like experiences, sometimes come to us at exactly the right moment. There is a beautiful alchemy about encountering a particular book, film or show at the right time and place, for us to instantly relate to the plot and characters, and for the themes to resonate deeply. For me A Town Like Alice is one of those books. As I lay, drained and down-hearted, it packed a powerful punch. By transporting me to a different world, and drawing characters I wanted to spend time with it reinvigorated my appetite for reading. But, more importantly than that, it granted me agency too. It reminded me – just when a reminder was desperately required – that however helpless I felt in this particular moment, however debilitating the ‘red devil’ that was coursing through my veins, it would not last forever. Jean and Jo’s story shouted at me in big bold letters that we are the architects of our own happiness, and if our world doesn’t look quite the way we want it to, then we have to be fearless enough to change it, one patient and purposeful step at a time. So I picked my chin up off the floor, pointed it forwards, and dared to imagine what I wanted my world to look like when it no longer had to revolve around an intravenous drip. From the purely practical (I must win the lottery), to the more creatively ambitious (I should take up ice dancing!) I daydreamed ideas, and formulated plans, so that when the moment eventually came I could put some of them systematically into practice. The world would be an oyster again – I just had to bide my time. And in the meantime I could make the most of this rare opportunity to curl up with a good book whenever the impulse took me.

She looked at him in wonder. “Do people think of me like that? I only did what anybody could have done.”
“That’s as it may be,” he replied. “The fact is, that you did it.” – Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice

Spring, 2014

“Fatigue” they said. “You’ll have a lot of fatigue”. “No I won’t”, I thought, with the supreme arrogance of only the young and vital. “Fatigue sounds a lot like tiredness to me, and tiredness is for cissies”. Which was naïve, because if my illness had taught me anything it was however strong your will, the weakness of your body is sometimes a reality that can’t easily be overcome. Yet it still came as a disagreeable surprise to find myself sitting catatonically on the sofa, recovering from the extreme exertion of getting dressed, thinking “so who’s the cissy now, Kendrew? Who’s the cissy now?”

I had not anticipated in any way how long and laborious my recovery from treatment was going to be. My body was weak, my muscles wasted, my skin pale, my hair thinned and I had never known weariness like this – a profound exhaustion that sleep couldn’t neutralise. Life was distinctly lacking in lustre, and as spring sprung I find myself reflecting (as I often do) on this time last year, on ‘before’, on the things I would, or ‘should’, have been doing if it hadn’t been for cancer. Unexpectedly, now that I had finished active treatment, the contrast between my own situation and that of others felt starker than ever before. I observed quietly from the side-lines as people’s lives moved busily forwards – work peers achieved promotions and accolades, and friends celebrated personal milestones – while I worked up to getting through the whole day without needing a nap. It was all deeply dispiriting until, on one of the regular walks to the bookshop that had become an essential part of my rehab routine, I discovered Kate Atkinson’s awe-inspiring novel about parallel lives.

Life After Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, and explores multiple alternative versions of her life and death, set against the backdrop of World War Two. At its core is a wryly humorous family saga, and a richly detailed depiction of wartime Britain which reminds me why my Grandma considers anything short of the Blitz to be a ‘tiresome nuisance’. Wartime fiction has long been a favourite of mine, so it is perhaps inevitable that during this period of personal siege it figures at the top of my reading list, and as I seek to find my own inner Blitz spirit it helps me to regain a more healthy perspective on my predicament.  But Life After Life is no ordinary historical family saga. Through Ursula’s various incarnations it explores how events and encounters shape our many possible destinies, and poses the tantalising question “what if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally get it right?”

The diverse and shifting fates of Ursula and her family remind me that the significance of events can only really be determined at a distance, in the fullness of time. Disaster may illuminate the route to triumph, just as triumph may bring disaster trailing its wake. And, oftentimes, success is simply success, and a setback simply a setback, but, as Ursula tells us, “whatever happens to you embrace it, the good and the bad equally”. The richest life, I reflect, is one that makes the most of the present. There is nothing but misery and bitterness to be gained from dwelling on a past that cannot be recaptured, or endlessly lamenting the loss of a future that was never yours to inhabit. I’ll never know where that parallel life without cancer might have led. Would it have been ‘better’? Maybe. Who knows? And, more to the point, who cares? It couldn’t be less relevant. That thread of my fate is finished with now, but the ‘wondrous woven magic’ continues – the Tapestry that Carole King evoked so perfectly has merely taken on a different hue.

This is what I think about when I read Life After Life and I wonder, not for the first time, if books ought to be available on prescription.

“Why is everything an ‘adventure’ with you?” Sylvie said irritably to Izzie.

“Because life is an adventure, of course.”

“I would say it was more of an endurance race,” Sylvie said. “Or an obstacle course.” – Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Winter, 2015

I was huddled under a blanket on the sofa again, recovering from another operation to rebuild me to something resembling my former glory. A Complication – the bane of the surgical patient’s recovery – was brewing. It would either come right, or I would be back on the operating table within a matter of days. There was nothing to do but watch and wait patiently for my body to dictate which alternative it would be. Eighteen hours a day of wakefulness is a long time when you have nothing to do but silently will your skin to knit itself back together again. There is a limit to even the bingiest of box set binges. What I needed was a great big wodge of a book to get lost in; a guilty pleasure to inject some colour into a tedious monochrome reality. What I needed was Gone with the Wind.

