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Tracey Emin

I’ve calmed down after beating cancer

Guy Bell/Shutterstock

Tracey Emin has one big regret, says John Wilson on the Radio 4 show This Cultural Life – not starring in Only Fools and Horses. Twenty years ago the artist and her mother were on a bench in Margate, eating jellied eels and cockles, when a casting director spotted them. The scout had no idea who Emin was, but thought they looked good. She asked them to be background characters. Emin declined. “I thought I was too good to be an extra in Fools and Horses,” she says. “How deranged was I?!” It’s part of a bigger problem – artists are too serious. “I take my work really seriously,” she explains. “But that doesn’t mean that I have to take me so seriously.” “I wish, in a way, that in life I hadn’t got so hung up on that.”

It’s no surprise she has been re-evaluating things. In June last year, at the age of 57, Emin was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Doctors told her she would probably die before December. Chemotherapy was not an option – the cancer was growing too quickly – so Emin had only one chance at surgery, and the odds weren’t good. Instead of getting angry, she embraced life more than ever. “I thought, right, I’m probably going to die by Christmas, so I’ll just put that over there, and now I’ll just get on with living.” It also helped that, days before her diagnosis, Emin had fallen in love. After 10 years alone, suddenly I had a purpose, she says. “My willpower kicked in.” She had surgery that July, lost her uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, lymph nodes, part of her colon, urethra and some of her vagina, but she survived. “If I hadn’t have felt love, I would have just floated off.”

👨🏻‍🎤 🎨 Growing up, Emin was a David Bowie superfan. And when she was a young artist, they finally met. “I was sitting in a Lebanese restaurant in Kensington in 1996 when someone leaned over the table and said, ‘I’m very, very sorry to interrupt. My name’s David and I just wanted to say how much I love your work.’” Emin looked up and saw that it was Bowie. “And I said, ‘Likewise.’”