Today I was in town for a meeting with my agent Micheline. Walking down Great Portland Street to her office I was suddenly struck by long faded or perhaps suppressed memories of wandering around these imposing, busy streets with their towering mansion flats at around the same time of year in 1989. I was in my last year at Oxford at the time, studying hard after a year out with depression, enjoying life again, living in a lovely college flat normally occupied by a graduate, but as I was in fact in my fifth year I sort of qualified. Then I was hit with a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Disease. I was hoping the weight loss and the lump in my neck were down to glandular fever or something, but no such luck. The consultant oncologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Dr.Bunch, told me it 'wasn’t the end of the world', but when he was out the room I snuck a look at a letter on his desk and saw the sentence – appropriate word, perhaps – 'Stephen’s in a bit of trouble'. Or something very like. The disease was getting on with its job, so radiation therapy was out, Dr.B told me I was in for six months’ chemotherapy. We’re going to hit this hard, he said, it’ll be rough but we’ll get rid of it, we’ll get you through. The treatment’s likely to make you infertile, he said. You’d best organise some sperm banking, so you might at least have a chance of children down the line. Can’t remember his exact formulation but that was the gist. I was 22 at the time, a very young 22 at that. My girlfriend was in Moscow for six months studying Russian and was virtually uncontactable – there was still an iron curtain back then, albeit a rusty one. My parents in Liverpool were working all hours and not able to jump on a train, though they wanted to of course. So I was all at sea really. The hospital put me in touch with a clinic in Harley Street that would open an account for me, as it were. The NHS wasn’t paying. We’re only talking two or three hundred pounds, I forget exactly how much, but we had to ask my Nan, who gave it us out of her savings. So then I made a weekly trip to make a deposit. Oxford to Paddington, tube to Great Portland Street. We’ll draw a veil over the next bit. Then I’d hand the notional offspring, the chance, my potential side of the bargain, over to the ‘technician’. I remember there were dozens, hundreds of baby photos stuck up on the wall behind the receptionist.
The following summer, after the advertised rough time - dozens of toxic injections, hair loss, much vomiting and a strange loop away from my already tenuous sense of a normal ‘me’ – I was pronounced well. A few weeks on, I was tested and I had apparently dodged the bullet – or I wasn’t firing blanks – any other gun metaphors? I wasn’t infertile. When I got the call from Dr MacDonald I fell weeping into the arms of my good friend. Who subsequently nicked my (new) girlfriend off me the year after. But we don’t mind that so much, looking back – not because it didn’t hurt like hell but because it was LIFE.
Not long after the call from Dr Mac, I got a letter from Harley Street. We’ve had an accident, electrical problem, awfully sorry, lost most of your deposit.
Zip forward to today, Micheline kindly bought me a yummy Japanese lunch just round the corner from Harley Street, we had a good old natter, and later I bought my boy Spike a Wallace and Gromit book (Welcome To West Wallaby Street). Great Portland Street looked exactly the same as it ever did, as it did in '89. And yes, all’s well innit.