I have been reading, for review purposes, an enormous book by the writer Jonathan Meades (spoiler: it’s very good), but it is so enormous that I find I am almost becoming breathless from the effort it takes to hold it. And I am beginning to have those kind of puzzling aches which make me feel as though my time is drawing rather nearer and swifter than I would like. That twinge in the shoulder, that ache from the deep regions of the back. And then I notice that my hand has turned blue.
Naturally, I do the most sensible thing anyone could do under the circumstances: I get into another fight on Twitter. This one was over my column the other week, in which I told the story about Boris Johnson being horrible to a working-class interviewee at Balliol. Someone called Lord Moylan stepped in to speak up for Johnson’s good character, never an easy thing to pull off, and to denigrate my standards of journalism. “I am not a journalist,” I replied, “I am a columnist and critic. And you, my Lord, are now being a bore.”
This was all great fun, but it wasn’t making my hand look any more normal. My first thought was necrosis. I’d been developing a nasty patch of dry, itchy, flaky skin on the right palm; this seemed like the logical next step. Eventually, the blueness would creep up my arm, then my neck, until it reached my brain and I became a zombie. That’s how these things work, right? I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t actually glowing, as it would be in Doctor Who. I have always wanted “Died as a space zombie” on my tombstone.
So I took a photograph and sent it to someone dear to me and she said: “Shall I google it or will you?” I google it. Well, actually, I start off by googling “space zombies” and, while there is an awful lot out there under that heading (“As a general rule, space zombies tend to be more energetic than their terrestrial counterparts…”), none of it seems to apply to my own situation.
Meanwhile, Moylan refuses to let the matter go: “You’re the first person to accuse Boris of gratuitous personal rudeness, something nobody who knows him would credit.” Really? The first? That’s quite an achievement. I’ve heard Johnson has a terrible temper, though. I remember his first wife’s description of him to me, but it’s unprintable in full. A half-decent lawyer could claim it was “low and vulgar abuse” and so not actionable, but I do not want to descend to the gutter.
I have other things to worry about. I type “hand turning blue” into Google and look, horrified, at what comes up. It is not necrosis, but something just as bad: cyanosis. This is the medical word for “turning blue”.
A friend writes to me about Moylan. Apparently, he used to have a different name. “Is that Lord Moylan who used to be humble Daniel Moylan, who was president of the Oxford Union in my first term there and one of the most self-satisfied [redacted] you could ever hope to meet? Do hope so.” “None other,” I reply, and tweet the description, because what I’m craving at the moment is distraction, and I’m sure that Daniel Moylan’s response to this goading will not disappoint.
Anyway, back to my hand. The blue is pretty, almost like marbling. Cyanosis, it turns out, may happen at high altitude – yet I’m anything but at a high altitude. I think I’m about 200 feet above sea level. “…Or may be due to chronic underlying conditions such as lung diseases or chronic heart disease.” Now that is worrying. I do have an underlying lung condition – indeed, I have been putting off a chest X-ray for two years now; that ache in the back is becoming very concerning. I remember one of Dr Phil Whitaker’s excellent columns telling us that aches like this can be one of the ways lung cancer manifests itself.
I stop thinking about “Lord” Moylan for a minute, even though he is very disappointed in the way my attacks seem to have taken a personal turn. “Actually, I don’t regard ‘smug, self-satisfied [redacted]’ as much of an insult, really and my robust mental health is intact,” he writes, mystifyingly.
At this point, I’ve had enough. I take up the enormous book and read some more. But it’s hard to concentrate, so I have some breakfast and do the washing up. After doing the washing up, I look at my hand. It is no longer blue. Obviously, doing the washing up cures cyanosis. I look at the book I am reviewing. As is my habit, I have removed the jacket; the naked hard cover beneath it is a fetching shade of blue. I lick my finger and run it down the back cover. A smear of blue appears on the tip. I text the person who’s dear to me. “My hand’s better,” I say.
I go back to the fray with Lord Moylan.
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation