I am not a devotee of the fiction of the Scottish author, Iain Banks. In fact, I haven't read any of his books, although I am happy to accept the word of literary judges that he is indeed a writer of some distinction. Having read his most recent work of non-fiction, however, I feel compelled to immerse myself in his back catalogue.
Anyone who read the statement on his website today could not have resisted being moved by the sentiment, impressed by the lack of mawkishness, or humbled by the humanity. The plain fact is that Ian Banks is about to die. He is, as he wrote, "officially Very Poorly...The bottom line, now, I'm afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I'm expected to live for 'several months' and it's extremely unlikely I'll last beyond a year." He tells his followers that his next book, The Quarry, will be his last.
His description of how he arrived at this position, from complaining about a sore back in January to receiving the grisly news that he had inoperable cancer in early March, is told in a matter-of-fact style, but this doesn't disguise how alarming and salutary this story is. He states that he has asked his partner Adele "if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow" and then apologises for what he calls "ghoulish humour". It's a brave, painful, deeply affecting, yet curiously life-affirming piece of writing, and it struck many chords with me.
Unlike poor Iain Banks, I had a much better ticket in the great cancer lottery. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which, thankfully, could be treated by surgery. But even in the most worrying moments - and I was someone who'd never spent a night in hospital up to that point - there were so many moments of high, and low, humour that I promised myself that, on my recovery, I'd write a book entitled Jokes from the Cancer Ward. I was quite keen on telling my story about the footballer Ian Rush, who, when told that someone had died of the Big C, replied by saying: "What, he drowned?" I also found it amusing that, for some reason, tumours were always compared to fruit. Mine was, according to my specialist, the size of a mango (they are quite precise, these medical men, and they obviously do their shopping at Waitrose). And I heard talk of ones like a grapefruit, or, if you are relatively lucky, the size of an orange. And then there was the person who, minutes after I'd been diagnosed, texted me thus: "Wot u got?" Immediately, I texted him back. "Cancer!" I wrote, and added a smiley face.
It is, of course, perfectly all right for the cancer sufferer to make jokes, and Banks's quip about his wife-to-be is a classic example of the genre. But it's the humanity in his statement that is most impressive, talking about his "heroic" publishers who are trying to advance publication of his next and last book, and paying tribute to the "exemplary" professionalism and care of the NHS in Scotland. Banks has one luxury: he will be alive to read his obituaries, and, among the works destined for acclaim, the short missive on his cancer will surely come to be regarded as one of the most powerful.