Walking wounded

At 29, Everything But The Girl’s songwriter Ben Watt began having difficulties walking and breathing. Surgeons opened him up to find his insides rotting away. He recounts his brush with death in an astounding first book Patient. as Damien Love reports.

lot of my friends no longer invite tne around for dinner.‘ says Ben Watt. songwriter and one half of pop duo Everything But The Girl. A common enough complaint for a man in his profession. you might imagine. So. what’s the problem: a propensity for driving his Rolls into the pool? An entourage of supermodels and shady young men with mobile phones? The pet chimpanzee or a Messiah complex? _

‘They worry they’re going to do something bad to me.’ says Watt. ‘They watched this happening to me, so they’re convinced if they roast a potato with too much oil. that’ll be it.’

Watt is speaking about the aftermath of a condition that almost killed him. turning part of his intestine to pulp. His story of the battle for life and his gradual return to fragile health. is told in his first book Patient: The True Story Of A Rare Illness.

Watt’s condition first reared its head in the early part of l992. when Everything But The Girl’s success was waning. His asthma was becoming increasingly bad. the joints in his arms and legs were aching. there were pains in his chest and belly and it was getting difficult to walk and breathe. At first. doctors suspected he had a chest infection he was treated with antibiotics and given more powerful asthmatic drugs. Then things got worse.

Besides his GP. Watt was seeing an acupuncturist twice a week. and began visiting a homeopath who gave him tablets and said that he’d get worse before he got better. Just before he was scheduled to go for an electrocardiogram (ECG) to test his heart. the asthma seemed to ease off. This lull preceded pains unlike any he had experienced before. The night before his ECG. he believed his chest was going to burst open. When the results came back. the consultant sat on his bed and calmly explained that. in his opinion. Watt was very slowly having a heart attack. Or if not. he was about to have a massive one.

Watt‘s first venture outside the music world. Patient picks up the story just after this initial misdiagnosis. with his arrival in the coronary care unit of London’s Westminster Hospital. an NHS building in slow decline and scheduled for closure. For the next two and a half months. he was to stay in various wards within the hospital. its staff and doctors trying to keep him alive while they worked out what was wrong with him. Beside him all the way was his life and music partner. Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn.

Patient is a fascinating book. On one level. it is a painstakingly. graphically detailed diary of a horrendous illness. its most arresting aspect. though. is its very real sense of giving voice to the consciousness of a critically ill man. The

book is full of intricate memories. from the Blu- Tack marks on the hospital ward’s ceiling left by last year’s Christmas decorations. to the shadows cast by leaves on his bedside window at night. These images are from the part of Watt’s mind which. in boredom. fever or drug- addled stupor. plunges into vivid childhood memories or becomes confused. dislocated in time and place.

Watt. who has based the book partly on Thorn‘s meticulous diary of his condition. initially had no intention of writing Patient.

‘l didn‘t sit down with the idea of writing a book.’ he says. ‘When l came out of hospital. for the first six or seven months I was recuperating. I can see in retrospect l was

"hacey went through her own experience . . . They say serious illness is supposed to bring people together -

in a strange way It drove us apart.’

suffering a post-traumatic syndrome. l was incredibly internalised about what had happened to me. it was starting to get in the way of my relationship with Tracey. my family and stuff.

‘Tracey went through her own experience. She was in the hospital every day. but hers was a different experience to mine. She was the onlooker. They say serious illness is supposed to bring people together in a strange way it drove us apart. into our own interior landscapes. When i was back home recovering, we were just bouncing off each other, not really connecting. i wasn’t talking to anybody about what had happened. and i thought one way to get around this was to start writing it down.

‘During the middle month. when things were most critical. Tracey had kept a very dry record


of what happened on a day to day basis: “Ben never stopped throwing up today. he took blah. blah.” That helped put it in a structural order. so i took that and grafted on the more impressionistic. stream-of-consciousness stuff.’

The larger story of Watt and Thorn frames the book. Simply. poignantly and unsentimentally told. it is. when filtered down. a love story. Also in the background is. of course. the story of Everything But The Girl. who survived not only Watt’s illness. but the transition from introspective bedsit poets to jungle-influenced chart climbers with their successful last album Walking Wounded.

Watt admits the onslaught of his illness coincided with a time when Everything But The Girl were going stale: ‘We’d backed ourselves into a comer where we completely disconnected from the pop mainstream. our generation had grown up . . . So with the recovery from my illness, and that galvanising force. i did push very hard into the music . . . in May 93 i started to write the book. Then i started to write songs for Amplified Heart. and started using break- beats, loops. and so on. which led to ‘Missing’. Having had such a life-changing experience with the illness. to make this leap into a whole new musical territory seems very natural.‘

Watt was finally diagnosed as having Churg- Strauss Syndrome. In the book he paraphrases Joseph Heller: ‘You know it’s something serious when they name it after two guys.’ In the past 25 years. there have only been 30 diagnosed cases of the condition. caused when the immune system starts to attack the body.

‘lt was over-reacting. sending out far too many agents to deal with invading antigens (genus. bacteria, house-dust mites etc), creating this huge silting up effect.’ says Watt. ‘lt lodged in my intestine and stopped the blood supply; like an enormous riot going on, no traffic could pass through. The blood vessel got distended and destroyed. the tissue that was being supplied started to die.’

Early in the book, Watt comes around four days after what he thought was going to be a simple exploratory operation. to find that in the interim he has had four major operations. ‘Prof Wastell had cut me open as planned, but he had seen something so bad at first he’d simply stapled me back together again and sent me up to intensive care to pause for thought. My small bowel had virtually rotted away inside me . . .’

Which brings us back to Watt’s lack of dinner invitations. By the end of the operations. more than 80 per cent of his small intestine the part that does the digesting - had had to be removed. Which. to put it ludicrously simply. means he has to watch what he eats. He now lives on the unexplored cutting edge of some areas of medical research. with the knowledge the disease could recur. But. as has been evident in the veritable rebirth of Everything But The Girl over the past two years. the experience has had more than simply a-physical effect on the author and musician.

‘My physical life is quite mundane now,’ he says. ‘I have a restricted diet. l have to take drugs. i cut a fairly unprepossessing figure. But while my body has shrunk. i feel bigger mentally these days. it’s as though when l’m getting up, l’m getting my brain out of bed. rather than my body. The fact that my mind is alive with ideas and driven by purpose and meaning is what gets me out of bed.’

Patient by Ben Watt is published by Viking at £12.50.

The List 6-l9 Sept 1996 11