When reality television is preferable to reality

My addiction to ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’ started around the time my husband was being prodded and probed and diced and spliced in hospital


A couple of years ago, in December, my husband was being treated for a serious illness in a Dublin hospital. Prior to his sojourn in Dublin he had spent the best part of a month in hospital in England. The day I received the news of his collapse in London (he was only supposed to be there for the weekend), the dishwasher broke down. It wasn’t a major occurrence, but that afternoon, as the phone kept ringing and the dishes piled up around the sink and the sky darkened and snow began to fall and I definitively and inexplicably lost the car keys, I had a sense of how quickly life can get very messy.

To cut a long story short, I went to London and, battling feelings of fear and rage, began to make sense of this new chapter. He spent the following weeks being prodded and probed and diced and spliced, and I commuted back and forth, sometimes with my sons, sometimes alone.

And intermittently the sky would hurl a snowstorm my way, and flights would be delayed and coffees would go cold and telephones would crackle with exhaustion as I tried to persuade someone to go to bed in another country, promising that I’d be home in time to wake them up for school in the morning.

I picked him up at Dublin Airport. I couldn’t risk flying over to accompany him home, as the airports both here and in Britain were struggling to stay open in Arctic conditions. He came through the arrivals gate pale and grateful; within a week, he was back in hospital.

“We usually meet you guys on an autopsy table,” said the tall Irish nurse, cheerfully examining my husband’s Sassenach scars.

A bad birthday
My youngest son celebrated his birthday during that time; we went to the hospital that evening, carrying in the cards and presents to show his dad. The nurses were kind, allowing us to use an empty consulting room so that my son could spread his cache out over the table. But during the visit my husband’s heart monitor indicated that he was in danger, and halfway through our hour he was moved up to a high-dependency ward.

My sons and I went home, lit the fire, and watched I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! For the following fortnight we watched every episode of jungle life, heard every leaden quip from the mouths of Ant’n’Dec, watched every roach nip and rat whip and croc snap and snake spit. It was great, it was routine, it was a plan, when all about us life was shifting and snow was blurring a once-familiar landscape.

Coffee palpitation

The other day I was talking to a novelist; we were in her home, books lining the walls and falling to the floor. We were eating bread with raisins in it. A family friend of hers had been throwing out

a Nespresso machine, and the prudent novelist had provided it with a new home. It’s a generous machine; I had drunk so many cups of the strapping coffee it produced that my own heart was somersaulting.

“I find this time of year tough,” I told her. “I feel like a battery chicken, hacked up and disjointed.”

She sipped her coffee.

“And it gets worse,” I continued. I’m A Celebrity is back on and I’ve barely missed an episode. I’m parked there, on the couch, night after night, slack-jawed and dreary as a dressing gown, lapping up the antics of a bunch of balding has-beens and glittering wannabes as they slug it out in the Australian outback just so they can peddle their mediocrity on breakfast television and develop new careers presenting budgerigar racing. I have watched hours of it, trance-like, as a bunch of eejits I barely knew existed weep over their stir-fried possums and have cockroaches tweezered out of their ears.”

My older son has far more interesting fish to fry nowadays than to sit beside me for a bushtucker trial, my husband, now recovered, never got into the habit, and I’m beginning to suspect that my younger son is humouring me.

“My life is more than half over,” I moaned to my friend. “I’m facing a future of mashed turnip, stairlifts and singalongs, and what do I do with my time? Watch I’m a Celebrity.”

On the bookshelves, and leaning in towers against the wall, her bulky collection of serious novels straightened their spines disapprovingly. My friend the novelist looked at me with writerly scrutiny (or maybe she had just forgotten to put on her glasses). “Get a grip,” she said firmly. “Sometimes reality TV is a lot more fun than reality.”

I hope Kian Egan wins. But if I find myself buying a Westlife CD, I’m having myself committed.

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