Felix’s Letter 20/12/12
December 20, 2012
Thoughts On Symptoms, Surrender, ‘Going Gentle’ and The Bridge Of Futility.
This is my fifth letter to friends and colleagues since I was diagnosed with cancer in January. I hope it to be the last in the series. Although I’m making progress, I must hasten to add that there is no guarantee of a ‘cure’. Nor am I the same physically or mentally as I was prior to all this. Quite probably, I never shall be.
My hearing is still above average, but my left ear is ‘disassociated’ from the rest of me. I often feel unbalanced, as if my ears had not ‘popped’ after diving in water or descending in an aeroplane. I’m told that my voice has returned to normal, whether on stage or tête-à-tête, but to me it sounds as if I’m mumbling through bone. Which, in a way, I guess, I am.
Other changes: I cannot eat anything spicy or acidic; the mildest curry or even a hint of vinegar is beyond me. As is the consumption of undiluted wine—a sad development considering the contents of the cellar I’ve laboured to build over the years. (I continue to order fine wine, hoping to encourage my taste buds to return to their duty.) Meanwhile, a nip of single malt whisky sends me racing to rinse out my mouth. No mustard. No relishes. No pepper. No crispy or crumbly foods. The list of items I cannot yet enjoy is a long one. This is all apparently the result of nerve damage during radiotherapy and while specialists are hopeful that things will improve as time goes by, once again, there are no guarantees.
Other changes include weight loss; difficulty in chewing; lack of saliva; areas of skin so sensitive I cannot bear for them to be touched; weakened stamina; irritability; disrupted sleep patterns and major impairments to my senses of smell and taste. Oh, and the loss of my beard. So much for the physical effects.
Some years ago in ‘How To Get Rich’ — and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve muttered through clenched teeth ‘It’s an ironical title, OK?’ — I wrote about failure, reminding readers that we must all face surrender at some time, at the very least either to death or to love, and should perhaps attempt to do so as gracefully as we can. We have no choice with the former and would be fools if we resisted the latter all our lives. Now this was good advice to my readers, but nonsense. Nonsense, at least, coming from me.
Nonsense in the sense that I fall squarely into the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s camp, who in the most famous villanelle of the 20th century, raged at his father not to ‘go gentle into that good night’, ranting that the old man should ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ (Mind you, that’s not exactly how the poet himself eventually exited following his fatal 1950’s drinking binge in New York.) Even so, I’m with Dylan on not ‘going gentle’. I suspect that ‘grace under pressure’ is not my forte, and I am certain I can hear the rustle of heads nodding and mouths ‘uh-huh’-ing as most of you read those words.
My advice was also nonsense because I have never properly surrendered to love myself and sadly, doubt I ever will. To do so would require a kind of courage in which I suspect I am deficient. Several women who have known me over the years have sensed that void and removed themselves from the gyre of what one memorably described as ‘an exhilarating, but scarily futile ride’. Fair enough. I’ll take the ‘exhilarating’ as a runner-up prize and whistle my lonesome way over the Bridge of Futility.
So could I learn to love unconditionally?
The answer is ‘no’. Not only because I lack the emotional courage to do so, but for a reason which I believe represents a glib but irrefutable get-out-of-jail card. In a nutshell, because by so doing I would surrender the vantage point, the ‘distance’ that provides my poetry whatever power it possesses. Should that matter, even accepting that my analysis is accurate?
Well, yes it does matter. Let’s face it, there is not a single person reading this, including me, who could have imagined a few years back what respected critics, authors and poets are now saying about my verse. Sod false modesty. Any serious author would give his right arm for such praise from people who know what they are talking about. Why would I risk disrupting a small pebble of fear which might in turn trigger a landslide leaving me happier emotionally but lacking the ability, the urge, the necessityto write poetry each day?
Writing verse has consumed me for a decade. Am I still in love with the business of making money as a publisher, whether in print or digitally? Yes. Especially with helping to identify, promote and work with young talent—I still have a real appetite for that. And I love, too, the business of causing hundreds of thousands of trees to be planted and observing nature flooding back to fill my woods with a secret life and beauty of their own. Who wouldn’t relish the chance of kickstarting a broadleaf forest in the Heart of England? It’s a thrilling prospect.