For all its flaws – and they are many – Margaret Mitchell’s coming of age story of anti-hero Scarlett O’Hara during the American Civil War remains America’s second favourite book (after the bible) and is still the highest grossing film of all time, full of action, conflict, friendship, family, rivalry, romance, and all the ingredients we look for in a sprawling epic. At its heart, though, it is – in the author’s own words – a story about survival: “What quality is it that makes some people able to survive catastrophes and others, apparently just as brave and able and strong, go under? I have always been interested in this particular quality in people…I only know that the survivors of the Civil War used to call that quality ‘gumption’”.

As I faced yet another personal catastrophe, I was interested in this particular quality as well. Old Grandma Fontaine, who pops up at the more grief-stricken moments in Scarlett’s story to dispense her advice (as Grandmothers are inclined to do), sums it up in an inspiring speech about…cereal grain. Survivors, she says, are like buckwheat because buckwheat bends in the wind, and when a storm has passed it springs up straight and strong as before, unlike the ordinary wheat which is brittle and has been flattened. But, it is a cautionary tale: “it’s a very bad thing for a woman to face the worst that can happen to her, because after she’s faced the worst she can’t ever really fear anything again… that lack of fear has gotten me into a lot of trouble and cost me a lot of happiness”.

If you have gumption – that fortunate blend of guts, grit and good, plain common sense – then it will be there for you to call on when you need it, and you will find reserves you never knew you had. The danger is that the more you have to mine those reserves, the more hardened and cynical you are wont to become. And this, I have decided, is what really sorts the buckwheat from the chaff and the women from the girls. Scarlett is a survivor not just because of the depths to which her endurance will reach, but because of the dizzying, if not delusional, heights to which her hope can re-ascend. Whether in grief, in despair, or surveying the rubble of her own destruction, she retains an absolute, childlike conviction that she will prevail. So she counts her losses, she regroups, and she musters all her resources to fire herself – like a blazing kamikaze cannon ball – straight back into the world that has hurt her.

Springiness (or resilience), I now realise, is the quality that really matters; the ability to bounce optimistically back from setbacks, instead of letting your spirit be dampened. When everything goes wrong (as it inevitably does), I pick myself up, dust myself down, and move on because that is what people do, and that is what life demands. More importantly though, and significantly more challenging, I have to find a way to shake off the disappointment, soften myself up, and launch myself back at the world with revived faith in all of its more wondrous possibilities, because (and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here), tomorrow is another day!

“The whole world can’t lick us but we can lick ourselves by longing too hard for things we haven’t got any more – and by remembering too much.” – Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind


It is a glorious summer. I’m lying on a sun lounger overlooking the vineyards of Tuscany, soaking in the restorative sunshine. Depending on the year I am variously reeling from a diagnosis or recovering from treatment. Whatever is happening in real life, I am escaping reality for a few short days with my annual retreat into the wonderful world of Jilly Cooper.

I discovered Jilly relatively late in life. I recall the distinctive covers from my parent’s bookcase, and a vague knowledge that these were strictly for adults, but it wasn’t until I was well into that adulthood that I tackled Riders and realised what the rest of the world had long since known, that these are works of popular genius. Unfortunately, because works of genius are time consuming to create, there is a limited back catalogue, so I decided to ration my consumption; to save them – metaphorically at least – for a rainy day. And so it was, in the summer of 2013, as we defiantly took our family holiday in the brief window between MRI scans, that I re-raced through Rivals and felt, for the hours I was absorbed in it, temporarily less horrendous. But then it was over, the happy ending assured, I had returned to the dismal reality at home, and I had nothing left to read. Everything else appeared too serious, or weighty, or would, inevitably, involve something to do with cancer (that most common and convenient of plot devices). After several visits to the bookshop, browsing listlessly at books I had absolutely no enthusiasm to open, I had a stern word with myself. I was saving my next Jilly for a rainy day. What, precisely, was a cancer diagnosis, if not the very definition of a rainy day? So I gave myself reluctant permission to break the rigid rules I had imposed upon myself, and eagerly dived into Polo

The ‘Rutshire Chronicles’ are not the plodding stories of plain, everyday folk. Set in the glamourous international worlds of showjumping, polo, fine art and classical music, they are probably reflective of somebody’s real life, but it definitely isn’t mine. They follow the adventures of a sprawling cast of characters and animals, all linked in one way or another to Olympic showjumper, trainer, MP and ‘reformed rake’ Rupert Campbell-Black (“still mecca for most women”).

In Jilly’s world everything is just better than it is in real life, even when it’s worse. It’s not that bad things don’t happen; quite the contrary, our heroes and heroines tend to meet with appalling misfortune – poverty, heartbreak, desertion, prison, and occasionally even bereavement – but, no matter how low they fall, someone always turns up at the door of their idyllic country cottage with a bottle of Dom Perignon and some smoked salmon to remind them how marvellous they are.  In Jilly’s world it’s never over until the fat lady (Dame Hermione Harfield) sings, our heroes are always rewarded, the villains are always punished, and everyone – including the animals – lives happily ever after, often with the assistance of Rupert’s helicopter. And, of course, there is the infamous bedroom action, which was doubtless shocking in 1978, but is positively pedestrian, if not endearing, in our post Game of Thrones era.

There is something irresistible to me about these fairytales. They don’t teach me anything in particular about anything – except to wear a form-fitting cashmere sweater and drench myself in ‘Diorissima’ whenever an eligible polo player drops round – but Jilly’s books line my bookshelves for exactly that reason; they offer an escape that glitters with warmth and wit like the sparkling sea in brilliant summer sunlight. Sometimes, when life has become painfully real, a frivolous holiday with some of your favourite fictional characters is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time – Nick Hornby, Stuff I’ve Been Reading

“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like…” – Rob, High Fidelity

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