Despite crippling MS, this is a praise song to a life well lived

Review: Vivien Horler

Short Circuit – A brief meander through memory – and malady, by John D Phillips (Munster Publishing)

It started with a classified ad in the Cape Argus. A Cape Town couple was looking for a like-minded couple to “swing” with.

My colleague John and I looked at each other in astonishment. We’d heard of swinging, but in Cape Town in the mid-70s? Nah!

We were both young reporters on the Argus, and this looked like a fun story. Could we pass ourselves off as a married couple, respond to the ad and find out more about this kind of thing – with no intention whatsoever of actually having group sex with the other two, or one on one, or each other.

But still, it looked interesting. We got permission from the newsdesk, went through our personal background details so we could sound married, and answered the ad.

Which is how we ended up one evening in the Woodstock Holiday Inn with the couple, he a doctor – or was it a dentist?

The doctor and I went up to a room he’d booked, while John sat downstairs with the wife. It was all a bit awkward, really, because I needed to escape before the doctor got too frisky. Meanwhile John was downstairs comforting the wife, who was in tears, saying none of this had been her idea.

So we were obliged to reveal all, and the four of us ended up in the room for a showdown.

On the bed was a suitcase containing pyjamas and an unopened bottle of champagne. Still weeping, but now also furious, the wife demanded to know why the doctor had got her into this.

As John remembers: “… and so it went on until 2 or 3am – in an orgy of recrimination and apology as Vivien and I, in true hack fashion, finished off the bubbly. ‘Who the fuck brings pyjamas to a swingers’ party,’ said she (ie me) with a laugh as we left.”

The story was never written, of course, but we had some fun times, back on the Argus when we were young and foolish.

John Phillips was a lovely guy, funny, a passionate beer drinker, dope smoker, poet, lover of music, and a pleasure to work with. He married Ingrid, the love of his life, whom he’d met at Cape Town High School, and had a good life with her, travelling all over the world, working in the Netherlands and London for years, eventually returning to Cape Town, where he worked on YOU magazine, and settling in a house in Vredehoek with sweeping views of Table Bay.

He was a beautiful writer. After snorkelling in the Maldives he wrote: “Then a handful of flying fish burst from the water and, like some silver swag-bellied toy gliders, briefly hung at the apex of a parabola of spray before knifing in again.”

But the shadow in paradise was his ill-health – after years of puzzlement and strange symptoms, he was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his late 20s.

He tried not to let it slow him down, but inevitably it did. There was no more hiking, no more climbing. He dreaded being reduced to a wheelchair, but when he finally succumbed, found it liberating. His chair had a hand-pedalling attachment and he could fly along the Sea Point Promenade, easily outpacing walkers who once had outpaced him and his stick.

Swimming too provided an outlet: “…I can bodysurf; the whooping of kids, the odd gull’s cry, they all combined to make me feel exhilarated, almost reborn. Once back on dry land, however, I feel like a seal – my movements clumsy, as if terra firma is no longer for me.”

Suicide was considered: he points out MS sufferers are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide than the general population – and twice as likely to succeed.

“…But this is not a book about death but about life – the hugely enjoyable life I’ve led even with a so-called dread disease… This doesn’t mean I’ve ruled out the possibility of stepping off the edge in the future, just that it hasn’t come to that yet”.

But the disease was inexorable and exhausting. He ends this memoir, at the age of 67: “I have no idea where I’m going or when I’ll get there, but those are always the best sort of journeys. They always have been, anyway.”

He died in 2021. Farewell John – it was good knowing you.

  • All proceeds from this book will go to Multiple Sclerosis South Africa.


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