But poetry is it; poetry is the ‘Power of One’ for me. Like the Delta blues musician Robert Johnson, I have sold my soul in a Faustian pact to compose at least one or two immortal lines of verse. No matter who mocks such an ambition. No matter how impossible it is. No matter how many thousands of hours are spent trying to write those lines. Destined to fail or to succeed, I shall perish in the trying.
That was what so enraged me earlier this year when I thought it was curtains and that the Reaper had marked me out as another dull statistic in his stamp collection. I was bewildered and terrified in equal measure, as anyone might be. But above all I was enraged. Enraged that I still had so much verse to write and now had apparently neither time nor strength to play midwife to the muse. It was galling to discover, too, that the fear of death supplied so little creative juice. I had imagined one would be scribbling away like mad as oblivion neared—like Walter Raleigh perfecting those magnificent last lines in his cell the night before the chop:
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have…’
But not a bit of it. Very little, if anything, came flooding out. Physically and mentally, I was drained, running on empty. For the first time in my life, I could not act on the principle of Winston Churchill’s excellent advice: ‘When going through hell, keep going.’ It was all I could do to keep breathing.
So many people have helped me to get where I am today. Let me thank them unreservedly. Not only the physicians, surgeons and nurses, skilled and dedicated as they are, but friends, colleagues, strangers, lovers and my personal staff who have guided, cajoled and carted me through sloughs of despond, through the hopelessness, discomfort, pain and humiliation that accompanies nearly all cancer therapy. No one could have made such a journey on their own. Without others, we are all pretty much no-hopers in such circumstances.
So now I’m provisionally on the mend—with many anxious months, even years, to get through before any sort of all-clear can be sounded—I have concluded that there is little point in ‘turning over a new leaf’ or ‘discovering my inner child’. No, no, no. While retaining the humility of mortality’s recent reminder, I’ll double down.
Double down on what I am; what I’ve always been. This may not be viewed as a very admirable decision, but time is never on our side. It is always later than we think. I do not wish to waste whatever time has been gifted by my ‘secret servant’ and the sweat and care of those around me. It’s time to double down and see if I can’t do more, earn more, create more, share more—albeit with slightly less.
More business. More sculpture. More tree planting. More travel. And above all, more poetry. (Not to mention more touring to read my verse on stage.) Sooner or later the Reaper will be back, an appointment I do not relish but can accept as inevitable. But I will not go gentle. Nor will I go with the regret that I could have achieved more, helped others more, chased more rainbows and sunsets. Above all, I want to be whistling as I race him across the Bridge of Futility.
Thanks so much for your encouragement and kind wishes. They meant a great deal to me. I’ll end with a poem I wrote some months back, at the height of my misery, when I could almost hear dark wings hovering just out of reach, just out of sight.
Always, always, we are alone.
The solitude of self prevails
For worker bee or drowsy drone,
In palaces, on beds of nails,
Worshipped as a new messiah,
Shunned as neighbourhood pariah,
Proud or fearful—on our own.
Always, always, we are alone.
Though our lover loves us madly
We are but a house of bone,
Skin and bone they’d die for gladly;
Locked in cells of stony quiet,
Whirled in carnival or riot,
Dead or living—on our own.
Always, always, we are alone,
Flushed with triumph, broken-hearted,
Old and knowing, scarcely grown,
Blighted by the griefs we’ve charted,
Hounded through dark courts and alleys,
Bankers, beggars, Toms and Sallys…
Come the reckoning—on our own.
Dorsington, Warwickshire June 30, 2012
Inspired by The Solitude of Self, an impassioned speech delivered by Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives on January 17th 1892, in favour of a 16th amendment and the rights of women in America.
