Lou Reed… magic and loss

HPIM1604.JPGTHE death of Lou Reed yesterday hit me harder than I might have expected.

It has taken me the night to fully understand why.

I came to Lou Reed via David Bowie, in much the same way I discovered Bob Dylan… or to be more exact, the 1971 Bowie album, Hunky Dory was my conduit to them both.

For while Song for Bob Dylan provided a highway to my lifetime obsession with His Bobness, another song, Queen Bitch, led me to Lou Reed and by dint of passage, to my career in journalism.

I was a 16 year-old teenager trying to find my musical muses and heroes. I had been fed a diet of Nat King Cole and big band swing by my parents throughout my childhood before discovering The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and Marc Bolan and T Rex for myself.

I had only recently been turned to David Bowie via his single Starman. Sometime during the summer of 1972, I bought my first proper LP, the now timeless, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Suddenly I was besotted with Bowie and through my local record store in Lancing ordered his back catalogue of Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory… all at £1.99 a time. I was listening to Bowie back to back throughout that summer and autumn.

Through the pages of weekly music newspapers, I had heard mention of Lou Reed and his recent collaboration with Bowie. So when his album Transformer was released in November that year I rushed out to buy it, without ever hearing a track.

From Vicious, you hit me with a flower through Perfect Day, Andy’s Chest, Satellite of Love and New York Telephone Conversation to Walk on the Wild Side and Good Night Ladies, at 36 minutes 40 seconds, it just wasn’t enough.

His voice and his lyrics had me hooked, even if I didn’t yet know what ‘giving head’ meant!

So I returned to Bowie’s Queen Bitch and the oblique reference to Lou Reed’s first band The Velvet Underground.

I trotted back to my local music store and asked a bemused middle-aged proprietor if he could order any album by the American group The Velvet Underground.

He scoured his catalogue and suggested a recently released Best of the Velvet Underground. I waited a full week before I had the LP tucked under my arm and headed home to get it on the turntable as soon as possible.

From the first track it blew me away. Here I had everything Bowie had delivered but much more. This music was raw, invigorating and loaded with lyrics that took a lifetime to unravel. It was nothing like Transformer… it was better!

Lady Godiva’s Operation, White Light/White Heat, Venus in Furs, Waiting For the Man, Heroin and Sister Ray all battled for my attention. This was the real Lou Reed. Added to that, there was the warmth of Nico’s flat voiced psalms Sunday Morning, Femme Fatale and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

The LP didn’t leave my turntable until about Christmas, when, for the umpteenth time, my father yelled: “Turn that bloody racket down”.

I had never written to a newspaper before that point. But something persuaded me to pick up my pen and write a scrawl to my favourite music paper, Sounds. My letter eulogised the Velvet Underground to the point where I described them as more important and better than The Beatles. It was a teenage rant and I never expected to see it published. But a week later my letter was there in all its glory in 9 point Times Roman with a single column headline Better Than The Beatles.

I was in print. It was my first ever published piece of writing and I still have a yellowing copy stuck in a scrapbook in a cupboard in my study.

As for Lou Reed, I became a lifetime fan and rate his 1973 album Berlin and his 1989 album New York as two of the greatest rock albums ever produced by anyone. His later album Magic and Loss is, in my opinion, one of the most moving single pieces of music and poetry ever produced.

The Velvet Underground never achieved commercial success during their 1960s existence, but their influence on music since then is unparalleled.

Music producer Brian Eno once summed up their influence by saying: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

And they also helped create a journalist.

Rest in Peace Lou, you were larger than life and your creative genius will never be forgotten.

* A beautiful video of Lou singing I’ll Be You Mirror, with his wife Laurie Anderson in 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUr8oRfG1AM

I met the sons of darkness and the sons of light

alcohol

IT is almost 2am on a warm summer’s evening and I am sitting on a cracked stone grave in our local churchyard, crying my heart out… again!

I am pissed… and in reality I am unaware of the time or the place.

