For the past 15 years I have made television programmes for a living. You might know some of them: Have I Got News for You, Harry Enfield and Chums, They Think It’s All Over, Da Ali G Show and (more recently, for those with BBC3) Monkey Dust. I also travelled the world whenever I could, and when I wasn’t travelling I was playing sport.Fairwell to Harry Thompson. A man who understood comedy, Darwin and reality, a lot better than most.
I was your classic, irritating, athletic 45-year-old, bereft of middle-aged spread, who’d never suffered a day’s serious illness in his life, nor smoked a single cigarette. No, not even a trial teenage puff. Then, at the end of April I was diagnosed, out of the blue, as suffering from inoperable lung cancer. Very specifically the smoker’s kind — the Roy Castle death-by-passive-smoking kind. Oh, and just for fun I had pneumonia and a potentially fatal lung abscess too.
A month ago I was planning to travel to Peru. Now I’m connected to the wall by a rubber tube and my idea of a long journey is to crawl to the armchair at the foot of the bed. A month ago I drove around with cricket bats and tennis rackets stationed permanently in my car. Now, a stone lighter, I never go anywhere without my faithful red plastic bucket. I know it’s technically impossible to have voided more meals than have come down in the other direction, but it certainly feels as if I have.
My agonised back, meanwhile, is full of hollowed-out metal spikes, which are busy draining malodorous pus through the space where a perfectly healthy rib used to be. My left arm — which is connected to a liquid platinum drip — may not be moved or bent, but must be maintained in a sort of bizarre Nazi salute for 16 hours, otherwise the machine starts beeping furiously at me. I am having to write this with my right hand while holding the paper steady with my right wrist. Not all cancer, it transpires, is the simple find-lump-in-breast-and-zap-it kind.
As Acts of God go, all this is pretty bloody extreme. The odds of it happening to me, apparently, were right up there with my winning the national lottery. And the funny thing is, I’ve just finished a novel about God in which — well — I thought I gave the fellow a really good deal. I thought I’d really put his point across well. Not well enough, obviously.
This Thing of Darkness — three years in the writing — came out last week and is a true story concerning the voyage of the Beagle and the friendship between Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy, whose journey together round the world, whose discoveries and whose increasingly acrimonious debates laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In those days people routinely took the most enormous risks with their lives. FitzRoy and Darwin quite happily clambered aboard a Royal Navy “coffin brig” for many years (a little barrel-shaped production-line surveying packet so nicknamed because a quarter of their number never came back). Their arguments took place in a tiny storm-tossed cabin no more than 5ft square, the single oil lamp creaking in its gimbal, their shadows by turns retreating and advancing as they boxed each other across the walls.
FitzRoy, a brilliant sailor and one of the great unsung heroes of British history (he also invented weather forecasting along the way), was a rising star, a devout Christian who had come to believe that God’s ordered universe is just that: a sort of huge machine where everything is done to a purpose, where all natural phenomena might theoretically be predicted, in which all men have the right to live side by side in absolute equality, regardless of colour.
Darwin, his “gentleman companion”, was by contrast a relative nobody, a parson-in-waiting who had tagged along to help FitzRoy find geological evidence for the Old Testament. Increasingly his discoveries drew him towards a vision of an alternative universe, a merciless world of random cruelty in which the strongest won out by right (the strongest, of course, being middle-class white men from middle England).
Death and misfortune did of course visit their expedition, even if it was in ridiculously small measure for the time. Here FitzRoy revealed the chinks in his moral armour: he found it almost impossible to cope with the deaths of child sailors whose mothers he had personally promised he would safeguard, the sudden meaningless cruelty of malaria difficult to reconcile with his image of a merciful God-with-a-purpose.
For me, though, the crux of the Fitzroy-Darwin split, and one of the spurs that pushed Darwin to go ahead with his dangerously irreligious theories, came about upon their return to England, when sudden death visited the families of both men. Darwin lost Annie, his adored favourite daughter. FitzRoy lost his beautiful, intelligent, healthy young wife to cholera in the space of 48 hours.
Consumed with grief, both men had to rationalise what had befallen them. FitzRoy had no recourse but to believe that this must be part of God’s mysterious purpose, that his wife now sat at his right hand in heaven. Darwin went the other way, furiously denouncing the very existence of God as a lie. We’re all monkeys, was his conclusion; waiting, frightened, to be picked off at random by savage, cruel, unthinking fate.
So had I been apprised in advance of what was to happen to me, how would I have thought I would react? I’d have guessed I would be furious, angry, railing at the world like Darwin, and perhaps also saddened like FitzRoy, trying to make some sense of something so apparently meaningless. Perhaps these are the rightful reactions of the helpless, forced to stand aside while their loved ones suffer out of reach; but in the end I felt neither. Did I blame God? Did I reassure myself that there isn’t a God? Neither. Frankly, I thought, it’s neither here nor there. I just got dealt a bad deal. The bad deal to end all bad deals. I am Unlucky Alf. Ho hum. Life’s a bitch and then etc etc.
For the afflicted, it’s not about God or fate. It’s only about cancer. So you want me to die, do you? Yeah? Well now I can see you. Let’s have you. Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. Come out and fight.
Part of me can’t help feeling that after three years debating the Act of God as part of an overarching cosmological design (or lack of it), I should be facing cancer and/or death somewhat more philosophically, more intellectually. I should be applying my brain. Instead, it’s come down to a cheap street fight with a grubby little adversary. When the Vikings came to Jarrow, did the Venerable Bede fall to his knees and try to rationalise their visit as part of God’s holy mercy? Or did he come at them swinging a crucifix? I’m ready for a fight. I’m calm. Normally I bite my nails a lot, but right now they’re in perfect nick. In a funny way, after 15 years in TV, having real metal spikes in your back is a lot less stressful than all those metaphorical knives. So come on then. If you think you’re hard enough. Oh, and . . . sorry for banging on about my cancer.