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Last of the Lepers

Basic Pathology

Did you hear about the poker-playing leper? He threw in his hand.

We laughed then - relieved - after what we had endured: sad voices, sad photographs, projected onto the screen. Twisted men in India, or worse. And, filing out of the hall we took our tiny green envelopes. "Please give generously, seal using sticky flap and return." There but for the grace of god, after all.

Well then, this is not the charity spiel, and there is no photographer on hand to capture, for posterity and friends, my twisted body. No more slide shows, no more tiny green envelopes, no more sticky flaps or assemblies, for I am the last of them. I am the last of the lepers.

Proof? Well I can relate only what I believe, that my comrades sans arms are all dead or cured. The penultimate leper imploded a week ago. Good.

So here I have come, to play out the final sad act. This would be my macabre desert island discs (without the discs). Although what I have will suit my demise:

the complete works of the bard

I am no loathsome leper; look on me

the bible

the leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose and he shall cover his upper lip and cry 'unclean, unclean'

and of course my chosen book

begging the forgiveness of the clergy and the poets, we may begin with the observation that man is ultimately a complex aggregation of very clever cells

Lepers spend a lot of time with books. We (I must remember to stop using the plural) ought to have our own specially customised books, special leper libraries and leper dictionaries. Getting home from the clinic we pull the dictionary down from the shelf 'Leprosy - moral corruption or contagion' although there are more apologetic and wordy definitions also. It doesn't matter, you are already so much more than a biblical abhorrence.

Your clever cells have turned against you.

Book number too, a medical book. In my town, the town where I have lived, there is a small antiquarian book shop. It is hidden down a narrow passage, overshadowed by scaffolding for as long as anyone remembers; I think that they renamed it 'the haunted book shop'. So, in I went and, hardly eager to proclaim my new calling, scurried down to the basement - second hand medical textbooks.

Robbins & Angell. Basic Pathology. Fifty pence and not a single mention of leprosy.

So that was how my path diverged from that which my comrades walked (or hopped, or finally rolled). I had bought a book even more utterly useless than theirs as a guide to my predicament. Thus, kept alive beyond my natural span by this well thumbed tome I can cover my upper lip and spit into the face of the gods like any good idiot savant.

Really though, I do not feel so very savant.

All that Jazz - a thinly disguised attack

that man is a product of both his heredity and his environment is an old clich

My ancient piano teacher said: "the best thing in life is two dinners on one plate". I should add that he was not a fat man. The wise saw was provided by his mother, back when he too was just a boy, learning the piano himself, bitten by the bug, as he referred to his strange passion for swing music and Billy Mayerl, between romantic trips to the flicks and 1920's style rebellion.

Hardly Confucius then, my ancient piano teacher's long dead mother.

His council house, with its too steep stairs and its plastic covered windows smelt like the tea he fed me. He kept it for a day in a thermos flask - quicker, he said, cheaper. His short gnarled fingers would dance for me weekly on the rotten yellow teeth keys of his old upright. I was, of course, his star pupil, until I left. In the end he failed to recognise me on one of my Christmas vacation visits - me, his star pupil, and not yet disfigured. It was painful to meet, and now he is surely long-dead like his mother.

Had his mother been Confucius after all, then I would now be training a pupil of my own that the wisdom not be altogether lost. Instead I'm stuck on my island with this fools book for wisdom (and the certain knowledge that Marigold was the first tune to be broadcast on the wireless in Britain).

pathology is not concerned primarily with cadavers; its genesis is the living patient, and its greatest usefulness to him

I only returned to the clinic once. What kept me away? In the end it was the injections. At least, in the beginning it was the injections, later it was the embarrassment. I never came to terms with syringes and, though I came to talk of "my phobia", I was sure that it was some personal weakness. Perhaps all people who fear needles become lepers. I shall never know because I stopped going to the clinic and bought the wrong book.

So there I was: clever, shy, pompous and stupid; university beckoned. My Oxbridge potential was calculated to be good-to-middling and the headmistress was keen: she started talking to me again. She had stopped speaking to me some two years earlier when her weekly religious instruction classes coincided with the start of my nihilist phase. With delicious irony it became apparent that she was willing to overlook my moral flexibility if there was a chance that I might improve my alma mater's flagging academic reputation. So, I hurtled onwards, transfixed on the juggernaut of her vicarious ambition and her thirst for some valuable prospectus copy. I arrived in Cambridge a few months older and still buttock-clenchingly self-conscious. My enthusiasm for physics was not in any sense false, quite the opposite. By the time I had started worrying about facial hair and such I had already realised that the whole social edifice only really existed at all to support the physicists, those fantastic creatures in the vanguard of humanities struggle to comprehend etc, etc. This consideration outweighed all other thoughts on life, love and the pursuit of pleasure.

In short, I was having a mid-life crisis and my projected life expectancy of less than two-score years was not lost on me at all, possessed as I was of a morbid but precocious intellect. I suppose that I should be grateful that physics reflected the contradiction of my life rather better than religion, or I would surely have ended up in a monastery. I fear that my decline might have been rather too old testament for the monks.

Boeotia Clouds the Misty Brain

You cannot apply to Cambridge University. Instead you seek admission at one of the many colleges that clutter the town like lesions. Having been educated at the grubbier (if aspiring) end of the comprehensive sector I had not a clue regarding the relative qualities of the various colleges. I was on my own, and hit upon a method as ingenious as it was stupid to hack through the maze of deans and proctors.