July 24, 2012
Whining, whinging, grumbling turns to terror
This was the letter I was going to write:
I should be grateful. Right? Grateful to be alive six months after a diagnosis of cancer; five months after surgery; nearly three months after the completion of a long course of radiotherapy. I should learn to live with or ignore side effects, lasting or temporary. I should ‘consider the alternative’, (in that grim but universal phrase often in the mouths of cancer surgeons, doctors and radiographers). Above all, I should compare my lot with those poor buggers for whom there is little hope; who know they are about to die and yet who face their destiny with courage, with dignity and, above all, without whining. Yeah. Right. But that is not how most humans are made. It is not how we face the world and deal with our everyday lives. Especially not this human. We do not measure ourselves against absolute ideals and heroic role models. We rarely ‘thank our lucky stars’, especially the British, for whom the Californian quip: ‘life’s a bitch and then you die’ might well have been coined. Let’s face it, we are at our happiest having a good old-fashioned moan. Ranting about incompetent, self-serving politicians. Cursing traffic wardens. Sneering at officials constricted by health and safety regulations. Hating the rich. And, above all, blathering on about the weather and our health. My present side effects? I can only sleep in one position if I am to breathe properly. I wake several times a night with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth (lack of saliva) which can only be fixed by sipping liquid. I cannot chew without discomfort and so am confined to a diet of porridge, soft soup, yoghurt and pap. I cannot put anything in my mouth with real taste: like an orange, almost any sauce, vinegar, or – God forbid – mild curries or similar delights. Lack of saliva means I dare not eat anything which will ‘flake’ (even chopped herbs) because I will then be spending hours trying to remove bits cleaving to the recesses of my mouth. Nor can I manage anything crunchy, even underdone toast. As the teeth on the whole of one side of my mouth were removed for surgery, and as replacements can never be implanted for fear of disturbing damaged bone, I must make do with the molars on the other side, none of which meet to allow effective mastication. I lack energy and have little stamina. My concentration is diminished. The left side of my head feels ‘disassociated’ from the rest of me. My left arm and shoulder are still half ‘frozen’ and do not function properly. The beard on my left cheek will never grow back and I must learn to shave every day—an activity I detest. All day I deal with low level discomfort and pain in my throat and mouth. Everyday tasks, like showering or getting dressed, take three or four times as long as they used to; torture for a person of an impatient, restless temperament like myself. And my nose is permanently bunged up. Apart from all that, I have nothing to grumble about. Except for an unmentionable but constant background terror, never far from the mind of any person in my position, that the sodding cancer has returned, the surgery has failed and all the vile sessions of radiotherapy were in vain.
So that was the original letter written Sunday July 22nd. A cri de cœur seeking distant sympathy. But one must always be careful what one wishes for, because on Monday morning I begin peeing blood. My body urges me repeatedly to try to pee—often with no result. When there is a result, it sometimes seems to be nothing but blood.
What is more scary are what look like tiny blood clots deposited on the enamel surface of the loo and the burning sensation that accompanies peeing. Horribly, if briefly, painful. So what do I do? I do what any sensible person would: I panic. Then I manage to get a local NHS doctor to look me over at home, which is very, very kind of him, it being after surgery hours. I am waiting for him to arrive, in a high state of trepidation, as I type the above.
Writing a letter like this at such a time, by the way, is identified by mental health care professionals as a form of ‘displacement activity’. But then you knew that already. Dr. Peter should arrive in an hour or so. [To be continued...] The good doctor tests my pee, prescribes antibiotics on the spot and gives me a double dose; warns me I may have an uncomfortable night; says he can treat the symptoms but is concerned about the underlying cause; advises me to take more painkillers. Tells me I will need a camera inserted in my John Thomas to take a look at my prostate in the near future.
There may have to be an operation, depending on what they find. This operation will be on top of the stent my cardiologist has been insisting needs to be inserted near my heart as soon as I am well enough. Dr. Peter, never daunted, cheers me up with witty conversation while sipping a glass of my 1996 Volnay.
Ten minutes after he leaves I throw up and begin worrying myself sick. (Did I vomit out the antibiotics or painkillers or both? Why did I vomit? What do I do now? Why me? And all the rest. None of this is in any way helpful.) Never a dull moment at Dennis Towers. Life’s a beach and then you get skin cancer… [To be continued on this site and on my Facebook page, when I can...]
June 8, 2012
False Dawns, Foul Weather, Traipsing Through Tesco
Six weeks since I last posted an update and I would scarcely blame anyone for thinking: ‘What can the cretin be doing to keep him from simply writing something.’ Good question! I have been trying to recover, my friend. It’s a full time occupation, or at least it has been for me.
