Sunday, 27 July 2014

What I Loved: Patient: The story of a rare illness

I was at a pre-program launch for the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago.  It was a civilised gathering in Aesop on Collins St, with wine from Mount Langhi Gihran.

The ever-smiling hostess, Lisa Dempster, stood before us with a few pages of text that she barely referred to. Clearly, orchestrating a diverse and innovative program doesn't mean she's out of touch with any of the details.

I was grinning as she talked about the In Conversation session with Ben Watt. Maybe it was Lisa speeding up and (have I imagined this?) fanning herself talking about the lead singer of Everything But The Girl and his books? Maybe she, too, knew a boy that had given her an EBTG album a few decades ago?

Whether it's fair to 'blame' Lisa or not, the Ben Watt session was highlighted at my program planning session the next morning. Ticket booked I thought I'd better have a look at what he's been up to over the past 20+ years.

I borrowed Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness and started it late one night, just to knock over a few pages. It's a good thing I knew that this stuff happened a while ago and Ben is alive and touring and "well", because I was tense and teary in my 75 page quick opening read.

I'm wary of true stories in the actual people's hands. If they're not written well I'm saddened by the waste of a good story, and then I experience a little self-disgust for responding like that. But there's nothing to worry about here.

Watts' journey of dreadful physical illness includes more medical specialists than one hospital hires, surgeries and drips and hoses in and out of his body, and we learn all of this with blends of facts and his reflections. I never thought I'd be rooting for levels of his cell counts and blood culture tests, and I held my breath while they slow-bombed him with cyclophosphamide.

But where he really gets me is writing about other people. Several aspects are analogous to the prison experience, and "like a lone diver among sharks, I would watch the cool-eyed doctors and anaesthetists glide round my bed." During his first days in hospital he doesn't want to face other patients and their illnesses, but over time they become part of his community. We see the arrivals of long-term patients who know the drill, and newcomers who look as confused and dis-interested in others as Watts did at the start.

One morning a patient had been prepped and drugged for theatre, but was left waiting in the ward. He was stoned and couldn't stop giggling, "like a little boy in bed on the morning of his birthday." It infected the whole ward so patients gigged at anything, at the nurse apologising for the delay, the porter arriving with a trolley. For a few minutes these terribly sick men are like little boys in a mini-pageant. It's one of the many places Watts uses humour that is natural and a delightful release.

I'm not sure my nerves are ready for his recent memoir - "a remarkably intimate portrayal of his parents." This was enough on how his relationship with his father evolved during his illness to send me back to the tissues -
"We sat together with our little legs side by side, and just started talking in quiet voices - nothing demonstrative or loaded with meaning: just odd things about the car, about jazz and the cricket. I felt like we were boys. And I realised that was how he wanted it. He didn't really want to be my grown-up dad. He wanted to be on equal terms, conspiratorial and even-handed. Good fellas. Little musketeers. I told him I liked his shoes, and he said he would get me a pair. It was something concrete that he could do."

Interestingly I didn't have EBTG in my head while reading this, but couldn't shake James Taylor -
"I feel fine anytime she's around me now, she's around me now almost all the time. And if I'm well you can tell she's been with me now. She's been with me now quite a long, long time, and I feel fine."
I'd like to think that Ben and Tracey would be okay with that.

What I Loved - work I have read and must share

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