Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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Weak, vulnerable and permanently attached to a drip, he would be barrier nursed for a month at least. Other authors include Beckett, Burgess, Joyce, Keats, Tennyson, Heine – among many, many others – and, of course, Kafka – varifocal lenses on other worlds. Makes you appreciate that having a curious intellect is vital if you are to lead a happy life when your physical strength and mobility is so restricted. He struggled to find words that were not ‘ungenerous or ungrateful’ for a Facebook post, which I remember seeing, in which he says that ‘the line between sympathy and pity is one I’m especially keen not to cross.

MS sufferers who suffer with the more common relapsing/remitting ('good days and bad days') form of the disease, which is more prevalent amongst women. In his lovely, book-lined room in Magdalen College, Oxford – open a window, and you may hear the sound of a deer coughing in the mist – Douglas-Fairhurst, a fiftysomething professor of English whose studies of Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens have won literary prizes, and who has acted as the historical consultant on, among other productions, the TV series Dickensian and the Enola Holmesfilms, gamely waves an ankle at me. What I needed was laughter,’ Douglas-Fairhurst says, and later, ‘the worst was not, so long as I could still look at it with a comic squint. The electric shocks that ran up and down his spine if he bent his neck forward made him feel as if he was being Tasered at close quarters; in the mornings, his vision was blurred; his legs grew more unpredictable, and his falls more frequent. His symptoms – the struggle to get out of a hot bath; the feeling, after a long walk, that his legs could no longer carry him – had hitherto been more bothersome than distressing or painful.One understands his mistrust of the demeaning face of pity, and mistrusts it, recognising that it is mingled with the fear that the horror might happen to you.

The last thing you want is well-intentioned but unhelpful advice, when everyone becomes Google doctor.

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Radio and television appearances include Start the Week and The Culture Show, and he has also acted as the historical consultant on TV adaptations of Jane Eyre, Emma, Great Expectations, the BBC drama series Dickensian, and the feature film Enola Holmes. Finally, as recorded here mostly in journal entries, his arduous treatment began, much of it spent in an antiseptic bubble and with various setbacks along the way. This is a beautifully written memoir- the story of a devastating diagnosis but it is so much more than that.While many patients have had to travel abroad (often to Mexico) to receive this radical treatment, he discovered that AHSCT trials were being conducted in London, for which, following tests, he turned out to be eligible.

But, after all that is a socially common response in most people in the presence of serious illness or bereavement. While this book deals with distress, physical pain and uncertainty, its wry humour and lightness of touch make it anything but a misery memoir. For me the funniest moment arises from a wholly unfunny circumstance; one of the symptoms of his condition is urinary ‘urgency’. He was also, thanks to help from his college, able to pay for his treatment, which meant it could happen immediately. Within weeks, he deteriorated further – had blurred vision for an hour when he woke up, fell over in the street by the Bodleian Library, felt electric shocks tasering his spine if he bent his neck.

His books include Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, which won the Duff Cooper Prize, and The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, and The Turning Point: A Year that Changed Dickens and the World. With everyone in the picture, Douglas-Fairhurst proceeded to do what he has done ever since he was a child: he read furiously, hoping to make sense of the new world in which he found himself. His MS has, you see, changed his relationship with his body in ways that are – unlikely as this may sound – good as well as bad.

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