Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

This month has been the launching season for my new collection of poems, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower.

Not many younger people, I have been discovering, know what a flak tower is, or was. Perhaps I should have called the book something else. One of the poems in the book is called 'Whitman and the Moth': it might have been wiser to call the book that. Early in the launching season I was asked to read the poem aloud on that excellent radio programme Front Row.

The poem is a meditation on the old poet at the point of his death and I'm afraid I found the right voice for it exactly.

I have been exhausted for more than two years now, by illness. Leukaemia is practically the least of my ailments. In a lull between bad stretches the Saturday edition of the Telegraph kindly asked me to review television. That was about a year ago and we have now completed my first year on the case, so this month has been my first annual holiday. I tried to time it so that the book launch could fit into the slot. When you are short of energy you have to ration it. So far I have managed to look busy by doing one thing at a time. Put it all together and it's a decent fraction of the work I did before I fell ill. I still feel guilty, however, that hours go by when I don't touch the keyboard.

I doubt if illness improves the concentration. Though its individual perceptions take thought, a critical column is comparatively easy to construct because it is cumulative. This column you are reading now counts as a general column and it will have to have an argument. In a general column you have to tackle a subject, and my subject, by force of circumstance, must be about how I have been so sick that almost nothing else has happened to me.

Or not much that shows. So far I've been lucky that way. Various clinics stick needles in me but I look reasonably intact. The major action is going on in the soul. Everything has become personal.

Famously productive until his death, my old friend Christopher Hitchens had a memorial service in New York. Almost everyone I knew was there. I would have been there too but I was not allowed to fly. I was envious of them. Even less nobly, I was envious of him. I read his obituaries: he had attracted so much love. What would be said of me when I was gone? I almost was. Why not devote myself to the form of writing that has always mattered to me most? …

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