There have been so many false dawns when I felt certain I had turned the corner. So many occasions where I found myself on the floor (or even on the lawn) waiting to die— (‘wanting to die’ I almost typed; but that would be a fractional exaggeration). So many mornings when I felt exultant for an hour: ‘It’s all over bar the shouting. I’m better!’ Sadly, it never was and I never was.
Grey skies and foul weather came racing back over the treacherous horizon swiftly enough; another storm to be endured. And endured not just by me, but by those trying to care for me—it hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses for those around me. If it wasn’t for the occasions when I literally slept for 14 hours at a time, (if you can call the waking coma induced by narcotics ‘sleep’) I’m not sure what might have become of me.
Let me spare you the gory details, although I am aware that a portion of my readers would very much enjoy reading such details, and the gorier the better. But catalogues of individual suffering are, in essence, self-inflicted wounds. They are only of real interest to participant(s) rather than those waiting, inquisitive and impatient, urging one on from the sidelines.
I will mention only that a lot of my hair has fallen out and my beard has been mutilated forever. Now let’s move on.
It is 28 days since the end of radiotherapy treatment and 120 days since the laser op’ to remove the tumour from my pharynx. When will this be over? It will take two and a half years apparently before the quacks will look you in the eye and say: ‘OK, you are now very, very unlikely to die from a return of this cancer.’ Yup. That’s two and a half years!
As to a recovery from this particular operation and treatment, probably another three or four months will see me at 90% of where I was before that Friday 13th in January when Dr. Bunbury looked into my mouth while we were having coffee at my writer’s cottage on Mustique. So this damn tumour will have stolen the best part of a year from my life.
In fact, that was an odd day altogether, that Friday. Marie-France and I held a cocktail party for a hundred or so people on Mandalay’s sun deck and I could not understand why so many beautiful women of a certain age turned up — then Robbie Williams and his entourage burst through the doors and all was clear as daylight. Sitting and chatting with this young superstar (a pleasant, bright lad blessed with plenty of ideas and talent—not my cup of tea musically, but the iron is in the soul there) was quite possibly the last innocent event for me before the cloud of cancer descended. The world has been an unsteady place ever since.
Of course, the world is always an unsteady place, the ricketiest of platforms, but we mostly manage to fool ourselves into a kind of normality with the veils of habit and familiarity. We’re trained from birth not to peek behind veils; not to look down. In fact, this world and the life we experience briefly on it is utterly odd.
My instinct as a kid to rebel against suburbia and every wretched thing in it—every lawn mower in every garage by every gnome fishing in every ornamental pond— was completely rational. It was my neighbours who were living in a pipe dream. I was brought up in a post-war world where the job of our teachers (mostly men who had fought in World War II and survived) was to prepare us for a productive, useful and normal working life.
But there is nothing normal about being self-aware in what appears to be an otherwise uninhabited universe. As far as we know, we are the only semi-conscious creatures in existence anywhere. But the oddness of this is too much for us to lug around as we go about our daily lives earning a living, visiting our parents, looking for love and traipsing through Tesco.
Then, in a shattering instant, all that familiarity and habit are trashed and we are left facing what we have been busy avoiding for decades. The essential oddness of our short lives and the knowledge that the world will soon be traipsing through Tesco without us in the crowd—without us being anywhere, as far as we know. Ah, good. I see a lorry carrying a dozen portable lavatories drawing up in the road outside my house—we are readying ourselves for our Open Gardens Day on Sunday when two thousand strangers will descend on us from all over Britain to help us raise thousands of pounds for charity. They do this in the guise of looking at our gardens, but, of course, curiosity is a huge factor. The desire to know how others live. What could be more ‘normal’ than that?
Sadly, my dear mother, Dorothy, has had to move into a nursing home (temporarily, I hope) after suffering a heart attack a while back, so I shall have to report to her what the visitors thought of her gardener’s efforts! I’ll post sooner and more often. I promise!
April 24, 2012
It’s been a month since I last posted an update. Please forgive this tardiness, but my life at present is somewhat akin to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with a touch of the Looking Glass thrown in for good measure. While I’m not at all certain which fictional character in Carroll’s two masterpieces I’m supposed to be playing, I have a suspicion that the dormouse comes closest.