I meticulously ranked each college on categories such as architecture, number of professors and so on. I then ranked each category according to its importance to me (and, by extension, to the world of physics). I constructed a weighted rating for each institution. This allowed me to choose the most mediocre and stiflingly liberal, radically turgid dung heap in Cambridge. Oh, sad the plight of those condemned to bend the scientific method to the trivial crises of everyday life.

Scholars, write on the blank slate of my mind! Here I was, surrounded by the great and the blessed, to probe their every utterance or, as people were inclined to ask as I cowered in the kitchen at parties, "so, tell me about wormholes"

most heart diseases do not produce pain. However, severe and often catastrophic pain is a prominent feature of myocardial infarcation. It has justifiably been called the most terrifying pain known to man

Of course, I fell in love almost at once. Misinterpreted glances across the workbench or dining table, misheard comments, a seemingly significant blink. I fell in love almost daily, I fell out of love never. As far as I know, my affections were always unrequited, worse, the other party would have laughed at the idea that there was anything to requite. The fact that I was ugly had always lurked at the back of my adolescent mind. (I know what you are thinking: I hate a story with an ugly hero. Then imagine what it is like to be an ugly hero.) At school I was unkempt and ugly, uneasy in my ill-fitting uniform. At university I preened myself into a state of tidy vileness.

I was most deeply infatuated with an English Literature student, bookish like me, we haunted the library (which had ghosts enough, being constructed over the buried remains of the college masters stretching back three hundred years). She had an unsure gait and wore sensible jumpers. We had no friends in common and never spoke. I thought that she stared at me in the library once. I think that she wondered what I was staring at. I tilted my copy of Joyce so that the spine was prominent. I doubt that she could have seen all the way across the dusky room. In my desperate attempts to attract feminine attention I ruminated my way through a lot of wonderful literature, some of which I managed to digest. I also learnt a little physics. Enough to ask intelligent questions, but not enough to answer them. After three years of growing disillusionment I came away with a first class degree and the realisation that, for the preceding twenty years, my priorities and whole world-view had been entirely mistaken. That was the extent of my revelation.

There were friends, I suppose, at university; some of them I almost liked or at least respected. But they were hardly heroic figures. There was no Bohemia in Cambridge, probably never was. There were no late night conversations worthy of prose. There were precious few late night conversations. Perhaps they became accountants or civil servants. I doubt that they became philosophers; if they did, then I suppose it is the age that is to blame. I hope that they did not become philosophers. I hope that it is not the age that is to blame. Of course, I am whimsical.

All physicists are whimsical, they counterpose their whimsey to the callous cynicism they grew up with and into, and I dare say that they think themselves brave.

Despite my contempt for it, my college had its positive aspects. The architecture was very fine. It even had a hall decorated by William Morris. This was covered in garish green and red with gold trimmings. Possibly there was some attempt at irony here - certainly it was the last time that the college turned to a self-professed Communist for wallpaper.

After the Deluge

Twenty years to grow old, only two to fade away. Cut loose in the world - to have my adolescent angst forged into hard, reluctant acceptance and passivity. In those years, the time I had spent in university seemed sweet to me, unbearably sweet. A certain weight pressed on my chest when I played the old familiar music I had listened to, or when my nose was occasioned by the smell like that of a dusty lecture theatre.

So hubris turned to nemesis. All I had to sell was my intellect, my labour. Programming computers for a good wage, isolated in a cosy but barren flat. I remained in Cambridge, not thinking that this was a town within a university, and that I should feel the loss all the more keenly if I remained.

For one year, I lived like this, as the lesions appeared on my skin, and my extremities numbed. I toiled and it seemed as if my labour crystallised out of me - pure thought turned to pure money, through a process that I did not entirely control. It seemed as if the life was pouring out through my fingers as I worked, as I sickened and withdrew.

My work was good, though I cared nothing for my company and would not stay behind long hours like the other employees. Instead I would arrive a few minutes after nine, and work through till twenty minutes past five, typing fast, a concentrated burst of labour spilling from my agile mind, leaving me exhausted. I was powerless before my employment, unable to affect any impact on the world other than its reproduction at an ever higher level.

The director was shocked the day I requested an audience with him and, in a voice cracked from concealed illness and under use, told him of my decision to leave in pursuit of philosophy.

Programming's loss will be Philosophy's gain, he pointed out.

So I tried to lose myself in solitary contemplation of the mysteries of the universe once more. I had passed from science to philosophy as easily as I passed from healthiness to my death bed. Still there was no revelation, and none was to come.

I retreated, I wrote fickle essays and embarrassing verse. And then I stopped writing altogether. My bold turn to philosophy took me all the way to the tourist tea shops where I sat drinking strong tea, idly thumbing through books as thick as they were empty. I retreated, in the end, to my island. The tiny island where all the remaining sweetness in my life cowered.

I clenched my island tightly in my mind as I slipped slowly away from the chaos and the catastrophy.

The Leper Manifesto

And now you are asking yourself if you were well served by the ramblings of a mad man, this leper. Do you wish me to be profound as well as profoundly bitter? Would you care to hear me beg to step out of the narrative, as you, doubtless, have stepped outside of yours?

I could tell of free will, of god, of godlessness, I could, and it would all be trite, for I am no intellectual. I am no poet. I am barely even a leper. In truth there is no more art to make and fools can see that philosophy has become the slightest of parodies.

Politics is portrayed as a discourse in the impossibility of politics, every book tells of the absence of literature. No one writes, no one talks, all mutter, their heads bowed down.

And, still, something stirs. And, still, there is history. Still, an army waits in the wings. But, for me, there is no history. History is made by hoards not by lepers.

Yet I have played my part. I am the last of the lepers. Soon the stage will be empty.