Terry Jones has dementia. More specifically, he has primary progressive aphasia, a condition which intrudes onto the brain’s semantics, fraying the connecting thread between language and its meaning. Words remain banked in the brain yet what they signify grows adrift. The world retains its familiarity, customs their habit, objects their function – those with aphasia are quite capable of, say, dressing themselves – but the correct names for their items of clothing are lost. In primary progressive aphasia all of this is gradual, the lexicon becoming steadily depleted, the words dwindling, the alphabet crumbling. It’s a little like becoming foreign: the world is recognisable yet its language, and all that language hinges on, grows inaccessible. Eventually, that connecting linguistic thread is severed, leading to memory loss, identity loss and a marked incomprehension.
All in all, a sad thing to know that this is something a personal hero, and his young family, is going through.
Like most people in their 30’s I don't really have any specific memory of first experiencing Monty Python. It just seemed to be there, in the form of clips on television, a late night movie or a feature in the Radio Times. And when I grew up my dad, like countless other dads, would punctuate our conversations with talk of ex-parrots, the People’s Front of Judea and how no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition. I had no idea what he was on about but, then again, when you’re a child that’s true of a good deal of adult talk. Monty Python was simply present, lurking in the cultural background in much the same way as the Beatles, the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing, totemic components of the ruling boomer generation’s own personal lore.
But I do remember when, as a teenager who hitherto took himself incredibly seriously, I bought the complete Monty Python TV series boxset on VHS and spent a lonely summer in my bedroom enthralled by its mixture of showy intelligence, stream-of-consciousness structure and baroque silliness. Terry Jones was the most sensible and scholarly of the group, rarely anyone’s favourite, especially when his softness and vulnerability is seen alongside John Cleese and Graham Chapman whose berserk pyrotechnics are much more appealing to an adolescent’s anarchic streak. But Jones was always my favourite. Later I would learn that in many ways he was the mother of the group, its chief architect – ‘the bowels of Python’ is how Eric Idle described him. And of all the Pythons Jones was also the one who arguably had the most productive post-Python life, directing feature films, presenting documentaries and writing a copious amount of books.
It's this last specialism in particular which makes it so sad that Jones is suffering from a form of dementia defined by its power to obliterate language. I have a fondness for his children’s books, particularly one titled Nicobobinus, a note-perfect fantasy yarn of pirates, dragons and magic which I have memories of being read to me at bedtime by my dad, memories so vivid in part because he had trouble pronouncing the title character’s name and eventually rechristened him as simply 'Nick', but also because I can still recall the feelings of adventure and peril Nicobobinus provoked.
Aphasia is a condition which I've recently come to know about also because of my dad. Recently he had a stroke which left him with a severe case of aphasia. Initially, he had trouble communicating at all. After a few days he could understand a good deal of what was being said to him, a few days after that could read pages of text at a time fluently (without necessarily being able to interpret what it is he was reading) and within a fortnight could set out to begin saying basic sentences without too many problems. But, for the most part, there was and still is a murkily unsettling divide between words and what they mean. Early on, when shown a picture and asked to name it – I bought a pack of children's flash cards and spent long afternoons in hospital testing him on them – he was usually unable to do so. In most instances, when the correct word was then revealed it suddenly seemed obvious to him: 'Banana! It's a banana! Of course!' In other cases he would find the correct word baffling: 'Shed? Is that right? You sure? Shed, shed...' He would trail off, shaking his head. 'No, I don't think so... shed... that's so silly.'
Silly is the word. There’s something distinctively cruel about an illness which causes you to speak gibberish. To begin with my dad's sentences would very quickly veer off into nonsense - dropping words or picking a string of incorrect ones before he gave up. He has since made good progress and this behaviour has slowly become less extreme, but it is still there. ‘I’m sorry the house is so chunky,’ he said when I last visited him at home. He meant untidy of course but chunky had come out. Similarly, during a flashcard test shortly before he left hospital he developed a temporary inability to say the word 'cow' due to some some mental insistence that the word was 'bicep'.
‘It’s a cow,’ I said holding up the picture of a cow. ‘Say it after me: cow.’
‘Cow. Cow. Cow.’
Nodding his head, concentrating, trying to get into the rhythm of the word: ‘Bicep… d'oh... Bicep… Right, I’ve got it… this time… Bicep.’
Fortunately, my dad is a man who has always valued and enjoyed silliness – I can’t honestly think of anything sillier than thinking a cow is called a bicep – and would have struggled to take the steps he's managed towards recovery without a dark appreciation for the sheer ridiculousness of his situation.
I imagine Terry Jones is having similar interactions to these, but sadly with less optimism about his future prospects. Still, I hope he’s able to maintain that sense of the absurd. After all, he was the one who taught me how important this can be.