4 March 2001
"And I've got one, two, three, four, five, senses working overtime ..." warbles Andy Partridge of XTC on most of the singles compilation tapes I made in the early 1980s (usually filling that tricky end-of-side-one slot). This week I've got only one, two, three, four. The non-effect of what should have been a deliciously spiced-up curry on Saturday night marked the disappearance of my taste buds. It wasn't a complete surprise. I lost my taste for a month over the millennium – which saved me from having to knock back glasses of cheap champagne in the Dome. Giles, the neurologist who knows everything there is to know about MS, tells me that losing taste is a "very rare" first symptom – which makes me feel tremendously important, but isn't much help to me at suppertime as I push another plateful away.
My friends are envious. To them, no taste equals no calories equals fitting again into slim clothes from the back of the cupboard. They have a point. I'm certainly not joining them as they panic-buy pork scratchings during this foot and mouth outbreak, and the scales no longer hold the terror that they once did. And I'm blowing the dust off those old lightweight army trousers that were quite trendy back in 1979 and which, courtesy of All Saints, and renamed "cargo pants", are sort of back in vogue again. So if you see a sad Eighties throwback shuffling through the streets these days, that's me (unless it's Limahl from Kajagoogoo).
I often think that taste is an over-rated sense. To put taste and smell on a level with sight, hearing and feeling has always struck me as unfair. But the downside of this symptom is that not everything tastes of water, as everyone assumes. On the contrary, it is that everything, water in particular, tastes of the dregs of a Pot Noodle.
I've always been something of a fussy eater: aubergines, chocolate, anchovies and ham all have a place on my "no thank you" list. But the flipside of that is that if I like a food, I love it. Once a foodstuff – curry, Quavers, a cheese, Marmite and mayo sandwich – has got my tastebuds twitching, I can't get enough of it. Or I couldn't, at any rate. Now even these tempting titbits hold no promise.
At the BBC tea bar, normally a mainstay of my lunch hour, some adman has decided to brand all the sandwiches with an identical, lurid green sticker bearing the single word TASTE. Following the lead of Pret a Manger, the corporation's sandwich makers have come up with ever-more exotic fillings for their slices of bread. They are wasting their time on me: duck pâté with basil and mozzarella has an identical TASTE to cardboard with extra wallpaper paste to my refined palate these days. The only thing with much of a residual taste for me is a cigarette – and that's probably only because my Silk Cut ultra milds had no flavour in the first place.
But the good thing about this symptom is that, because I've had it before (and it went away after four weeks), I'm optimistic that its return means I'm due to go into remission. In the majority of cases, multiple sclerosis is a relapsing-remitting disease: it comes and goes. But we've been waiting rather longer than I'd hoped for a remission – hopefully, the loss of taste, which was brief last time, is the beginning of the end of this attack.
Life seems very much a waiting game at the moment. At the BBC, we're waiting for Tony Blair to call an election, primed to deploy our outside broadcast resources and our Peter Snow graphics to bring you the results on the night. At home, Lucy and I are waiting for a month-old Rory to sleep through the night, for two-year-old Martha to discover the joys of her potty and four-year-old Daisy to learn her letters. And, like everyone living out here in the sticks, we're waiting to see how the foot and mouth outbreak develops.
Finally, we're also waiting for next Friday's episode of The Middle Classes on BBC2 to see how the editors have stitched together their interviews with my father and me. I've been in the business long enough to know that juxtaposing tension makes good TV – and that means disagreement. Now, I can accept that my father and I don't see eye-to-eye on absolutely everything – but can they have made us look like a pair of buffoons? The signs weren't good when the producer sent me off to put on a suit and tie for the interview. And the producer's letter this week, telling us that the best bits are on the cutting-room floor, has really set alarm bells ringing: so they only used the worst bits? How will this programme affect our family – a pertinent question at the best of times, and yet more relevant given that we live only a few hundred yards apart.
There's an added twist to this anticipation: the interview was carried out after this MS attack had begun, but before the diagnosis was made. How will the post-diagnosis me react to the happy-go-lucky, ignorant me on the screen?
Meanwhile, in the words of XTC, I carry on "trying to taste the difference between lemon and lime". Between lemon and milk would be a start.