Red wine and a new beginning

Having survived tuberculosis in my twenties, I assumed there'd be no more illness from then on. How

The world beyond myself hasn't had much of a look-in these past few months, which will be explained later.

I'd worked for a year or so on a novel called Like Fish in Water, about a jobbing carpenter in Nottingham. But before giving it the final polish, there were proofs to correct of Gadfly in Russia, to be published at the end of October. The book was a reminder of happier and more active days, when decisions were easier to make and stick to, when I drove in my own car to the Soviet Union in 1967. I wrote a 100-page account of the experience, but was only finally able to use it after a trip to Russia in 2005.

I set off, driving on the left to Harwich, and next day on the right, across Denmark. Sweden's traffic in those days took me back to the left, while in Finland 24 hours later I was again driving on the right. The drill sergeant's command of "left, right, left, right" took me down the middle of the road to Leningrad. The plan was to motor via Moscow and Kiev to Romania, over the Carpathians, the Alps, across the Channel, and then home. I wanted to drive through Russia on my own, but the Union of Writers seconded a young English graduate from Moscow University, George Andjaparidze, to see me safely through the Soviet Union. George, amiable and sophisticated, was supposed to save me being pulled up too often by the traffic police - an occasional lack of success by no means his fault.

The perfect companion, he and I became firm friends. Monte Cristo cigars were cheap in Russia, and each took 40kms to smoke. With such accuracy, who needed to look at the dashboard? George's ambition was to go abroad one day, especially to England, and I told him that when he did we would have a long lunch. Two years later he accompanied Anatoly Kuznetsov to London. Kuznetsov was known for his novel Babi Yar, named after a ravine near Kiev where 100,000 Jews were murdered by the Germans and their Ukrainian helpers.

While George and I were having that long-promised reunion, Kuznetsov ran into the offices of the Daily Telegraph and "claimed freedom". This was to land George in the worst trouble of his life, but luckily Stalin was long dead, and I was able to meet him several more times over the years.

In no condition for a party?

Whenever I began a book in the 1960s I wondered whether I'd finish it before the bomb dropped. Now, at nearly 80, a small lump in my neck turned out to be cancer. Having survived tuberculosis in my twenties, I assumed there'd be no more illness from then on. How wrong can one be?

A competent GP, backed up by the angels of the superb NHS, decided I was fit enough to undergo the necessary 25 sessions of radiotherapy, and drips of a wonder drug called Cetuximab. The implication was that if I survived that I would survive anything. It was agreed, however, that I would be in no condition to go to a launch party for my book at the end of October. I had been looking forward to the occasion, of another bouncing baby coming out to face the world, but now all I wanted to do was sleep. Even work on my novel wasn't possible.

A few days before the launch I had lunch with John King and Martin Knight at the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden. We'd used it as our club over the years, to talk about books and our writing. They'd started a publishing house called London Books, their first titles being Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, and The Gilt Kid by James Curtis, two neglected classics from the 1930s. Next year they will reissue A Start in Life, one of my back titles.

Our meeting was a dummy run for the launch of Gadfly in Russia at the Spiro Institute. I had discovered - don't ask why - that the chemical properties of red wine were marvellous at easing my throat. The full room was low-ceilinged enough to make the proffered microphone unnecessary. I could have sat, but stood out of habit. The young radiographers had done their work well, for I read three excerpts from the book as if there was nothing wrong with me at all. After such a treatment, maybe there isn't anymore.

Wish me luck!

"Gadfly in Russia" is published by JR Books, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?