The worst bout of flu ever, the worst poetry reading - in the world - ever, and the best of send-offs

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The Independent Online
Well, I'm sure glad that's over. I've just spent seven days of agony, stricken by this loathsome virus that's working its way through the metropolis, closing all the theatres in the West End (it attacks understudies, apparently, with a special fury) and turning every conversation in media- land into an antiphon of shared symptoms: "Yeah, I had it too. Yeah, all last week. Yeah, the chest infection. Honestly, I thought I was going to die ..."

It was a real frightener. You think flu means a few snuffling noises into a Kleenex? This was far worse. This was a life-changing - practically a life-threatening - experience. Not since I swam in the Turkish Aegean in the late Seventies have I been forced to ingest such a tidal wave of sticky and disgusting fluids. Not since the Sixties have I encountered such a phantasmagoria of delirium. Short of incarceration in the dungeons of the Chateau d'If, I can't imagine there can be a more wretched, joyless, shivery, brain-enfeebling way of passing one's time. Every bit of your body hurt. Your hair crackled with pain. You sneezed blood. Your muscles felt as if they'd been slept on by a polar bear. Your skin felt as if it had been flayed in the manner of Marsyas.

And then there was the coughing. Believe me, I know all about coughing. When it comes to tussive endeavour, I've put in the hours. When they come to write the annals of the great expectorators, I'll get an embossed first paragraph. Years of Marlboro Lights have left me with a wheezy sostenuto behind my every attempt at conversation. Chaps with stethoscopes recoil, deafened, from the briefest aural encounter with my manly chest. I have spluttered and barked to Olympic levels. But nothing I've ever known compared with last week's coughing fits - the pain, the spasms, the rictus, the feeling that your chest has turned, Tardis-like, into some bafflingly large cavern, every bit of which is being simultaneously abraded by malign demons with Black & Decker sanding devices ...

I sought solace in medicine. Night Nurse, Day Nurse, Afternoon Nurse, Parallel Universe Nurse, Benylin Tickly Cough, Benylin Chesty Cough, Beechams, Lem-Sip, Leechams Ben-Sip, Nil-Phlegm, Sneez-Away, Toodle-Oo-Flu ... all did nothing except made you fall asleep in the afternoon. The most off- putting euphemism could be found on the Benylin bottle, which promised "to make your cough more productive". Yurgh.

I sought solace in meditation. My mind a blank (hardly surprising after two litres of Benylin Tickly Nurse or whatever it was called), I concentrated on higher things - God, nirvana, the sound of a tree falling in an empty forest ... It was hopeless. For some reason, my head was filled with apparitions of horrible people from my schooldays, pointing and mouthing abuse, like a scene from Flatliners. So I turned on the television and sought solace in the news. There was President Clinton being inaugurated for a second term. A quarter of a million people stood in the cold on Capitol Hill and listened as he spoke about "bridge-building" and making friends with your opponents. It was the kind of inspirational spectacle that's bound to make you feel better. And then, in that ringing tone he keeps for Deep Pronouncements, he said: "Nothing big ever came from something small."

Well no, I thought, except for elephants, which come from small, or smaller, baby elephants. Or, come to think of it, human beings, which come from foetuses, which are quite small. Or the Pergau Dam, which must have come from the (again, quite small) plans that were drawn up by the Pergau borough surveyor ...

An hour later, I was in a worse state than ever. Surrounded by visions of malevolent figures in school blazers shouting, "Make your cough more productive, Walsh, you worm," I lay feverishly tossing, as I thought up more and more footnotes to the presidential speech: "Or an oak tree", I complained, "that comes from something small, namely an acorn. Or the Choral Symphony - that started off as a small tune in Beethoven's head. Or, while we're at it, President Clinton's dick ..."

A horrible experience. I'm thinking of turning it into a screenplay. David Cronenberg's The Flu.

Marjorie Proops got a fond send-off on Monday, at her memorial service at St Bride's, the journalists' church off Fleet Street. Although, as Canon Oates, the St Bride's vicar, pointed out, La Proops herself would have preferred to be memorialised "in the bagel bar next door", the little church resounded with deeply non-churchy hymns ("My Way", "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye", "Unforgettable") and equally un-sacerdotal sentiments. First, Anne Robinson, the Points of View lady with the hyperactive wink, read out one of Marje's Daily Mirror columns, from 1993. It was a classic cri de coeur from a woman whose husband had come home from a leg operation with an ungovernable passion for nurses' uniforms and insisted his wife dressed up in starched white and black tights; Marje, in her down-to-earth way, counselled that the wife did exactly as she was asked, "and it won't set you back nearly as much as a new frock would ..." And Mike Molloy, the Mirror's ex-editor-turned novelist, told the now-famous parrot story. He once gave Marje a myna bird as a gift, and was puzzled by her chronic silence as to the bird's welfare. When he asked about it, she admitted, sadly, that she'd been forced to give it away. It only ever learnt to say one thing, and said it whenever the Proopses had any respectable visitors: "I can't 'ang around 'ere," it would announce in Marje's unmistakable Cockney, "I 'ave to get to the fuckin' airport."

It's nice to think there are a few absolutes in a world of sliding values. So I'm glad to be able to recommend that you get your hands on a new CD called The Best Poetry Album in the World ... Ever! where you will encounter positively the most atrocious reading of any poem ever. The recording, from the Virgin Music Group, rounds up a starry group of British actors and actresses and has them read ("in breaks from filming or rehearsing") various Eng Lit poetry classics with varying degrees of confidence.

You know the kind of BBC drama types: Hugh Grant, Julian Glover, Greg Wise, Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge, Imelda Staunton, Sam West, Joss Ackland, Dale Winton, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed ... What? Did one name strike a false note? Well spotted. It is indeed Mr Dale Winton, the tiresomely effete ex-presenter of Supermarket Sweep and sometime impresario of The National Lottery Live; he appears here reading John Donne's "The Flea" and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan". Words cannot convey the utter horror of Mr Winton's chirpy delivery, the fathomless stupidity with which he takes Coleridge's enraptured descriptions of the pleasure-dome and the sacred fountain, and reduces them to a camp, disc-jockey gurgle. It's like seeing the First Folio of Hamlet in the hands of a baboon. Is this the worst- ever convergence of text and reader? Last year's Disastrous Audio Books competition threw up the pleasing prospect of hearing Jimmy Knapp reading The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and Frank Bruno reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I think Mr Winton may have trumped them both.

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