In the real world, I am a successful journalist, but at home my family and domestic life has been a ripped rag for 30 years. My crutch of alcohol has crippled me as a human being… a host of failed relationships, two estranged kids, personal bankruptcy, lost career opportunities, repossession of my home and a succession of regrets.

Casting a huge shadow over every move I have ever made, every tear, every relationship, every job, is the sexual abuse I suffered as a young teenager. (Read the earlier blog post When You Gonna Wake Up and Strengthen the Things That Remain for the background to this).

So I drink to forget and numb the pain.

Anyway, before I lose time or place I take you back to the churchyard.

I sit there on the cold gravestone feeling empty and completely alone.

Suddenly I am blinded by a pair of car headlights.

A voice shouts from the darkness… “Hey Nic, you there?”

It is the voice of my wife.

I stand unsurely and walk towards the voice and the headlights. My wife walks towards me, leaving the car engine running. She grabs hold of my arm and leads me unsteadily back to the car and drives us quickly to the safety and privacy of our home.

This is the latest incident she has had to cope with and I begin to wonder how many more before she breaks and realises I am not the man she thought I was when we married.

Most of the time I function… I cook, I do DIY tasks, I work and earn money and I keep up a visage of clean and tidy. But that is just functioning. I left living behind. So I drink.

I sleep like a bedevilled drunk till mid-morning.

But something happens. For the first time in my adult life I am hit by a different blinding light… a light of conscience and maybe realisation. Without any reason I feel an overpowering need to do something to halt my drinking and the further ruination of my life.

To this day I don’t know why that morning on that day was so different, but something happened psychologically to make me do something. Maybe I had at last realised I could not address the child abuse, but I could address my drinking.

Experts and clinicians say that some alcoholics are born with the addiction, while others acquire the taste for booze and the crippling need to have just one more drink. So we drink when something happens and we drink when it doesn’t.

Whatever way it happens, it is an illness.

I guess my path to alcoholism was a mixture of many things and most were conceived in my early teens. It was a rocky and progressive road.

I remember as a 17 year-old, flush with the cash of a summer holiday job, going to a friend’s summer party. While most kids turned up with the obligatory can of cider or beer, I arrived with a half bottle of vodka and another of whisky. I vaguely recall chatting up a pretty girl and sharing the vodka with her before hitting the whisky myself. Similar vague memories of asking her to dance, before waking sometime around midnight on someone’s front lawn, with pools of my own vomit around me … and yes I was just 17!

Two years later at a university, far from home, I was threatened with being sent down at least twice and evicted from my halls of residence for being constantly drunk – usually on a mixture of beer and whisky. Luckily by the third year and with the help of friends I cut down the drinking. But a star student destined for a 1st class honours degree was lucky to come away with a 2/2 degree.

By 21, I was hooked on booze, but the addiction was still fresh and I usually managed to handle the amount I drank and to confine it to the evenings when home from work.

But as many life crises developed so my need for a crutch increased. At 27, I lost my first job as a result of my own indiscretions and hit the bottle as I searched for another career.

Within three years my first marriage failed as my wife could no longer cope with my excesses. My need to cope with a battle against cancer and my failed marriage encouraged me to drink more.

I was never an abusive drunk, but a drunk all the same.

It was a pattern which followed me throughout my 30s and 40s as I drank a bottle of wine and a half bottle of whisky each weekday night fortified by more wine and at least a litre of spirits every weekend… and watched as partners ditched me in despair.

So I return again to the morning after the night on the grave.

I was now 48 years old and something new inside me stirred – it was my life and I had a choice.

The house was empty as I made a cup of tea and opened the telephone book to look up the number for Alcoholics Anonymous. I had written articles about the organisation in the past and I hoped they could help me.

I gingerly dialled the number and, after a couple of rings, a woman with a broad, but gentle, Glaswegian accent answered. With tears again streaming down my face – not drunken tears but ones of regret and realisation – I began to tell her my story. She listened for more than 25 minutes, chipping in with the odd word of encouragement before offering the chance of hope I had always wanted… a chance to live a proper life without the need for alcohol.

Her analogy about alcoholism stays with me…“It is like buying a train ticket from London to Newcastle,” she said. “You can get off the train at Peterborough, Leeds, York or even Durham. Or you can stay on the train until Newcastle or even go right on to Edinburgh.

“All alcoholics are somewhere on that journey and the longer you stay on that train, the more difficult it is to get off and the more it is going to cost.”

I thanked her and took note of my nearest AA branch.

I sort of celebrated by telephoning my mother and my wife to tell them the truth that I was an alcoholic but I was seeking help. I can’t explain the feeling of elation those words gave me.  But I was at last facing one of my most painful demons.

Sometime later on a Tuesday evening, I walked slowly to our local church hall, knocked twice on the door and was welcomed by a smiling older man.  He led me inside and I was introduced to others.

There I met some of the most wonderful people in my life:

Cheryl, a 46 year-old NHS manager who, after years of hiding bottles of vodka in the dirty laundry basket – where her husband would not look – and drinking up to two of them each night, had not had a drink for seven years.

Alex, a 70-something retired merchant seaman, who had been in and out of detox for most of his life but had not touched a drop in 19 years and preached abstinence.

And Vanessa, a 29 year-old social worker who had finally kicked the booze after drinking steadily since she was 14.

Then there was a sad younger girl called Karen who was facing a court case and a likely jail sentence and the loss of her two young children. Desperate to halt her drinking, her father had circulated her photo to every off-licence and supermarket with an instruction not to serve her. So in desperation she bought a toy gun and tried to hold up a local branch of Threshers… all for a bottle of vodka. She had turned to AA as she reached the end of the line and was eventually led from a meeting after smuggling booze in a coke can. She had failed the first test… to stay sober you have to be honest.

My heart bled for her.

This was Alcoholics Anonymous and together we shared sobriety and spent each evening giving support to each other with our ruined but rediscovered lives. It kept me dry for more than eight months and gave me a chance to grab hold of life.

That was nine years ago and although I have wavered from the path of sobriety in that time, I have only been drunk once and I never want to go there again.

Now the need for the crutch has diminished and I can at last enjoy a drink without it ruining everything.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. National AA Helpline: 0845 769 7555

http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

  • Peoples’ names have been changed to preserve their identities.

Most of the time I’m clear focussed all around

abused childI HAVE been blogging now for almost four weeks and am still learning a lot about the art of writing for a world-wide internet audience.

It is a steep learning curve and one thing is for sure, it is a world away from newspaper journalism, where every day you have a guaranteed audience of X thousand readers who pay a hard earned buck to read your words.

To date my posts on cancer (Saving Grace) and child abuse (When You Gonna Wake Up and Strengthen the Things That Remain?) have been the most widely read and commented upon. Indeed I have been deeply humbled and emotionally affected by some emails, messages and calls I have received from friends and strangers on the back of these postings.

So before I turn to my next big blog – to be posted separately – I want to revisit the second of these subjects: child abuse.

I have been angered by some public comments made in the past eight months over the arrests of certain British showbiz personalities on charges of historic abuse of children and young people. This was particularly evident following the conviction of BBC presenter Stuart Hall and the evidence against the late Jimmy Savile.

Some commentators seem to think that because the allegations of abuse stemmed from instances 30, 40 or 50 years ago, they are in some way not as serious as something which occurred last week. There seems to be an inherent belief that: ‘time is a healer’.

I am sorry to disappoint that view, but quite the reverse is true.

From my own experience, the longer abuse goes unrecognised, untreated and unpunished; the greater is the damage to the victim. Such abuse ruins lives completely and by association can ruin other lives too.

Perversely I am a lifelong supporter of penal reform, but in some of these abuse cases I could quite easily lock up the perpetrators and throw away the key.

I finish by urging anyone who has suffered child abuse to be open, talk about it, report it and seek justice. You really are not alone. Help can be found here:

NSPCC: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/help-and-advice/worried-about-a-child/online-advice/adults-abused-in-childhood/adults-abused-in-childhood_wda87228.html

NAPAC: http://www.napac.org.uk

Young Minds: http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_children_young_people/whats_worrying_you/abuse?gclid=CPXFkL3QsboCFXHJtAodLC0A0A

Love minus zero / No Limit

FriendsSOME of my blog postings are off-the-cuff and I guess this is the first of such posts.

The replies, text messages, emails and phone call responses to my recent post When You Gonna Wake Up and Strengthen the Things that Remain made me lose two nights’ sleep. The insomnia was not for any negative reasons, but rather a warm feeling of love and friendship.

You see, it is easy to know who you love and who loves you… my wife, my children and my mother come instantly to mind. But it is less easy to appreciate who are true friends.

I guess that due to my inherent OCD nature I have always demanded loyalty from friends and in return given my entire loyalty to them, through good times and bad. Some, who I regarded as true close friends have let me down and so were jettisoned from my world, something I now regret, because we are all human and all make mistakes – me more than most!

Google the word ‘friendship’ and a myriad of advice is offered from all corners of the world:

Friendship is a type of relationship between two people who care about each other. But such a dry definition doesn’t do the concept of friendship justice. Consider these examples: A friend is the first person you want to call when you hear good news. A friend remembers that you don’t like pickles on your sandwich. A friend will accompany you on the most boring of errands and make them seem fun.

In other words, friendship is wonderful. But that’s not to say friendship is easy, though. It demands time and effort, and it requires that people put someone other than themselves first sometimes. But in exchange for that work, a friend can provide an immense amount of support and comfort in good times and in bad.

Many qualities are necessary for a good friendship, including honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty and unconditional acceptance. A friendship should make both people in the relationship happy; both people should have fun when they spend time together. To be perfectly frank, that’s a tall order. Human beings can clash very easily, which is why it’s hard for some people to maintain many friendships. It’s possible that friendship can exist between two people at one stage of life, but life changes and personal growth may make friendship impossible at another stage.

Very true.

So my best friend is also the woman I love, my wife Gill.

For longevity I also count at least two friends from school, Alex (who has known me since I was 12) and Graham, who has been a best mate since we were in sixth form together, and with whom I share many life similarities.

Then I am blessed to count upon two more friends from my university days, Jo and Judith. In Jo’s case I feel a close affinity even though we have not seen each other in 35 years. So Facebook has been our saviour! Judith and I have remained friends even after both were battered blue by life experiences, but have been there for each other.

Next are the friends I picked up along the way at work and at home and who are still there even after 15, 20 or 30 years: a former student Andy, ex work colleagues Jane, Karen, Debs, Stephen and Peter. My son’s child-minder and her husband Catheryn and Colin; friends through thick and thin Judith and Lawson; and Sue who was one of my first visitors when I had cancer even though she was phobic about hospitals!

And finally there are those I should classify as new friends – people who have only been in my life a few years, but mean so much: the wonderful Angela and Alex, the rock solid and caring Caryn and her son Sam (by chance my son’s best friend), my best friend at work Craig, my almost surrogate daughter Helen, who was my witness at my wedding to Gill; the amazing and lovely reporting duo Adele and Natalie; my former boss who is still there to offer advice Graham; the lovely Hannah and Karen, whose words in the past few days have had me in tears; the gorgeous Sue, two friends and among the best journalists I have worked with Sophie and Rachel and the pug loving Yvonne, again whose words have given me great comfort.

A man is known by his friends and not his enemies and I am a very lucky man.

All of the above have been there when my life was at the bottom and to them I can only give my love and thanks and the knowledge that I will never forget any of you.

Thank you.

When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?

abused child

THE breakdown was a long time coming… 43 years to be precise. Yes, that really is a long time to keep a secret and many events along the way could have been my undoing much sooner. So I marvel that it took so long.

Two massive battles with cancer; the loss of most of my right lung and shoulder; the ruination of a much loved career by my own stupidity; the death of my best friend and later my father; divorces and more failed relationships than you care to shake a stick at; bankruptcy; the suicide of a family member; denial of access to two of my children for 10 years; the repossession of my home; discovering my wife was enjoying sex with another man; becoming a single parent at the age of 50 and an unprovoked assault that almost took my life anyway.

