'All I want is to chatter and joke again'
Cancer robbed broadcaster John Diamond of his most precious asset - his voice. He tells of his battle to be heard
Friday 05 June 1998
Invariably, there would be a scene where the zinc or the nickel is suddenly removed from the schlemiel of a central character's world, affecting him in ways he would never have guessed, as the chair he is sitting on falls apart for lack of screws and the car he is driving suddenly loses its steering wheel.
Which may sound an unlikely simile for the way I feel at the moment, but it is, I promise you, an accurate one.
I am without my voice, and while I could have guessed at some of the effects the loss might have produced, my real concern is with the effects that have come as a surprise.
When I say I'm without my voice I don't mean that I'm without any voice at all, simply that the one I have isn't mine. It isn't anybody's much, nor even much of a voice at all. It is the lumpy and asymmetrical remnant of a voice that once was, a fragment around which I'm trying to build a new voice.
A year ago, more or less, I had about a third of my tongue removed. It was the cancerous third, the third whose cells and cell-building apparatus had been corrupted by years of being kippered by tobacco smoke.
When we talk of our tongues we refer to the prehensile flap of pink muscle and taste-bud which extends from the back of our throat to the front of our mouth and, when we feel the need, beyond.
It's the bit which shovels food and water from the front of the mouth to the chute leading to the stomach, which undulates to give us the full vocal armoury of "t"s and "d"s and "k"s and "g"s. But the tongue is a damned great thing, its substructure anchored to the lower jaw and neck and it is from that muscly lump that a tumour the size of a golf ball was excised last year.
Before the operation I was a talker, a gabbler, a reader-out-loud of bed-time stories and a clubbable anecdotalist. I wasn't Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, but I could do cut and thrust, intermediate badinage and advanced repartee.
Some of the time I did it for a living - I had radio shows with my name on them on Radio 4 and 5 Live and had done various television series over the years, as well as using my voice in my job as a question-asking print journalist. But mostly my voice was a recreational thing.
And now? When they carved the back out of my tongue they closed the gap by dragging the whole of the front of it towards the back. Then they gave me six weeks of daily irradiation which left the remaining tissue red and painful.
My tongue can reach the teeth at the front, but go no further forward, and after six months or more of speech therapy, I have perhaps a quarter of an inch of movement up and down and side to side.
It means that while you form a "t" by flicking the tip of your tongue to the top-front of your mouth, I do it by moving my whole jaw. You make a "k" by rolling the back of your tongue so that it clicks against the roof of the mouth and I do it by raising my larynx to get an approximation of the sound.
It is a cumbersome way of forming sounds and one of my surprises was how lazy I'd become. Where once I would dash to fill gaps in the conversation with my words I am now a grunter and a nodder, a shrugger and a tutter.
It's not because I can't say the words or that I don't like the sound I make when I say them - although that's true enough - but simply that saying them is hard work.
Early on in all of this, for instance, my wife asked me a question to which the chatterer in my head answered with an emphatic "Oh - absolutely!". What came out was a mean- mouthed "Yes".
It means - who'd have guessed? - that I have trouble getting a cab home in London. Like the tenth-floor-dwelling dwarf in the riddle who takes the lift down but walks up 10 flights because he can reach the lower 'G' button but not the higher 10, I can cab it quite happily into the West End, but not back again. I live in the Goldhawk Road, a particular combination of sounds which I now find almost impossible.
There are other unguessables.
I can't kiss, for instance. I'm sure those muscles are still there, but I've forgotten how. It means my social air kisses are absolutely silent, which I can cope with, but that I can't properly kiss the children goodnight, which I find insufferable.
Nor can I tell jokes or crack gags. A bon mot needs space to work, but not too much. In conversation, I have the permanent sense of a diner spending hours trying to get the waiter's eye for the bill and then discovering every time that he's left his wallet at home.
I am in conversation; a crack comes to me, unbidden, and I start out of habit to launch it into the air. I make the opening grunt: the conversation continues. Eventually, there is space in between the others' words: I shoot my words out. They are slightly too late, and somebody didn't quite catch the last word.
(Some people understand me immediately and fully, others just can't.) They ask me to repeat it. I can't: it doesn't bear repetition. It's a quick, jokey line, meaningless, useless unless you hear it the first time round. But they insist. Somebody else repeats it for me. Everyone smiles. I feel stupid. Next time I will know better.
But I never do.
Things are getting better. I have a speech therapist who is wonderful and who sets me homework repeating unusable sentences. I usually skip the homework in the hope that the sentences I actually use will do the job of re-educating my stiff tongue just as well.
I am learning to speak more slowly, which helps, But - Which - Makes - Me - Feel - I'm - Giving - Dictation - To - Cretins - In - A - Foreign - Language.
I will, I hope, one day broadcast again, or if not that then at least crack a joke which the radio producer, letting me down gently, will understand.
But still I am not yet me because so much of me was my voice, my incontinent chatter. My chattering was a bad habit, I know, but unlike the bad habit which caused the cancer, it's one I'm desperate to get back.
'Inside Story: Tongue Tied', John Diamond's disquisition on life, death and cancer, is on BBC1 on 15 June at 10.30pm. 'C - Because Cowards Get Cancer Too' is published by Vermillion on 11 June, price pounds 9.99.
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