I’ve found in the month that I haven’t been posting that nothing quite focuses the mind like a terminal diagnosis of cancer.
As you saw in my last post I arrived back from camping feeling rather ill. Well it got worse and then one morning I woke up looking like an Oompa Loompa. In no time at all the three oncologists were gathered around my bed. The haunting portrait by Ken Currie (above) that made such an impression on me a couple of years ago in Edinburgh came to mind immediately. He says in an interview on Youtube that when he was observing the three worthy oncologists he had been commissioned to paint, he was struck by the thought that people see cancer as representing the darkness and that these men go in to rescue the poor souls and bring them to the light. Very mythological this may be but is not the story that I am choosing to spin from my diagnosis.
They say that when film was the silver screen the silvering process allowed directors to capture something that the eye could not see. An alchemy took place between the filming and the audience’s reception of what was up there. I think the same alchemy is at work in this painting. The three oncologists are wrapped in a chilling, ghostly light that Ken Currie’s unconscious dictated. They themselves can’t have been pleased with the interpretation. But we the public are mesmerised by the truth behind the image. I guess in art the reception is all. To me the world of oncology IS the very darkness from which those men in their arrogance see themselves helping people to escape.
So what is the story that I am spinning from my diagnosis? Well, it is that I have much to learn from it that I haven’t yet learned. Less a diagnosis and more a dare perhaps. Dare to live life learning right to the end. Dare to keep it going against the odds. Dare to show that a change of diet (cancer loves sugar) I can beat the medics by years. Needless to say I’m taking charge. So it’s no to operations and no to chemo. I’ve always said in my book and my posts that old age is the last but one adventure, so maybe I’ll be going straight on to the last adventure. Old age not being for sissies, this diagnosis could be a sort of get out of jail card.
Just back from a flying visit to Scotland. Yesterday I stood outside the Scottish National Gallery, where the clock said 6.00pm and I thought about the fact that I was meeting a friend for supper and still I would be in my bed at home by midnight. It gave me a funny feeling about the way that the world is shrinking.
This was not half such a funny feeling as the one I got when first seeing the above picture on the wall of the National Gallery earlier in the day. It hung there amongst the oils of glens, deer , still lives and aristocratic portraits, like a punk on Oscar night. I was mesmerised from the moment I saw it and puzzled to say the least.
I asked a man in Black Watch trews what the painting was all about and he directed me to a video of the artist, Ken Currie talking about his work. It is called The Three Oncologists. I listened carefully to him explaining that he had been commissioned to celebrate three men of science but that he didn’t want to just paint portraits; he wanted somehow to incorporate the feeling of anxiety and horror linked to the disease these men work so hard to overcome.
I found the painting haunting. I remember reading that film is a tricky medium, because sometimes it captures something that the director didn’t know was there. I guess the same thing could be said for this painting. The artist has caught three eminent scientists in his penetrative gaze like rabbits in a headlight. They are also caught in luminous paint like ghosts. There they are, pioneers of the ephemeral, bent- shouldered, remote; always grasping at a point that is at that moment vanishing. Surely there is irony there? Something is leeching through the brushstrokes that Ken Currie didn’t know was there perhaps? Something to do with the creepy nature of oncology, where men battle to put right something that is for ever going to be wrong on some level, until we realise that the body is a lot cleverer than our ability to manipulate it and that scientists, however gifted they are, are struggling to hold together a wealth of variables they cannot get a grip on, ignoring the fact that death itself is no big deal and often a lot easier than the desperate treatments applied to keep people alive at all costs.
The haunting quality for me comes from the hidden quality within the paint. The truth will out. Still reflecting on the impact the painting had had on me while in the air over Birmingham, I realised the answer, as it so often does in our post -industrial world, lies in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is not the monster that is the problem but Frankenstein himself, for he knew not what he was unleashing on the world. Hubris is a characteristic implicit in modern science but who would have thought that it could be captured so eloquently in paint?