Set against that backdrop there is a star-spangled career in journalism with a raft of awards and recognition at the highest level, the chance to meet and talk with some stellar people, five wonderful kids, a host of amazing and loyal friends and finally, the woman who saved me, my darling wife Gill.

These are just snippits of my life so far and more than enough to form the framework of a somewhat gripping autobiography.

But casting a huge shadow over every move I have made, every tear, every relationship, every job and every sick joke was something much more sinister.

Wednesday 12 June 2013 was the day the elastic band finally broke and my life unravelled before my eyes, and those of my darling wife and precious son, who could only watch with me.

It all began in another time and another place…

I was, a young 14-year-old boy standing in darkness in open woodland, with my trousers around my ankles, being sexually abused by a 38-year-old man – a man trusted by my parents to care for me.

It was 1970.

He was the district commissioner for Scouts in my home town and over many months had encouraged me to attend camps, orienteering, patrol leader weekends and wide games to help me ‘get the most out of Scouting’.

I was a bright, gentle and slightly quirky kid who had enjoyed being in the Cubs and Scouts since the age of seven.

But not anymore.

The abuse had begun some months earlier, soon after my 14th birthday, at a so-called winter camping weekend at the Scout-owned woodland campsite – some three miles from my home, and five from the centre of town.

Over the course of 15 months, it had become regular, routine and progressively invasive.

I had been sworn to secrecy by my abuser. After all, I was the one he had caught ‘playing with’ himself and I would be totally humiliated if anyone found out.

I felt dirty and terrified and above all convinced I must be a ‘queer’ (gay) to allow this to happen. But the over-riding feeling was a need to escape this darkness, this nightmare.

I tried all manner of excuses not to attend Scouts and these frequent camps. When eventually my loving parents questioned my ongoing reluctance, I lied that I was being bullied. Their answer was simple: ‘stand up to the bullies’. Followed by: ‘If you leave the Scouts they will know they have beaten you’!

How I wish I had told them the truth. But I was sure my mother would not have believed me and accuse me of exaggerating. Equally, my father was a strong-minded man and I felt he would humiliate me further, if I told him, with jibes about me being a ‘poof’ or something. Sadly in adult hindsight he would probably have hugged me close and physically attacked my abuser had he known.

I don’t blame my parents, they were the most loving and caring I could have wished for. But times were different then and there were many things in life that were taboo.

Anyway, the abuse continued unabated as I turned 15 and as I turned more introspective and aloof to friends.

I was in my abuser’s control and I could not break free.

But I did eventually escape in the June of 1971.

My abuser had arranged a patrol leaders’ meeting at his house on the other side of town. It was a ‘must attend’ gathering.

I had met a lad called Brian from another troop and we had agreed to go together. Brian’s dad would take us there and my dad would pick us both up at 9pm.

We arrived at this spacious bungalow in a quiet middle-class cul-de-sac at about 7pm and were ushered inside by my abuser. Others were arriving and by the time we were all assembled, there were about 10 boys aged between 13 and 15 in the semi-lit dining room.

The meeting was a blur. My mind was already in the dark woods.  And in what seemed no time at all, parents were arriving to pick up their kids. Soon just Brian and I remained silently while the clock ticked.

My abuser said he would make a cup of tea for us both and asked if we would like a biscuit too. Brian said ‘Yes’ for both of us.

Then as he walked down the hallway to his kitchen, Brian whispered to me: “Scarper!”

Without hesitation we ran to the front door, fumbled at the latch and tore down the driveway to the cul-de-sac. No sign of my fecking dad! Where the hell was he?

We could hear my abuser call out our names from his front doorway, and we ran as fast and as far away as we could.

We didn’t stop until we reached a red phone box on the outskirts of the town centre, about a mile away. We then stared at each other. At that moment, I knew Brian was a victim too.

Shaking, I rang my home phone number. Mum answered. But before I could say much, she berated me for being ‘so rude’ as to run away from the nice man’s house. She also chastised me for leaving her and my dad terrified for my safety. She told me to stay at the phone box and when dad returned home she would send him out again to pick us up.

