By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
I’VE SEEN PEOPLE who were ill, nursed people who were ill, known people who were so ill they died but I’d not been seriously ill myself. Until, just recently, I got hit with flu. People had told me that flu was bad (real flu, as opposed to a bad cold, that is). They were under-describing it. This was the nearest I have come to dying, for 48 hours anyway.
I won’t go into many details, since one’s illnesses, like one’s dreams, act like sedatives on whoever is subjected to hearing them; except that, having worked a week while feeling decidedly unwell I began throwing up at 30 minute intervals for 48 hours. This was followed by a fortnight of prostration plus another three weeks of leaden-limbed lethargy. I lost a stone in weight over a week (metricists and US pound-wallahs can work that out for themselves). I don’t remember the second 24 hours of my marathon session, which is just as well; though my wife was convinced I was going to die.
The day after the crisis passed I kept having a recurrent dream which featured Donald Trump and his election campaign. It was like a weird, semi-cartoon-style movie on an endless loop. Even as it was playing I was saying to myself, “Stop! Please! This is boring, boring, boring!” But it wouldn’t. When I woke up and went back to sleep, the damn thing started again. It was like being forced into a cinema to watch the same reels over and over. It didn’t matter if you escaped, somehow you were driven back inside. It was the mental Cinema from Hell. Eventually, thank heavens, the mad projectionist in my brain pulled the plug, the cinema went dark and out of business and vanished.
It was while I lay in my bed that I considered the lost concept of convalescence. There was a time when I was growing up and still a young man that if you had suffered from a serious illness, undergone major surgery or were a woman who had just given birth, you were allowed weeks in which to recover, even if, medically speaking, you were back to full health. In the last thirty years that rather humane idea has been eradicated. Now you’re supposed to step into your can-do work clothes and stride back into business as if nothing had happened. Or as if nothing is going to happen if you’ve jumped the gun and leapt back into the fray when your system is in truth still half wrecked. That is just as bad as persisting in going to work when you know you are ill.
Preceding and following all this I was, ironically, in one of those global conversations with an old friend who now lives in Australia, about his progress through Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which is set in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps just before the First World War. We had both read this many years ago, when we had the stamina and intellectual curiosity to keep us going through books of 700 pages (pre-internet, you see: no distractions) but he had decided he wanted to revisit it. Better him, I thought, than me, because there is no way I am going to start that uphill slog again and certainly not in my condition. Like the hero, Hans Castorp, who arrives at the sanatorium initially just for three weeks but ends up there for seven years, I would have to devote more of my time to it than I could afford. As I convalesced I resorted to watching YouTube clips of John Betjeman talking about architecture, disused railway lines and the sad lives of Victorian vicars instead. Much easier.
What I take away from the whole experience is a determination to do the following: never, ever, ever push myself when I feel the slightest bit ill; take as much time to convalesce as possible; milk the sympathy vote to get off from as much work as I can afterwards; and not start reading big, fat novels. I don’t have enough life left. Or weight.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.