Speaking of deranged psychology, although I am no fan of either Freud or Jung, the latter has a line in Psychology of the Unconscious I learned by heart decades ago: “The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Indeed it does, Carl, indeed it does; but better if you don’t mention it too often or they may well lock you up.
I shall not pretend that the past 30-odd days have fled by in a delirium of joyful exuberance. The going has been rough—and worse than rough in patches. Despair, after all, is not the absence of joy, but the abandonment of hope.
I have discovered I am not as tough as I thought I was, physically speaking. Mentally, I have been mostly able, with the help of friends, professionals, sessions of self-examination and reading to rebuild my shattered fortifications almost as fast as the bombardment persists. ‘Almost’—but not quite—and the siege continues.
Compensations have been few, although the combination of severe side-effects and drugs have led me to sleep for up to fifteen or sixteen hours on some days. With such ‘sleep’, (which is not real sleep at all, of course), comes the spectre of waking dreams: some good, some wonderful, some inexplicable and others merely tedious.
My ‘training’, if that is the right word, with recreational drugs back in the 1960s and 70s prepared me, perhaps better than most, for these excursions beyond the borders of what we laughingly call ‘reality’.
I am writing this as the sun sets in a ball of fire behind the tree-lined ridge to the west of my cottage. It’s hard for me to believe that I caused all those trees to be planted. Today, some of the oaks, ashes, willows, hornbeams and poplars are big enough to climb and build a tree house in, while the wood itself (an arable field when I began) is now marked as such on the Ordnance Survey map. Funny how things get out of hand, isn’t it?
I like to think of the myriad creatures and life forms which have made their homes in that tiny wood—a copse which means more to me than all the thousands of acres I have caused to be planted since. And, to be truthful, I’m grateful that the Ordnance Survey has accepted the names I have applied to most of my woods so far. As to whether these woods, as they become more contiguous, will ever be officially termed ‘The Heart of England Forest’ I cannot know.
How do forests get named, anyway? I’m half way through my radiotherapy course. The last day of treatment will be May 11th. That doesn’t seem so far away, but the sad truth with radiotherapy is that the side-effects often continue for weeks after the treatment ends. So I guess that high summer will have come (and maybe gone) before I am up and about and able to begin causing mischief again.
I am not certain I can stay the entire course; the side effects are ghastly; but I’ll do my best and the rest must lie in the lap of the gods. Let me thank each and every one of you who has contacted me with words and pictures of encouragement. Even that little sod who wrote asking if I’d remember him in my will (and I quote) “with, say, just a measly million bucks or so that I can fulfil my entrepreneurial dreams as you did yours.” We are obviously dealing with the next Richard Desmond or Richard Branson here, (at least in the hide-of-an-elephant sense) and if I had any wit I would invest in the little shit forthwith!
Let me extend thanks, too, to those stalwarts who have kept my Facebook page humming along while I have been AWOL. Is it me, or does the page appear to be more interesting and vibrant without my contributions? A disturbing thought! And a thought made more disturbing when I learn how marvellously the boys and girls who run the various tentacles of my business empire around the world have performed in my absence. Is a pattern emerging here? Surely I am damned if I say yes and equally damned if I say no? Bless their cotton socks anyway.
To all of you who have wished me well, many thanks. Let me end with the only other Jung quote, in my estimation, worth trotting out from time to time, especially when sensible people speak of those, like me, who have spent their life not behaving very sensibly: “My dear sir, show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”
March 19, 2012
Many of you have been kind enough to contact me in the past 40 days with encouragement and good wishes. I’m concerned at my lack of response, so here is an update to friends and colleagues.
In mid-January on Mustique, Dr. Michael Bunbury diagnosed that I had a tumour in the back of my throat. I flew back immediately to England.
What followed was a nightmare round of medical tests and consultations with London specialists and surgeons. Astonishingly, while they all agreed I had a cancerous tumour near my left tonsillar bed, that was the full extent of what many of them felt they could agree upon.
David Bliss and my GP accompanied me on these visits; we were astonished, bewildered and (finally) angered by the Alice-in-Wonderland degree of veiled contempt and arrogance displayed by several of these specialists—not of patients, but of the opinions and suggested treatments of other specialists. Upset by this futile search, my GP sent me to Graham Cox, a surgeon of long experience at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford.
