I write these words, one-handed, on my birthday. Happy birthday to me. I shouldn’t have to be working on my birthday. No one should have to if they don’t want to. In a normal year I’d have warned my editor and asked if I could file the next day so I could tell my readers about all the crazy stuff I got up to, but today there is going to be no crazy stuff because my shoulder is much worse than it was last week, and last week it was pretty bad.
I am in no mood to go out and celebrate and even if I were, the meds I am on tell me not to drink alcohol with them, or I will die. In fact there was a flurry of prescriptions which cleverly got in the door just a few days before I became old enough not to have to pay for them. One of them warns me of suicidal thoughts and manic episodes but I haven’t had any of the latter and no more of the former than usual, although I was moved to murderous thoughts by the friend who said that pain was all in the mind and another one who said that he had had the same thing but found the pain spiritually uplifting. I don’t think he was joking because he’s what people used to call a sky pilot, a wonderfully dismissive term for a man of the cloth. Then again, he’s the Reverend Richard Coles, so he may have been trying to wind me up. In which case he succeeded.
Then again, right now it does not take much to wind me up. Pain has a way of stripping away all patience and fellow-feeling; all humour; all ability to concentrate. It is like having someone very stupid and horrible screaming at you all day and all night. There is a point to most pain: it tells you something is wrong with the body. There are people who cannot feel pain and they do things like chew their lips off in their sleep. This pain is not so helpful. The only good thing about this pain, and I am clutching at straws here, is that the beard can carry on growing without living in fear of being shaved off. Actually that’s more of a good thing about the beard, rather than the pain. Which can sod off.
But on the whole, apart from those two mentioned above, people have been very supportive. R— popped round with a big bag of bath salts, a tramadol, a heat patch and a book I’d seen on her shelves by Elaine Scarry called The Body in Pain. “That’s more lit crit,” said R— but I said that was fine by me. Unfortunately Professor Scarry’s book is based upon a nonsensical premise (“physical pain is exceptional in the whole fabric of psychic, somatic and perceptual states for being the only one that has no object” etc) so I am afraid that only made me grumpier than ever. But that’s not R—’s fault. The message in the card more than made up for it.
D— sent me more sunflower seeds and a Waitrose gift card she cannot afford. And my great friend M—, my second longest-serving, sent me a case of wine, the only problem with which being that they are all cork- rather than screw-top-secured, and I very much doubt there is a more painful exercise for someone in my condition than pulling a cork using the screw from a Swiss Army Knife. In fact, I felt a bit faint just thinking about it and had to blow my voucher on one of those corkscrews whose arms lift up – in cruel mockery of the situation.
In the end, I have decided that the drugs don’t work. There comes a point where they don’t even touch the sides. I had half a bottle of wine with my codeine last night and, as I suspected, the cautionary leaflets were exaggerating. I normally take a benign and inquisitive attitude to the pharmacopoeia, but in this case they weren’t cutting the mustard. The pills might as well be Smarties and the gel might as well be salad cream. So booze it is – and, surprisingly, gentle movements suggested by the physio. Yesterday, I was in such obvious pain walking up the hill to the clinic that a woman with a van full of carpet samples offered me a lift: it was only for 100 yards or so but I needed it, and accepted it. The walk back was better.
I have had some great birthdays in the past. The one where I walked into the Duke of Wellington the morning after, arm in arm with two of the most beautiful women in London. The one where David Gilmour showed up and said that the Hovel reminded him of his squatting days in the 1960s. The one where K— came round, saw I was glum, and offered… well, let’s stop there. Anyway, this birthday isn’t going to be one of those. Then again, I’m not howling in agony today, and what more could one wish for?
This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up