Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wombling Free

Okay. Now my transplantation is officially getting quite hard. Lovely as it is in western Victoria, I have to admit that doing without blanket coverage of Wimbledon is tough. I can go cold turkey on the Tate and Paris can wait, at least for a year or two. But Wimbledon? I'm sorry, I've broken down completely. Below is our local tennis court. I think you'll agree it doesn't quite have the atmosphere of SW19.

What I wouldn't give for a plastic jar of warm Pimms and an outrageously priced punnet of limp, sour strawberries in a congealed mass of non-specific dairy substance right about now. As the evening closes in and I gaze out upon the alarming behaviour of the farm's chickens, who are incidentally what might have resulted if Fassbinder had cast Chicken Run, I can only draw on the memory of past balmy afternoons spent reclining on the sofa at House of Pants scrutinising Roger Federer's face for a flicker of expression. 

Being there is even better, not least of all because you're too far away from Roger Federer to see his face clearly. For years I had a pact with a tennis playing friend to enter the public draw. If one of us scored tickets, we'd take the other. We managed this roughly every other year. Unless you own a telecommunications company or a home county, the only way to get into Wimbledon is by lottery or joining the queue, the end of which you locate somewhere in Brittany but it miraculously deposits you under the magic ivy before play begins. I've done that a few times as well. A bagful of ham and cheese baguettes and a flask of Fair Trade coffee and, if you're lucky, only six hours of relative darkness and the time flits by as you get to know the several thousand people on either side of you intimately. 

Wimbledon is a little time bubble encapsulating what England must have been like in the 1930s. It's all straw boaters, candy stripes and people being jolly decent to each other. You don't generally get that anywhere else in London, at least not anywhere the hoi-polloi are permitted to assemble for any length of time. Given that watching tennis for eight hours requires epic concentration and no small amount of patience, especially if Roger Federer is involved, grizzling kiddies are mercifully thin on the ground. By London standards, that makes it an oasis of epic proportions.

I know that for about a tenner I could sign up to get the whole thing streamed to the farm's vile AppleMac but I can't see that sitting on a secretarial chair in front of the gas fire with an Afghan rug over my knees in the middle of the night is going to satisfy my need for the authentic Wimbledon experience somehow. I don't know that I'll ever learn to love watching world-class tennis on anything but grass. The huge fuss made over protecting the courts is one of the highlights of Wimbledon. There have been years when the covers going on and off has been the most exciting thing about the tournament. How do they maintain Rebound Ace - hoover it? Who wants to watch that?

The chickens have all gone off to bed after an exhausting day of failing to implement the latest conflict management techniques. At least they've produced an interesting combination of coloured eggs. I'm not sure I've seen an olive green egg before. I hope it's not anything to do with the leftover asparagus rolls from last Sunday's post tennis lunch I gave them. Like the Wombles of Wimbledon Common, they are left to their own devices to wander where they choose so they could be eating anything. Oh Lord, I just had a thought, I hope they haven't devoured my souvenir Wimbledon balls...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Horse Whisperer:EDW

A very quick Elegantly Dressed Wednesday post. These are some of my new friends. The Pants anti-obesity strategy is to waddle around on Reeboks for an hour and frighten all living creatures.  It does everyone the world of good. The sheep bolt in fright. The cows stand and stare at me as if trying to recall the last time they saw anything so strange. But the horses all come running over for a good old pat on the nose. It's the country, innit? I am ridiculously fond of horses so my well-being is positively equine at present. It can't last can it? 

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Spare Room of One's Own

Some years ago one of my closest friends died of cancer after following the almost obligatory path of credit card seeking hokum that masquerades as 'alternative' treatment to its inevitable sad conclusion. What is it about cancer? I have asked myself that question a thousand times since Yvonne's reluctant passing. She raged and refused, as many cancer patients do, and went feeling that had she only tried a little harder, she might have beaten the bastard disease. I have always wanted to write about this ugly battle and my far from heroic response to it but have never been able to summon the internal fortitude to do so. It's a complex business watching someone singled out to die in this arbitrary fashion. Cancer compels the sufferer to fight it and the sufferer's nearest and dearest to support her forays to the Yorkshire Dales to consult faith healers whose waiting list is almost as long as their charge sheet for fraud and make fast friends with belly dance instructors who have invested in ozone boxes.

