I’m only alive because my wife and our friend who is a GP had a sense that I was on a downward spiral with coronavirus and got me to A&E. But I’ve got no recall of being critically ill it because I was in an induced coma. I’m only finding out now how the NHS saved my life while I was in intensive care for nearly seven weeks.
The NHS is an incredible feat of the imagination – complete strangers care for you and this means that it is social medicine and social health at its best.
My earliest memory is sitting on a beach. I was two and a half. I can remember sitting there, with my legs apart, looking at the sand. It’s hot and I’m not very happy.
I’m the child who came after. There was a baby who was born between me and my elder brother, and he died. I only found this out when I was 11. My mother was very protective of me. If my dad or my brother took the mickey out of me, she’d say: “Leave him alone, he’s tired.”
I was a massively happy child. My brother and I were given a huge amount of freedom to go off and play outside. Yet my parents were also very concerned, some might say over-concerned – they poured over every detail of our lives, our homework, our hobbies and so on. I felt total unconditional love from both of them.
The closest I ever came to death, before Covid-19, was when I was 17. I was walking along the wrong side of an unlit road and a car hit me, breaking my pelvis and my leg. A few inches to the left or right, I would have been a goner. I rolled into a ditch and the driver drove on. Later, he went to the police, who couldn’t find me. They were just about to leave when they heard me talking in the ditch. I was apparently wide awake, talking. But I’ve lost this from my memory. It’s completely gone.
Most people would be surprised to learn how much a football match can matter to me. I can watch a match and feel my heartbeat racing. And if Arsenal lose, I can feel completely devastated. It’s pathetic – it can ruin a whole weekend.
I’ve been arrested twice. Once was for demonstrating against the Vietnam War in 1968 and pushing against the police in front of the American Embassy. The second time was for occupying a hairdresser’s, because the hairdresser was operating a colour bar and refusing to cut black people’s hair. I was charged with obstruction and had to pay £2 fine.
If I could go back in time, I’d visit the period between 1900 and 1914. There was a huge revolution then in ideas and thought around psychology, literature and art. Everyone thought they’d learned from the lessons of the terrible wars of the 19th century, that war in Europe could never happen again. I’d live in the optimism and excitement of that time, just before the First World War.
I don’t mind getting older. I’m 74 now, and people keep discovering me, which is very nice. They go: “Oh my goodness, you do this or that, and you’re quite good at it.” I think to myself: “Well, I’ve been doing it for 50 years.” But I don’t say it. I keep schtum.
Be curious is the best advice I’ve ever been given. It came from my dad. He also said: be bold. I think that was quite useful.
My greatest regret is not recognising that my son had meningitis. I put him to bed with what I thought was a high temperature and flu. I didn’t know and couldn’t see that he had the beginnings of septicaemia. Then I went to bed. I was the only one in the house. I can still see that moment I said goodnight to him for the last time, I can see that just in front of me. These moments are split seconds. The fragility of life is recognisable in them.
It helps me to think about my son’s death as something that happens to living people and things. I place it in that category, as part of the inevitable biology of us. My feelings about him, my sense of loss… I’ve separated them off.
I discovered that a teacher in the French village where my uncle Martin was arrested is taking children to a local museum, to show them pictures of Martin. The idea that I’ve contributed to a bit of Holocaust education in rural France is, I think, my greatest achievement.
I get arrangementitis. It happens to me when I’ve got so many arrangements, so many timings, so many possibilities of trains and timetables. I can get overwhelmed by that. It’s not the rushing, so much as the thinking ahead about all the many things I’m doing over the next few days, and it just sort of piles up. It can make me feel weary, like I’ve got a mountain to climb. It gives me a funny kind of tired feeling just underneath my eyes.
I am an optimist, definitely. There’s no point in pessimism, because all that happens is you feel pessimistic – and then you die. You’ve wasted your life. So you might as well be optimistic.