13th January 2002
"Is it in your family?" It's the first question most people ask about multiple sclerosis, and it's one of the hardest to answer. Some people, brought up on the cod genetics they've picked up from children's TV, have a view that MS is like haemophilia was to Queen Victoria's kids: a familial scourge that gets passed from generation to generation. But it's not like that at all. My parents haven't got it. Nor my grandparents. Nor my siblings. The official word on multiple sclerosis is that genetics does play a part in its transmission, but no one is sure what.
The disease apparently pops up from time to time unexpectedly, and then goes away again. I have a feeling that my grandfather's second cousin August had it but I'm not sure. Next Saturday will be my chance to find out.
From time to time, readers have been kind/bored enough to write to me, telling me that my experience of the condition is by no means atypical. Indeed, their symptoms are usually more extreme than mine, in a "been-there-done-that-got-the-T-shirt" sort of way. If I lose my sense of taste, a writer tells me they've lost their smell, too. If I fall into an oncoming bike, they've tipped on to a railway line. And so on. So it is with some trepidation that I claim that next Saturday I will do something none of you can match. I'm going to the funeral of my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. Beat that.
The truth is more prosaic than the boast. A decade ago, Christ's Church in Spitalfields decided to clear out the crypt to create a drop-in centre for drop-outs. Among the bodies was that of Louisa Perina Courtauld, Huguenot silversmith (1729-1807). After a few years tinkering with the ossified remains, the British Museum handed them over to cousin Christopher for reburial. And so all of Louisa Perina's descendants have been invited to assemble at Gosfield church for a funeral and burial service on Saturday.
Which begs a question. What's the protocol for the funeral of a long-dead relative? I'm planning to take my kids along: it'll be something for them to tell their grandkids about. But they've not been to a funeral before. Too sad, too mournful. But is this one going to be sad? After 200 years? Surely nobody there will even remember anyone who remembered her? On the other hand, they took their religion seriously, those Huguenots. They were prepared to fight, to kill and die, to flee their country for it. The fact that I couldn't give a toffee shouldn't ... oh, I dunno.
For me, one of the most interesting facets of the occasion will be pseudo-scientific. To meet lots of new relations and to ask them if any of their brood has got MS. It would be futile but still interesting to know that Great-Great-Uncle Albert had it too. In those days it probably didn't even have a name. "Mysterious nervous disorder", or something.
But it probably won't help my children, or their cousins for that matter, to avoid the disease. That's because genetics isn't the whole answer. A genetic component, yes. But others, too. I read somewhere that it is now thought that excessive cleanliness in the teenage years has something to do with it. Having spent my formative years in the communal showers and tetanus-and-splinter-laden classrooms of Eton College, I somehow doubt that.
Meanwhile, the search for a miracle cure or at least something to stop me acting quite so drunkenly when I'm perfectly sober goes on. Haven't heard from the cannabis trial for a while, so I bought some seeds from a bloke in Spitalfields market. Twenty quid for a pack which contained only five seeds seemed a bit of a rip-off to me. Still, with visions of myself as a latter-day Rosie Boycott, I planted them. Nothing. Four of them died without even germinating. From one seed, I did get a weedy-looking sprout. I even gave it a name, Trevor. Encouraged by the sun's feeble midwinter rays, Trevor developed a couple of leaves. After a month, he managed the spectacular height of ... 1in. I had to keep the illegal item hidden over Christmas lest it be recognised by a visitor and reported to the Old Bill.
Yesterday morning, however, I dived out of bed and rushed downstairs to tend my ailing friend. The sight that greeted me was tragic. Our 11-month old son, Rory, held my precious plant pot. It was empty. He had mud all over his mouth. Of Trevor, no sign.