Helen Garner made the decision to present The Spare Room, her account of dealing with the mad scramble to evade death by one of her closest friends, as a fiction. The ruse is thin enough to leave us in no doubt that the bones of the truth are there, but provides that all important legal protection in case the featured snake oil vendor decides to call his bent lawyer and have his day in court. She writes in the first person, calling her narrator Helen. Helen prepares her spare room for a three week visit by Nicola while she attends the sinister Theodore Institute for some intense quackery by confidently stockpiling Manchester and draping the room with greenery,

'...straightforward tasks of love and order that I could perform with ease'

Within a week, she realises she is well out of her depth and unable to support her friend by equalling her faith in the insanely chaotic and incompetent Theodore Institute. The conflict is palpable and Garner explores it fearlessly. Cancer is different from other illnesses in that the success of the cure seems almost defined by the strength of will and faith a sufferer is prepared and able to contribute. It's like the bubonic plague where the power of prayer was considered as potent a factor in the cure as an effective lancing of the poisonous buboes. Garner examines this curious quasi-religiosity skillfully, even sensitively. She accepts Nicola is a person who 'believes in things' and does make an attempt to keep good faith with her friend, at least in the beginning.

The sparse, brittle prose of this novel, Garner's first for fifteen years, is the perfect cloth from which to cut this story. The language is often as threadbare as Nicola's old, worn and woefully inadequate clothing. In interviews, Garner said she kept chopping it back, until there were only thirty-six thousand naked words remaining. There's a lovely metaphor in the book where Helen attacks a climbing rose when Nicola's 'tremendous performance of being alive [scrapes] on [her] nerves.' The belief, the pretense, life itself all melt into farce as Nicola grabs at it like a hungry anorexic. In a wonderfully touching scene, Helen takes Nicola to see a magic show she has agreed to review. The conjurer is superb, performing a highly symbolic rope trick completely convincingly. Briefly the pair bond over what is superficially a shared experience. On the way home, Helen raves about the illusionist's skill and is annoyed when Nicola chooses to latch instead onto a tenuous thread to validate her belief system. The magician tells her 'there are many ways to make a thing disappear' which Nicola reads as an affirmation of her treatment. Helen responds by wishing she could crash the car and only Nicola would die.

At the centre of Nicola's belief that the cruel massive doses of Vitamin C and organic coffee enemas that she endures are 'driving out' her cancer, is a Pascal style wager,

'I have to trust them. I don't have a choice. I've got to keep myself revved up and directed and purposeful.'

This is the fatal error in logic that has spawned an entire industry of 'alternative' therapies and I think women are particularly vulnerable to it. It is all too easy to convince a woman that there is still work to do to deserve a place on the planet. Yvonne had breast cancer. More than any other type, cancer of the breast seems to strip a woman of her identity. Yvonne cast this metaphor in concrete, much like Nicola does at the end of The Spare Room by denying the validity of her life, expressing to me often how 'pointless' she considered it. I believe this self-evaluation stemmed partly from the impotence she felt at not being able to fix herself. She felt she'd failed, and not just in the mission she'd undertaken to get well, but in everything. Unable to bring herself to question the competency of the treatments and practitioners in whom she placed her faith, she had no choice but to take the blame for not believing enough. Before she died, she stripped her house of any evidence that her life had meaning or connected with anyone else's. She burned all her personal papers and letters and left only pictures of her childhood and youth. Her whole house was like a spare room, a room belonging to no one. 

This is a courageous book and one I'm very glad I read. When my friend was dying, I was confronted by some nasty things about myself that I now find a lot easier to face because I know I'm not the only one who was not selflessly supportive and unconditionally loving until the bitter end. There were times when I was bored rigid by the whole business and I thought the woman with the ozone box was odious and I absolutely detested her other best friend with whom I was made joint executor of Yvonne's estate and the lawyers were vile and her elderly mother was all too often a candidate for strangulation. It was an awful time. But I'm not sorry I experienced this death. I was with Yvonne when she died and I am willing to admit that at the moment of her death, I felt tremendously empowered. I felt alive and full of healthy, vital cells. I wonder if I'd have felt that way if she'd died of heart failure.