Don's Diary

August 1, 1997


The prospect of another strange week in limbo, after a disastrous year in which a neurological operation, followed by a term's teachings, one serious and one catastrophic fall, and another operation, have reduced me from ordinary lecturing - and ordinary mobility and independence - to wheelchair-bound dependency, with very limited movement in my left arm and a virtually useless right arm. I have never thought of Beckett as a sober realist, but I feel that I am now living as a cross between Hamm and Nagg in Endgame, topped off with a Prozac-induced version of Winnie's cheerfulness at the happiness of her happy days. I am lodged in a home for the multiple disabled, trying to piece together whatever I can of my working life. I am almost certainly the only person in the home who spends his days worrying about the mechanics of editing the plays of John Gay.


Yesterday's attempt to go to work was not successful. There is very little that I can do in my office without being able to use my computer or sort through books and papers. Luckily I have an extremely supportive and sympathetic department and university. Earlier in the year, when I was mobile but restricted in what I could do, I had already registered the difficulty of working on an early 1960s campus, designed, as one of my colleagues put it, at a time when it was assumed that all staff and all students would be young and fit for ever. I am now having to negotiate the more complex problems of devising whatever package of support I can from the social services to keep my job going. In the process, I am having to try to explain the peculiar range of activities that takes place in academic life, and why these activities are essential to my understanding of what my job entails. There is an assumption that I should be all right without much help because academic life is one of pure disembodied intellect. I am fed up with trying to explain that this is not the case. It is difficult for me to imagine sustaining the research component of my job with any degree of efficiency in my present state. At the same time I am having to face the question of how I can preserve anything that I value in academic life in my new and depressing circumstances.


Visiting friends have tried to enthuse me with the wonders of cyberspace, but I still have a niggling sentimental regard for the real: real encounters with real historical documents in real libraries, and real encounters with real people at real conferences, which will now be very difficult to achieve.


I now have my new computer in the home, which enables me to begin experimenting with voice dictation technology for word processing. This has become an urgent necessity if I am to stand any chance of working. Typing is reduced to one finger of my left hand:this produces an extraordinary feeling of helplessness and isolation. During previous spells in hospital this year I managed to keep at least part of my job going, reading, marking, examining a thesis, keeping my administration ticking over, having the odd meeting, and doing some teaching from the ward or from a corridor by a lift shaft, where the nurses helpfully rigged up a notice saying "Stephen's office: please knock and enter". (The side room of a neurological ward is a peculiarly appropriate place to teach Jacobean drama, but perhaps rather less appropriate for an MA option on the Picturesque.) During my last hospital stay my activities were far more constrained. I eventually managed to mark some finals papers, but only by recording marks and comments on a Dictaphone. Administration and correspondence are a nightmare; serious writing will be out of the question unless I can master the new technology.


I have now completed the initial training of my dictation package - or rather, as it sometimes seems, it has completed its initial training of me. I am gradually getting used to the peremptory tone in which it addresses me and tells me to start or stop dictating (and, I suspect, to buck my ideas up in the process). This column is the first fruit of our labours. I am not sure if I am more irritated when the dictation package goes wrong, or disconcerted when it goes properly - it does both in equal measure. It disturbs all my theoretical expectations about the relation between the written and the spoken to see my speech appear immediately and apparently unmediated as text on the screen. The only thing that restores my faith in the non-transparency of language is the point at which the programme spills out endless permutations of apparently like-sounding but exhilaratingly referentially random alternatives to the word it has failed to recognise. Do I really pronounce "lodging" so that it sounds like "mushroom"? These streams of dissociated terms restore my faith in the materiality of language, even if they are hell to edit out.


There is a long way to go from this cobbled-together mosaic of typos (or, I suppose, speakos), edits, corrections and deleted expletives to deathless prose, but at least there is a foundation here for getting back into print and into circulation.

Stephen Copley

Lecturer, department of English, University of York.

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