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The e-mails of life and death

March 3, 2001 

THE treatment that John received for his throat cancer meant that he lost his tongue — and so his voice. This was devastating for John as he loved to talk and he was good at it. But there was another thing he loved to do: send e-mails.

Before most people used the thing, John was surfing the Net and chatting online. He even wrote a very early Internet column for The Times Magazine. So there was an aptness to what, by necessity, became the way we talked.

It meant that he could retain his eloquence and quick wit and voice; and it enabled us both — in the way that e-mail is peculiary well-equipped to do — to roam between the most serious of conversations and the most flippant.

When the lump first appeared, in March 1997, The Times was not on e-mail. He had to call. He could call — he still had his voice, although John hated answering the telephone and making calls. It approached a phobia at times, about which he occasionally wrote (of course). He would occasionally tag on the odd message at the top of his column — all long lost with a dinosaur of an old computer system. But more or less everything that he had to say about the illness is there in those early columns, and their tale of the multiple treatments, gradually declining odds and constantly renewed optimism.

When The Times hit the superhighway, a conversation about his illness parallel to the columns began to develop. When I read this correspondence now, some of it affects me beyond belief.

Some of it is the dull, dull talk of deadlines; some of it his urgent requests for gossip (normally after a stint in hospital — “Gossip me up”, he’d tap); some of it is slurred and misspelt (but he never, ever, misspelt anything in his copy) as he struggled through morphine or sometimes the aftermath of a raucous night out. He often asks that I worry about Nigella rather than him. And he very, very rarely moans.

One of his earliest e-mails is about the success of his book C, Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. June 17, 1998: The last two weeks have been bizarre. It’s such a strange reason for notoriety. I’ve just learned that the book is No 1 on the Bookseller and Sunday Times lists and I am suddenly a bestselling author. But what a strange thing to be a bestselling author about.ho-hum. love J x

A month later, things seemed more grim. July 17, 1998: So-so. They discovered the pneumonia because I had another one of those can’t-breathe episodes which ended up with a high speed ambulance ride to the Charing Cross. I’m frightened to go to sleep which means I’m knackered with it. Hope it doesn’t show in my copy! How are you? Shall I pop in some time next week? Love J

His view of his illness in private was the same as the account he gave in his column: he told his reading public the truth, albeit on a week-long delay button. He would sometimes apologise for the quality of his work if he felt rough; he hated not filing. Writing the column was necessary to him. I would often suggest that he took a week off, but really I knew that he wouldn’t. He was hugely gracious and kind and generous in his thanks to me as his editor, when he really didn’t need to be. July 22, 1998: Have just filed. In fact I’m really glad I did: it’s the only thing I’ve enjoyed writing this week. And don’t worry; I spent four hours in bed this afternoon before I started it. Two weeks off? I don’t know. I’m quite proud of the fact that I’ve done this with just the one break. The fact is that now that I don’t broadcast, The Times is the nearest I get to fun each week. How are you? much love. J

However bad things got for him, John was always engaged with the outside world. He may have been criticised for writing a column of selfobsession, but he was never self-obsessed. He liked being part of a magazine, part of a newspaper, and wanted not just gossip, but to be part of the discussion about stories — who’d written what, shop talk. August 18, 1998: Gill: Frankly it’s been a pretty rough six weeks or so. After the pneumonia there was the flu, and then a cold and then a bug . . . yesterday I had a bloody back tooth taken out because of an abscess and there’s talk of keeping a starter dose of antibiotics with me all the time now that I don’t have a lymphatic system round my neck. But it’s getting slowly better — I hope. Could we meet next week? Thanks for the coverline. That stuff is more appreciated than you think. The mag is reading really well. And the US jail story was great; where did it come from? love J

These chatty mails would sometimes be interrupted by one of John’s round robins, to his formidable list of hundreds of close friends and editors. Normally sent very late at night, they always meant the illness had taken a new and inevitably awful turn. August 28, 1998, 23.57: Dear All. The thing is this: I have to go back into hospital. Just over a year ago I had about a third of my tongue removed to get rid of a malignant tumour at its base. It now looks as if the cancer has returned — albeit in tiny quantities as far as they can tell and the rest of the tongue has to come out too. That’s the first half of the operation. The second half involves taking some skin-covered muscle out of my back, joining it to the root of my missing tongue and plumbing it into my jugular vein and carotid artery . . . It’s a bastard, but it’s a bigger bastard for Nigella, who has all this to deal with, plus trying to keep home as normal as possible for the children, plus work. She’ll need all the emotional and practical support going, and I’m depending on some of you. Thanks and, to some of you at least, love, John

Two days later, ever the pro, he wrote: Gill: I guess you’ll have seen the other message by now. I wish it didn’t have to happen but it does. You’ll excuse me for the purely practical — I didn’t want to take a week off, and then come back, and then go again or to disappear from the page without saying what was happening, so I’ve written a column for this week, explaining. You’ll find it in the usual queue. I’d like to file again as soon as possible. Thanks for everything (so far) Love, John

