I had begun to feel twinges of pain in one of my thighs and, although I tried at first to ignore it, I knew that this marked the onset of an ineffably painful, recurring condition caused by trapped nerves somewhere in my lower back. So, acting as swiftly and decisively as NHS procedure allows, I secured an appointment with my GP to get an appointment with the physiotherapist.
The therapist, a friendly, chatty bloke, was not the one I had seen before so he was obliged to start again with the diagnosis. He had a way of theorising out loud while he prodded, poked and twisted me. Theories are not what you want to hear when you are in pain. I wanted to say “Just tell me what’s wrong and fix it please” but I suspected he was well-intentioned so I kept quiet and tried politely to follow the technicalities of his procedure instead. His diagnosis, once reached, still sounded disappointingly tentative; but he prescribed some exercises, offered me a crib-sheet full of matchstick-man diagrams and sent me limping on my way.
Friends discovering my dilemma were generous with their sympathy and advice. Some had similar stories to tell and could even recommend pharmaceutical products to ease pain and inflammation (alcohol doesn’t work). To clarify all this advice I went back to the doctor for a prescription. While writing it he told me that, in his opinion, physiotherapists are not necessarily good at treating lower back problems and that I should consider seeing a chiropractor instead. At the time I was in too much distress to remonstrate with him – I was desperate to get to the chemist’s – but perhaps I shall take it up with him one day.
But control of pain does not equal cure of the condition so I buckled down to the exercises. They require the adoption of two basic positions; one is lying on your belly on the floor and the other is lying on your back on the floor. Thus I was given an opportunity to see my world from an unusual perspective for extended periods of time. The face-down position gave me un-looked-for opportunities to inspect the carpet and make resolve to get the vacuum cleaner out (as soon as I felt up to it). Meanwhile I learnt not to inhale too sharply. The face-up position seemed only to lead to paranoid speculation about ceilings falling in on top of me.
One day, whilst rolling awkwardly from the face-up to the face-down position without twisting my vertebrae in the process, I got a close-up view of the bottom shelf of a bookcase. It contains, as a sort of ballast, all those weighty tomes which prevent the bookcase from becoming top-heavy and falling over. I hadn’t seen them for years; in fact, some of them, I swear, I have never seen before. Such a one was Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania – a big, fat hardback of 540 pages. While I was down there I pulled it from the shelf, dusted it off and decided that, in my reduced state of health, it would be an ideal lightweight read.
I discovered quite quickly, however, that reading this book presented some unforeseen difficulties. Because the only reading position I could adopt for any reasonable length of time was lying on the floor, flat on my back, I imagined that (apart from the possibility of the ceiling falling down on me) holding a heavy book above my face could risk further medical complications; the onset of conditions such as acute readers’ wrist, book-luggers’ elbow, frozen shoulder or even a poke in the eye with a hard-back. Nothing against Paul Theroux, but I promptly returned the book to its hiding place and reached instead for my trusty e-reader. It weighs just 280 grams and requires only one hand to hold it and turn the pages. The rest, as they say, is ballast.