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A new poem by Clive James: “My Latest Fever”

 

My latest fever clad me in cold sweat
And there I was, in hospital again,
Drenched, and expecting an attack of bugs
As devastating as the first few hours
Of Barbarossa, with the Russian air force
Caught on the ground and soldiers by the thousand
Herded away to starve, while Stalin still
Believed it couldn’t happen. But instead
The assault tuned out to be as deadly dull
As a bunch of ancient members of the Garrick
Emerging from their hutch below the stairs
To bore me from all angles as I prayed
For sleep, which only came in fits and starts.
Night after night was like that. Every day
Was like the night before, a hit parade
Of jazzed-up sequences from action movies.
While liquid drugs were pumped into my arm,
My temperature stayed sky high. On the screen
Deep in my head, heroes repaired themselves.
In Rambo: First Blood, Sly Stallone sewed up
His own arm. Then Mark Wahlberg, star of Shooter,
Assisted by Kate Mara, operated
To dig the bullets from his body. Teeth
Were gritted in both cases. No one grits
Like Sly: it looks like a piano sneering.

Better, however, to be proof against
All damage, as in Salt, where Angelina
Jumps from a bridge on to a speeding truck
And then from that truck to another truck.
In North Korea, tortured for years on end,
She comes out with a split lip. All this mayhem
Raged in my brain with not a cliché scamped.
I saw the heroes march in line towards me
In slow-mo, with a wall of flame behind them,
And thought, as I have often thought, “This is
“The pits. How can I make it stop?” It stopped.
On the eleventh day, my temperature
Dived off the bridge like Catherine Zeta-Jones
From the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
I had no vision of the final battle.
The drugs, in pill form now, drove back the bugs
Into the holes from which they had attacked.
It might have been a scene from Starship Troopers:
But no, I had returned to the real world.
They sent me home to sleep in a dry bed
Where I felt better than I had for months.
No need to make a drama of my rescue:
Having been saved was like a lease of life,
The thing itself, undimmed by images –
A thrill a minute simply for being so.

Clive James is a poet, critic and broadcaster. A collection of his essays, Poetry Notebook (2006-2014), is newly published by Picador (£14.99).

Clive James is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster and poet, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, his chat shows on British television and his prolific journalism. He has submitted several original poems for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.