John’s mood, not suprisingly, would soar and nosedive. Silence generally meant a nosedive. But then: September 22, 1998: Well, I’m back. I have no voice at all to speak of, spend much of the day drifting in a fug of morphine and can’t pretend I’m not a little scared about the future. But I am back. I sent a column to the usual basket. It is, of course, a cancer column and there will be a few to come — especially on getting used to having no voice. But I would like to think I can write as many non-cancer columns still. To my amazement, for instance, almost half the large bundle of letters I got the other day were about the female thriller writers I’d mentioned the week before. The oddest thing is how much I enjoyed writing the column again. How are you? How’s the mag? How’s motherhood? Can I still write insomnia? With much love J October 1, 1998: The prognosis? Who knows. The worst is that I’ll never take sustenance through my mouth again, nor will I have anything but the most rudimentary voice. I look like a man born without a tongue rather than one whose had everything down to the jawbone scraped away. That sounds dreadful. In fact I look better than I have for ages . . . with the trachostomy still in I can’t get much of a noise, but I hope it will change. Boy — do I hope it will change. And yes, I love the single page. Thank you! Love, J

Sometimes John’s private mails coincided absolutely with the columns. Certainly he was dedicated to telling it medically like it was. Just occasionally, he slapped the smile on and played it for laughs when he was struggling to see the joke. I have one e-mail, attached to a column, when he is clearly exhausted, because it doesn't sound like him, a bit confused and fuzzy: December 9, 1998: Gill. I’m so soryy (sic). I got the bloody days confused. Hope this isn’t too late. Love J

But then the column starts with a jaunty “I’m a bit of a flirt . . .” After a typically John Christmas — lots of requests for details of parties and invites — 1999 started badly.

January 7, 1999: More bad news I’m afraid, details of which follow in the appended column. It will mean at least one week and probably three or four away from the page. (There was a shadow over the larynx.) Would that it were otherwise. Love J January 8, 1999: Gill. It was lovely to see you last night. If I do have to go in for a long op again, would you visit? Love J

January 13, 1999: I know Nigella e-mailed you yesterday; this is me with the full SP. In short I’ve moved from cancer patient to terminal cancer patient; if I take the chemotherapy and it works I might have a year or more; if it doesn’t work or if I decide not to go ahead with it, then it’s probably no more than six months or so. Either way I intend to keep up the column as close to the end as I can or as close as turns out to be appropriate. I’ll probably send out a round robin to e-mailable friends in the next couple of days. meanwhile — what can i say? Love J

I’m sure I often got it wrong with John and irritated him beyond belief. He wrote many times about the etiquette of having cancer and railed against the people who fell foul of his strong antipathy for gushing expressions of emotion, or endless “How are you’s?” — well-meant, but he wanted to scream (but couldn’t): “I’ve got cancer — what do you mean, how am I?” I always knew when I’d got it wrong because John’s e-mails would just stop for a while. Then he’d be back with a vengeance: “When are you coming round?; what’s the gossip on . . . (insert any number of tales of Fleet Street nonsense).” He reserved a special contempt for any mentions of courage. February 15, 1999: As for matters of courage and the like, you know my feelings on this. If I had any courage at all I’d stop them putting me through this continuous ordeal and down a bottle of sleepers. Yes: please come and visit. Love J March 18, 1999: Gill. column herewith; I feel like shit and so have no idea whatsoever whether I’ve sent you 750 words of garbage or not. If it is, please feel free to fill the space with sofa company ads! Love J

But there was always this extraordinary capacity to bounce back and ceaseless enthusiasm for the writing. He lived for lots of things, but the column was certainly one of them. April 13, 1999: Noooo! Let me write this week! I feel wonderful again (ie, well enough to get pissed again last night). The only reason this chemo kept me off the column was because it was a day late due to the pascal stuff. I’m off to buy a motorbike now. Love J 18 June, 1999: Gill. Thanks for the message. I’m in the middle of chemo-puking at the moment. May I answer it on Monday? Thanks for coming to the SJ (Samuel Johnson prize, for which John’s book was shortlisted.) I was really touched. Love J September 1, 1999: Gill. We had a fabulous week away. I’ve just spent the week pottering about on boats with the kids and very wonderful it was too. And you? Love J

I mailed John to tell him his column about starting smoking again was shockingly good and would provoke a huge and angry mailbag (it did). September 10, 1999: Gill. Think about it from my point of view, though. I had run out of ideas so I started smoking to give myself a column. See you next week. Love J

John couldn’t stay off his e-mail. Some of his best mails were sent in the early hours November 26, 1999. 00:50: G. I write completely arseholed having just come from dinner . . . (He proceeded to dish lots of lovely media gossip as well as answer a query on his copy.)

