The divided self: "Portrait in Ruby and Blue" (2012) by Daniel Gordon. Image: Daniel Gordon Studio
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The agony and the ecstasy

The creative power of illness.

The first time I experienced severe physical pain, I was 13 years old. It was a new sensation: nauseating, deep and gnawing; centred in my abdomen and the base of my spine, it also radiated down both legs. I lay on the floor of the lounge, one moment curled on my side like a comma, my knees pulled up to my chest; the next on my back; the next on my front with my legs spread as wide as they would go. None of these positions brought relief. I was vaguely aware of shaking and of being unable to talk. My skin, I learned later, was so unnaturally pale that had I not been moving, I might have been taken for dead.

More than a decade of similar episodes followed, until, aged 26, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. I still have the condition today, and sometimes, in the middle of a bad episode, I have longed not to exist. But always after the pain comes the gradual, miraculous release from pain, and with it the sense that my stay in that other strange realm to which illness transports us is by no means over. It seems to me that these periods are vacations, in the truest sense of the word – intermissions, voids, times in which my normal life has in effect been emptied of my presence.

Most people have never seen me suffering: a few (ambulance staff, doctors, night cleaners) have never seen me well. It is as if, since the age of 13, a secret self has existed alongside my everyday self; one for whom, from time to time, the so-called real world, with all its duties and dreary preoccupations, ceases to be. It’s striking how often the notion of the divided self crops up in relation to physical illness. Sometimes the division is literal, as described here by Dorothy Molloy in the title poem of her collection Gethsemane Day:

They’ve taken my liver down to the lab,
left the rest of me here on the bed;
the blood I am sweating rubs off on the sheet,
but I’m still holding on to my head.

Sylvia Plath also presents an account of the self splitting into two while undergoing medical treatment. In December 1952, she found herself in hospital after breaking her leg in a skiing accident. Her response, “In Plaster”, details a struggle between two different selves:

I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,
And the white person is certainly the superior one.

Superior, it transpires, only inasmuch as the plaster self doesn’t need food to sustain it and is “whiter and unbreakable and with no complaints”. But it is the old, yellow self that plays host to this gleaming other. Clearly, we’re in the realms of metaphor: Plath believed that a life lived by a false self or selves was both cowardly and senseless; time and again her poems propound the wisdom of shedding false identities.

Much has been made of the link between creativity and mental illness, but the link between physical illness and the creative life, though less discussed, is just as significant. For some artists, it led directly to a choice of career. Matisse – famous for his intense, saturated colours that seem to blaze with life – initially studied law and had begun work as a court administrator when an attack of appendicitis forced him to take time out. His mother bought him art supplies to keep him occupied during his convalescence and it was only then that he made his first paintings. His subsequent decision to quit law and become a painter was, it is said, the cause of deep disappointment for his father.

Hilary Mantel, a fellow endometriosis sufferer, believes the disease was at least partly responsible for her choice to become a writer, as she explains in an interview at the back of her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost: “A lot of people know they’re going to be writers when they’re children, but I made a conscious decision to become one when I was 22, when, because of my poor health, I saw other career prospects slipping away from me.”

Like Matisse, Mantel read law at university but her studies were interrupted by severe episodes of pain that resulted in a succession of inappropriate medication. She explains, “It was in the nature of educated young women, it was believed, to be hysterical, neurotic, difficult, and out of control, and the object was to get them back under control . . . by giving them drugs which make them indifferent to their mental pain – and, in my case, indifferent to physical pain too.”

Baffled by the symptoms, Mantel’s doctors seem to have resorted to a sort of annihilation of the self. Though the circumstances aren’t usually so extreme, the sensation of surrendered identity is a common reaction to medical intervention – as the bed-ridden speaker in Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” describes:

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the an aesthetist and my body to surgeons.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff

Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.

This feeling is by no means the preserve of female writers. In 2006, in County Donegal, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney suffered a stroke that he wrote about in his most tender collection, Human Chain. In conversation with the Observer, he explained, “The trip in the ambulance I always remember because Marie [Heaney’s wife] was in the back with me . . . To me, that was one of the actual beauties of the stroke, that renewal of love in the ambulance. One of the strongest, sweetest memories I have.” In “Chanson d’Aventure”, he describes that same journey: here, the speaker’s sense of powerlessness is powerfully expressed in a series of passive verbs, as he finds himself

Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked
In position for the drive
Bone-shaken, bumped at speed

Later in the same poem, Heaney finds himself reflecting on the word bell:

. . . the one I tolled in Derry in my turn
As college bellman, the haul of it there still
In the heel of my once capable

Warm hand, hand that I could not feel you lift
And lag in yours throughout that journey
When it lay flop-heavy as a bellpull.

The merging of present and past that Heaney articulates here is another familiar feature of illness. In the midst of severe pain it is difficult to be anywhere except the present, but at times of injury or shock it is common for different time phases to merge.

Disease can open up unique perspectives for the sufferer and a surprising amount of the work that makes up our artistic canon has emerged from it – work that would otherwise never have existed. An obvious example is Paradise Lost, dictated by Milton after he had lost his sight completely.

More poignant still is the story of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In middle age, and shortly after the death of his young daughter, Mahler learned that his heart was defective. The first movement of the symphony opens with a tentative, syncopated rhythm that many, including Leonard Bernstein, have suggested echoes the composer’s irregular heartbeat. The motif returns seven times over the course of the movement until, at its climax, it arrives as a sudden intrusion, as Bernstein put it, of “death in the midst of life”. This time it is announced by trombones, underpinned by a booming bass drum and marked in the score mit höchster Gewalt (“with the greatest violence”) – as if death must finally have its say.

My latest poetry collection, The World’s Two Smallest Humans, concludes with an assertion of life – a sequence of poems based on the IVF treatment I received for fertility problems related to endometriosis. The sequence is fictional but the two smallest humans of the title are real enough: there is an extraordinary moment during the IVF process when the embryologist walks into the treatment room with your live embryos attached to the end of a pipette. In she walks, in a little scrub cap and tunic, looking more like a bakery worker than someone who is carrying in her latex-gloved hands the smallest human beings possible. Moments later, those same beings are transferred to the patient’s womb to do their best.

After three operations, my worst pain episodes are few and far between, but they still occur. The most recent happened a few months ago. The two-person ambulance crew that arrived at my cottage door in the dead of night was led by a woman called Jo, for whose professionalism and compassion I shall be eternally grateful.

Philip Larkin said of ambulances, “They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited.” According to the poem, a journey in an ambulance signals the end, first of our identity and then our existence: such a trip, the poem concludes, “Brings closer what is left to come,/And dulls to distance all we are.”

That may be true but more often than not it is a temporary truth: Larkin’s poem wilfully disregards the possibility of recovery. In some ancient cultures there is a deity for illness, which strikes me as refreshingly clear sighted. If such a god existed for us today, I would be glad of the chance to offer up a prayer of thanks for the rich crop of art he has nurtured into being.

Julia Copus’s recent collection, “The World’s Two Smallest Humans”, was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and the Costa Book Awards

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies