Nitro-glycerine for my achy breaky heart

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST ominous signs came when I pedalled into Hereford one morning. At just about the point where the A49 winds up a gentle slope beside a hop field, I found myself wondering if I should not have fitted an even bigger cog-wheel on the Sturmey Archer three-speed gear inside the back wheel.

The lady who used to 'do' (her redundancy follows a general retrenchment, brought about by Mrs North's failure, just for the moment, to find a job) says her father calls these 'granny gears' and they make going uphill much easier.

But I did not worry too much. I knew I was not fit and was carrying almost enough blubber to light a small Eskimo settlement.

In our own tented enclave on St David's Head, under the tricolour, I addressed myself to getting back in touch with my body. I jumped on the spot, did sit-ups and press-ups - all the usual things. More to the point, I borrowed a man's surf kayak and rode the big waves. The pounds were falling off, the biceps were building. I thought of investing in a wet-suit, if I could find one whose fluorescent exuberance had been kept in check.

Then we went to see a youth theatre from Birmingham put on a really lively Merry Wives of Windsor in the ruins of the Bishop's Palace. It rained, the swallows dived in and out of the arches, and the hot soup in the interval was nearly as welcome as the gin and tonic I had packed.

I found I could hardly walk up the hill to the car park. Back at Hereford, I could barely make it from the bus stop at Tesco to the doctor's surgery in the road that runs down from the cathedral. For a while I was forced to lean up against the window of the dining room of the Green Dragon. It was no more than my due: I have once or twice popped inside to eat high- priced kipper after lauds in Belmont Abbey.

Kipper oil (and its supposedly benign effect) or not, it was almost certainly angina. 'Bit young for this sort of thing,' said the doctor, who offered the depressing information that he sometimes jogged a bit, but otherwise he seemed a trustworthy sort.

Needless to say, I rushed about telling people the news. This can sometimes have gratifying results, but you also face definite risks: firstly, of course, you unlock the longing in other people to reveal their own perfectly revolting physical conditions. One man in the village in whom I confided turns out to have gone through a hell of a lot. I admire his stoicism, and was mildly interested in his problems, but all the same I did rather think this was my day of glory, not his.

Secondly, I have found that people can be surprisingly matter-of-fact. 'Oh well,' said one chain-smoking, heavy-drinking friend, 'no need to start reading any long books now, is there?' It happens that he is in bomb disposal and is quite interested in the little aerosol I now carry. It somehow helps the blood vessels invade my Achy Breaky Heart with more oxygen than they do otherwise. He is rather amused that I am now condemned to sniffing nitro-glycerine for my health, and says it is likely to give me big headaches. What is his bomb is my balm.

You would think I was safe with my mother. But she is the survivor of really spectacular surgery for TB and was inclined, after an initial wave of maternal anxiety, to grow bored and wonder if it was not time to offer the younger Mrs North a gin. 'Oh, angina,' she said airily, 'people live for ever with that. They have to shoot them in the end.'

I have often thought that it would do my work good to have a romantic, faintly life-threatening disease, which would make me pale and interesting and require me to spend a lot of time drifting about in a long silk dressing-gown introspecting and forming perfect sentences. If need be, I have thought, an early death would be an acceptable price to pay for having produced work of a heightened perception - perhaps partly induced by the use of laudanum.

Of course, it may not be quite like that. 'The key thing is not to give into it all,' said my neighbour who runs the village shop. 'Lose weight,' said the doctor. 'Important not to see yourself as an invalid,' said the medical encyclopaedia I promise I have never previously looked inside on my own account.

It seems I shall not be allowed to repine interestingly. The only vaguely poetic thing that is encouraged is extreme abstinence in food. There, I can be as ascetic as I like. It was, then, mildly to the point that, the night before I went to see the doctor, a young farmer from Devon took me to what is certainly the most beautiful restaurant I have ever seen.

This restaurant is just north of Ledbury, in a listed house in a listed landscape full of dells, courtyards and follies, and a trickling fountain in a wall. To see this place is, well, to die. The food was pretty good, though in heartier days I would have decried its style as aggressive portion-control under a French name.

The place has a really fabulous walled garden, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent part of her childhood here. It is called Hope End. When I am returned to my full and vulgar confidence, I am going to ask its present owner just how much it set him back to make his hotel so wonderful. Just now, I am feeling rather meek.

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