He did and when I eventually got home to the safety of my bedroom, I broke down and cried into my pillow all night long.

That night was a watershed for so many reasons.

I had begun to face this demon, by knowing that in Brian I was not alone.

From that day I used every excuse I could find to avoid my abuser and never went back to Scouts or camping again. Even when my own troop leader called at our house to ask if I was okay, I managed to lie and stay safe.

My passion for football and hard school work helped mask the real reasons.

But the events of 1970-71 were just the beginning of the nightmare for me. My abuser’s smirking face and the smell of his stale sweat never leaves me.

I lived and grew through my mid-teens convinced I must be gay to have allowed a man to do the things my abuser did to me. I also lived in terror that either my parents, sisters, or worse still my school friends, would find out and I would become an object of ridicule.

Resultant behaviour patterns started to emerge: a need to control every aspect of my life and the social environment around me, outbursts of vocal anger, walking away from any situation which threatened my control, and as I turned 18, progressively heavy drinking.

The control aspect was – and still is – vital. For without it I feel vulnerable and frightened and unable to function normally. At home my behaviour sometimes borders on OCD.

Once away at university in the far flung environs of Yorkshire I also had a need to prove I was ‘normal’ or straight! Whereas a lot of young men ‘sow their oats’ at uni’, I sowed more than most. I am not proud in any measure, but I bedded as many girls who would say yes as I could, proving to myself I was ‘straight’!

I also needed female company, as a fear of being unsafe and alone was constantly with me. By the time I was 22-years-old I was engaged to a girl who promised to always care for me.

By the age of 24, we were wed. It was a sadly inappropriate marriage of two polar opposites and lasted just eight years. My outbursts of vocal temper, deep introspection and a need to control my own life, plus an affair, did not help!

But I survived my first divorce – and an 18 month battle with cancer – and tried to start over.

In 1990, aged 34, I moved to Scotland and found a geographical escape from my past. It involved burying myself in my job. Often working 16 hour days, prolonged success at work allowed me to control my life at last.

One year after moving north I met a young woman who told me of the sexual abuse she had suffered as a 14-year-old, adding that I was the first person she had confided in. I could not share my abuse with her… but this was an epiphany and I saw a possible way out.

A colleague at work was married to a police officer and I used him to help me lodge a formal complaint against my abuser via the Inspector at the local police station. He, in turn, passed on the complaint to the police force in the area of southern England where I had lived as a young teenager.

It was November 1991.

I waited in trepidation, wondering what might happen next and preparing to come clean with my parents if a court case was involved.

Two weeks passed before I was asked to attend the local police station to talk with the Inspector again. He invited me into an interview room at the back of the station, where he told me something I was not ready for… my abuser was dead!

I walked zombie-like back to my office, barely able to talk with anybody.

How could my abuser be dead! How could he not face justice for what he had done? How could I carry on?

The anger inside me was immense.

The next few months were hard as I tried to keep a lid on my emotions. But rages came, tears and gloom overwhelmed and eventually in the summer of 1992, I walked out and left that part of Scotland for good.

The next 20 years were much like the previous 20 with black moods, multiple broken relationships and a growing need to drink to forget.

Only success at work allowed me to be my real self.

By 2003 I recognised I was fast becoming an alcoholic. Alcoholics Anonymous was a refuge and it allowed me to share my past in confidence with complete strangers.

But life happens and the sudden need to care as a single parent for my youngest child reinforced the desire to take control of life and at last start to live it with purpose as a sober dad.

In January 2006 I moved to Wales to begin again, both at work and at home.

Work had a purpose as I edited a small but successful weekly newspaper. I had already edited other similar local papers years earlier and had twice taken them to win newspaper of the year awards. This time it was treading water, but enjoyable all the same and allowed stability for a full seven years.

Stories came and went and along the way and I worked with and befriended some wonderful people. I also wasted no opportunity to expose convicted child sex offenders whenever their cases came to light. Ironically the so-called ‘paedo files’ in North Wales seemed more expansive than anywhere else I had lived or worked. It was like unsolicited cathartic therapy.

