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An “immensely readable series of essays, whose value is in direct relation to the depth of the experience from which they are drawn.”

[This review of The Price of Experience will appear in a future issue of Race and Class]

HAZEL WATERS, Institute of Race Relations, reviews The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer
By MIKE MARQUSEE (London, OR Books, 2014), 106 pp. £8.00.

Why, I wondered, before I began reading, had Marqusee titled his collection of essays the price of experience, and not the cost? But I realised a price is something that you pay, with thought; it denotes value. A cost is extracted, willy nilly. And that thoughtfulness, that attention to exactitude, is evident in every page of this small, immensely readable series of essays, whose value is in direct relation to the depth of the experience from which they are drawn. It was, indeed, only after plunging through the essays themselves, that I sensed the force of the Blake poem ‘What is the price of Experience’ with which Marqusee prefaces his collection.

Without grandstanding or fanfare, Marqusee charts the process (and processes) he has lived through since that first, lurching, terrible period of diagnosis – not a single moment, but a shifting, off-kilter pattern that will be familiar to all who have suddenly found the stable certainty of their lives shattered by the irrevocable. The pain of the health and apparent good fortune of others, so hard to look upon; the heightened awareness of how cliché can dominate our interactions at times such as these. The ‘good days’, ‘bad days’ mantra that we serve up, to comfort ourselves and others, so as to mask the flux and uncertainty of what the next – day? hour? darkness? will bring. The tawdry language of ‘bravery’, ‘self-help’, ‘fighting’, ‘living life to the full’ that serves to personalise responsibility for a complex, not fully understood, phenomenon that has social as well as physical roots – a mindset that simply adds yet another burden to the gravely ill. All this Marqusee dissects with forensic precision, even as he charts the ebb and flow of his situation. ‘One phase has followed another and none has been what I expected . . . The relationship between the illness, the treatment, and my responses to both is always shifting, posing new issues, problems, questions. I seem to be in a permanent process of adjustment … ’

But this is much more than a deeply personal account of what this adjustment has entailed and still does. It reaches beyond and through the individual experience to a profound awareness of how deeply enmeshed human beings need to be with one another; the imperative of ‘commitment to an egalitarian and cooperative social order, not as a distant utopia, but as an urgent requirement of the hour’.
It is an urgency that is emphasised by the current and ongoing crisis of ‘austerity’, to be endured by the many in order to further enrich the few – whose appetite, not sated by the sacrifice of every hitherto publicly owned good on the altar of private equity, is now, Moloch-like, set to devour every last shred of publicly owned service. And what will that do to this intricate web of human dependence?

“Sitting with my IV drip, I like to think about all the human labour and ingenuity that come together in this medical moment … The first circle of dependence is immediate and sometimes intimate: partners, friends, doctors, nurses, cleaners, porters. Beyond them is a vast network of people I never see: pathologists, pharmacists, IT engineers, appointments managers. Everyone who has anything to do with maintaining the supply of medications or the functioning of equipment or getting me to and from hospital. Everyone who makes sure the lights are on and the building safe. The whole intricate ballet that is a functioning hospital…”

These essays span a period from 2009 to December 2013, ranging over a comparison with US healthcare and the attack on ‘Obamacare’; the responses of friends and the wider community to the whole feared issue of cancer; the unparalleled care he has experienced at St Barts – and the attacks (financial and political) on that trust (Barts occupies prime real estate, after all); the question of research – who really funds it; and, at the heart, a profound recognition of the sheer bedrock importance of a health system that is free to all at the point of need. Throughout, Marqusee holds a balance that is as much personal as political, and as much political as personal.

Fittingly, the last two essays reflect this dialectic: ‘Surprisingly I’m still alive (an open letter to friends)’ and ‘Held hostage by Big Pharma’. The latter is a controlled blast of anger at the sheer profiteering of the drug industry, where profit margins range from an exorbitant 17 per cent to a completely exploitative 26 per cent. After all, it has a captive market. And today that market is not only captive, but our whole public health system is being captured to serve the interests of transnational capital. While the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt poses in a plastic pinny pretending to help make a hospital bed, he and his colleagues are busy fulfilling Oliver Letwin’s 2004 promise that the NHS ‘will not exist’ within five years of a Tory victory.

Was I 9 or 10 years old when, over a Daily Mirror front-page picture of Nye Bevan in Trafalgar Square, I read that three-inch headline, ‘Tory Vermin’?

[Buy The Price of Experience directly from publisher OR Books.]