Graham’s team operated on me to remove the tumour and other bits and pieces (lymph nodes, some teeth, etc.) on February 7th. Surgery was protracted, taking six hours instead of two and a half, apparently because my neck is so short that not all the interior parts were sited where they should have been and access was restricted. Things would have been far easier, for example, if I had been a ballerina with a swan-like neck!
I spent a week in hospital before returning to The Old Manor where Marie-France, Toby Fisher and Cathy Galt have taken me in hand. My recovery has pleased Mr. Cox but feels hellishly slow to me. I fatigue easily. I lack sustained concentration. Head and neck movements are restricted—it feels like the left side of my neck is bound in wire. Sleep patterns are shot, perhaps because I gave up smoking. I exercise but ache all over. Even so, I am making progress. Or so those around me are at pains to insist. Oh, and I’m irritable!
Now comes the hard part: surgery, apparently, is a doddle (as far as the patient is concerned) compared to the radiotherapy course I must undergo at the end of this month. The effects of this treatment will stretch into high summer. Treatments (or ‘the big burn’ as Don Atyeo has helpfully nicknamed it) will occur each weekday for seven weeks from the end of March at the Churchill, a cancer treatment facility associated with the Radcliffe.
I will be under the care of a team headed up by Dr. Chris Alcock. Having met Chris, I have full confidence in his mastery of the ‘black arts’ of X-rays and radiation bombardment. Even so, what it amounts to is that radiotherapy will make me a lot worse before it makes me better. Sadly, I will permanently lose much of my beard, too.
So will this cure me?
Hopefully, yes. But there is no guarantee. The surgery gave me a 50% chance of survival. Radiotherapy should increase this by 20% or more. The rest is in the lap of the gods. (What does ‘survival’ mean in medical terms? Er, five years and still breathing is the brutal answer!) I was lucky in one way: having had a root canal dental procedure last December, I mentioned a slight throat irritation a month later to Michael Bunbury while we sipped coffee at my Writer’s Cottage on Mustique. (I thought there might have been a bit of something left in my mouth by the dentist.) Michael insisted on taking a look. I therefore began treatment weeks before I would otherwise have done; and early treatment aids one’s chances of survival. The usual Dennis luck.
Nothing will ever be the same for me; a hard thing to learn and to know. Even so, I’ve managed to write a small number of short poems since the operation—this gives me hope that at some point I will be able to perform poetry again; and be able to walk for more than half a mile at a time; and return to the daily amusements of making money. Perhaps I will learn, too, if Will Shakespeare was right when he described adversity as a venomous toad with a jewel on its head. But if one more idiot suggests I will emerge from this ‘a better person’, physical violence will be visited upon them. Cancer sucks and ennobles nobody. I’ll not pretend that I have yet read all your cards, letters, emails and messages. As and when my strength and stamina return, you can be sure I will do so and that I will reply.
Thanks so much for your friendship, support and encouragement, reports of which have meant a great deal to me in the past few weeks.
Statement Issued by The Private Office of Felix Dennis, Soho, London
February, 8th 2012
Felix has been diagnosed with cancer of the pharynx (throat). Following surgery in an Oxford hospital yesterday, all being well, he should be discharged from hospital within 10 days. Following a month’s convalescence, Felix will begin a course of further treatment lasting several months. His chances of a full recovery are good.
On a lighter note, Felix gave up smoking on Friday 20th January 2012 after 49 years — no patches, he quit cold turkey. In addition, for medical reasons, ‘The Bearded Dwarf’ is bearded no more, although he is said to be considering a Billy Connolly-style goatee and moustache.
He has continued writing poetry since his diagnosis. These poems include ‘Love, Of A Kind’, ‘In-Flight’, ‘Wax-Mask’, ‘Kismet’, ‘The Rill of Hope’ and ‘Mind To Body’. These poems can be found on his website felixdennis.com under Poetry/Unpublished.
The third printing of Felix Dennis’s latest book of verse, Tales From The Woods, has just been distributed by his publisher, Ebury, a division of Random House, to bookshops and online booksellers.
Important Notice: Please do not call Felix’s Private Office for further information unless you are a friend of long standing or are a relative. For background information go to felixdennis.com or join Felix on Facebook.