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A DIFFICULT week. My chest condition was improving. The cortisone at last took effect. I had struggled boyfully through two Puzzle Panels and saved the world from my understudy. Let it not be said I have no social conscience. Cortisone makes you balloon out like Oprah Winfrey. It also hinders the critical faculties. To get the best out of a guest, you need to able to monitor what they say.

Parkinson recently said that the reason his chat show is the best is because he listens. (Hear! Hear!) And here was I with a dud antenna. Consultation with Donald Lane at the Churchill Chest Clinic confirms it. This country's two top experts on my condition agree on strategy: Donald Lane - the country's leading asthmatologist - and me, the country's leading asthmatic. Keep taking the tablets. Soldier on. But it's a relief to joke with someone who understands my daily and private struggle to breathe. It helps to quell the inner and unbidden lament of "Why me?". Above all it stops me feeling sorry for myself.

On with the motley, then. I arrive at St Catherine's College, Oxford as a guest at a celebratory dinner to make Noam Chomsky an honorary fellow. I was looking forward to asking the Grand Old Man how he felt about the track "I am Noam Chomsky" on 70 Gwen Party's Anti-Blue Nazi album. I would quiz him on American policy towards Iraq. But a metaphorical bombshell blew me off course.

My second father (I always carry a spare) came up ashen-faced and told me Iris Murdoch had just died. Iris had been important in my life. At critical moments she had hovered in the background like the fairy godmother I never had.

It was she that had discovered unimagined talents in me. It was she that had realised I was a puzzlist of a rare order. The announcement left me numbed. My father, who had been close to Iris and John most of his life, also seemed to be in shock. It often helps if someone else wobbles. It's as if there are only a limited number of wobbly hats to go round.

I remember being asked by Ned Sherrin on Loose Ends to sit next to a very nervous Jasper Conran. This was wiser than I then realised. My nerves vanished. Jasper had the wobbly hat. At the Chomsky dinner, my father had the wobbly hat. But this was a public occasion. We all shuffled off into dinner.

I was reminded of how Auden in his poem "La Musee des Beaux Arts" describes a Brueghel landscape in which peasants go about their earthy - and no doubt cliched - business, oblivious to Icarus's tragic plunge earthwards. There was no time to feel about any of this. The advice of Dr Baxter, my neuropsychologist, is difficult. The show must go on. I hammer out a script. The next day Harry throws most of it out. What remains is a good script. Inside I still feel hollow. At tea with the guests, I make an extra effort to be affable. I laugh at jokes which seemed better told the first time I heard them. But at heart I feel a gnawing depression and a hollowness unappeasable by buns. To my horror, this Vesti la Giubb- ilation starts to work. I enjoy myself. I twinkle. My guests relax. They tip their pearls of wisdom freely on to the dark cloth I have spread before them. Good programme, says Harry afterwards.

Driving back that night under real stars, at about Stokenchurch, where the M40 opens up into what looks like the Promised Land but is only the Thames Valley, I suddenly feel wobbly. I pull over and find a hard shoulder to cry on.

But that's OK now. The show has gone on.

`Puzzle Panel', BBC Radio 4, Fridays at 1.30pm. Comments to indy@puzzlemaster.co.uk

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