For the early part of 2000, I wasn’t handling John’s copy, as I was on maternity leave, so our mails were entirely social. And he was as happy as I’ve ever known him. His mails were positively jolly. March 1, 2000: Gill. What are you doing at The Times, ffs? Go home, lie down! Do come round so long, N says, as you bring the baby. The crew isn’t here on Mondays or Fridays (Nigella was filming her first Channel 4 series, Nigella Bites.) Love J May 21, 2000: Gill. Fine. Biopsy clear, stomach tube removed. I’m now writing a paper for the BMJ on cocaine, dope, booze and tobacco as a possible cure for cancer. How are you? When are you coming over? Love J Things were suddenly going so well that I asked him if, for once, he was overturning the odds, rather than them overturning him. He was having none of it.

May 23, 2000: G. Come on now: you know me and miracle cures! No: I’m still pretty well within the standard distribution of responses to the chemo. The average remission is three months or so, and so far I’ve gone about a year, but there are people who manage up to a couple of years. And of course the reason I’ve been living such a rackety life is not because I think I’m immortal again, but because — and you’ll see this in next week’s column — it’s unlikely to make much of a difference to the prognosis; I really would hate to find myself in a couple of weeks or a couple of months hearing that the cancer had returned and regretting that while this was always a certainty I’d spent the last year living a life of quiet piety and treating my body as a temple when all the time I could have been having a good time. The Monday after that would be excellent and bringing Molly would be excellenter still. Love J Normally, when there was a gap in John’s e-mails, I expected the worst. It generally was.

June 15, 2000: Gill. Bad news, I’m afraid. There is an abnormality on the scan and I don’t think it’s a third nipple. (And don’t complain if you see that gag again in print!) So much for touching wood: there was a dumb and superstitious part of me that thought that if I wrote with such certainly yesterday then I’d only have to write the “Duh! stupid me! It was only an infected wisdom tooth all along!” next week. No such bloody luck. I’m in hospital at 2pm today; I’ll tell you what they say. John went into hospital for another operation and then a radical, unnerving treatment which involved putting radioactive wires through his throat. People could visit but only for ten minutes and at a distance.

July 4, 2000: I’m out of theatre and seem to be, as they say, pregressing. The only thing is that I’m up to my neck — literally — in morphine. Would it be OK to take a week off the column this week. And run a couple of lines on the contents page saying that the op was OK and I’ll be back next week. I don’t want people writing to me to see if I’m dead. How are things? The radioactive wires go in any minute now which will put me into purdah. Gossip me up!

Love J Things got worse.

July 7, 2000: Gill. Terrible, terrible, terrible: about an hour after you left I went into steep decline, had real problems breathing and have been up all night on oxygen feeling both useless and shit. I haven’t been able to write a thing — even the things I write — and am berating myself now for telling you I’d deliver. Would you confirm asap that you’ve got this. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Love J Then . . .

July 13, 2000: G. A column! Fancy! It’s all a bit suicidal at the moment, I’m afraid, mainly due to my coming off the morphine, but I’m determined to come off the bastard. See you very soon? Love J John’s friends and colleagues got used to the endless swings in his condition. When he was going through a good run, I would begin to feel he really was going to go on for ever, but then another e-mail would arrive.

October 10, 2000: Gill, Just when I think I’m about to run out of things to write about . . . The bronchoscopy’s on Thursday, hence the early arrival of this. That and wanting to write it down.

x J

October 13, 2000: Gill, a sort of news. The cancer is in the lung — or “lung cancer” as I suppose I shall have to learn to call it — is confirmed. We won’t know until Tuesday what flavour it is though. It’s all very odd. I feel perfectly happy at the moment and life seems surreally normal. Have just bought four trachae-covering polo necks sweaters (Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbanna, Nicole Farhi and Helmut Lang) at Selfridges and am off out to the casino as soon as the district nurse has gone. Not, I suppose, that going mad at Selfridges and afternoon gambling count as normal. See you at 1 on Sun. x j John never tired of his delight in the absurdity of the play of the book of the column of the cancer aspect of his life over the past few years. It had now taken on new proportions, with a television version of the play of his columns in development by the BBC. He was thrilled.

December 13, 2000: Gill, Not only is Neil (Pearson playing me, but I’m playing me too. What with Ruby (Wax), an upcoming Weakest Link and co-starring with Neil in the play, I’m doing more TV now than when I had a voice. Strange, eh? Looking forward to Thursday. Love J Just over a month before his death, John was still very busy, but never one to say no to a commission.

January 18, 2001: Gill. Did I not reply to the poker thingy? I thought I’d said yes, great idea, but me very overworked for next two weeks. when would you want it by? How’s you? xx J On Valentine’s Day, another round robin arrived It was devastating — the worst news possible and another round of chemotherapy planned. My last e-mail was two days later.

February 16, 2001: Gill. Prescription-only, I’m afraid, but it seemed like a reasonable scenario to me. The chemo starts next Friday, and I’ll be feeling pretty lousy for the next few days. Whatever happens, though, I’d like to keep The Times going even if all of the others have to fall by the wayside. Second to that comes finishing the book. So on that basis . . . Oh fuck it. When do you want the poker piece by? Love J The next week John felt too ill to file. I e-mailed him this week, on Wednesday night, not knowing that by now he was back in the Marsden. He didn’t reply. I will miss him very much.

© 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd

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