My empathy with the victims was immense. But still I could not share what remained buried for so long.

Last year fate suddenly dealt me straight and I met my soul mate and now my darling wife. I shared everything with her and I found love and stability for the first time since I turned 14. Life was starting to have a meaning.

But just when life breathes fresh air something unexpected takes the breath away and leaves it stale.

Four months ago that something happened and sent my life into a complete tailspin. And to mix metaphors, the tailspin became a train crash.

While researching on-line for more information about a North Wales’ child sex abuse case we were carrying in the paper, I decided to look for any lasting details about my own abuser.

It didn’t take long and the moment will stay with me forever.

I discovered that my abuser was indeed dead. But he had died in 1996, aged 64… some five years AFTER the police told me he was already dead! I double and triple checked my facts.

I still cannot comprehend what happened.

Had the police in 1991 cocked up? Had they identified the wrong man? Or worse still was it a conspiracy to protect someone of importance in the local community? I guess I will never know, but I had been denied the justice and closure I had wanted all those years earlier.

The rages and tears came again as I struggled to take back control.

Work was corrosive and I felt undermined at every turn by junior bosses whose experience did not hold a candle to my own. I felt managed out of my job and was losing control of my own newspaper and my life.

On Wednesday 12 June 2013 I walked into my office to find that one of these junior charge hands had changed my front page – after I had gone to press – without any reference to me. I flipped and with it my whole life lay on its back kicking into a nothingness.

But now as I write this I am, for the very first time, receiving professional help to deal with my demon. And it is my abuser who is the demon, not some bungling police officer.

The demon will never go away, but I have a loving wife, a courageous and wonderful mother, a gorgeous youngest son and some amazing close friends, who all now know of my dark secret. And by sharing with them, I am slowly losing the need to control my life. It is liberating. I am recovering.

And it is for them that I need to live and share my inner self. The abuser has not won… I am fighting back.

This blog is the means to that end.

Saving Grace

stand up to cancer

“By this time I thought I would be sleeping in a pine box for all eternity, My faith keeps me alive and I know I’m only living By the saving grace that’s over me.”

(Bob Dylan 1980).

“Tell me how it feels?”

It was my mother’s voice; there was no mistaking that. I struggled to say something but a dryness in my throat allowed only a smile.

She clenched my left hand.

Beyond her the ward clock reported 9.30. I drifted back to sleep.

Sometime later I again opened my eyes.

Mother’s own eyes brightened and, as if from her mouth, I heard my father ask: “How is it son?”

I was surprised. I managed to reply: “Fine, but I can’t move.” The ward clock betrayed 10.10.

“Is that all it is?” I asked looking up at the wall, knowing that I had been led to the operating table at 8.30am.

“It’s 10pm,” my father replied.

I gagged for some reason… why had I been out for more than 13 hours?

Over the next three days my parents, surgeons and nursing staff gradually outlined to me the most telling day of my life: a day when surgeons worked tirelessly to remove two thirds of my right lung and repair a damaged aortic artery.

It was an operation plagued with difficulty and twice they thought they had lost me. But working straight through, they never gave up and used finely honed skills to take away the cancer and repair my body.

It was the final stage of a rebirth of life and spirit.

Some eight months earlier, I had been diagnosed with a malignant histio-cytoma of the right shoulder.

The diagnosis followed a year of failing health, tiredness and a strange and growing lump on my shoulder blade that would not go away.

Eventually, after claims of a sebaceous cyst and a muscular haematoma, I was told the truth.

“I dinna ken what it is,” said the plastic surgeon, betraying his Glaswegian roots. “But it looks malignant and we had better have a closer look.”

It was like being knocked down by a bus: cancer only happened to other people. It was a disease, which was difficult to talk about and even more difficult to contemplate.

Now I struggled to take in what I had been told.

A simple biopsy of the lump, as we all learned to call it, confirmed the surgeon’s suspicions. I was quickly booked into a local hospital for immediate and radical surgery.

Whether in shock, or just out of single-mindedness, the diagnosis passed me by.

I responded by reading every piece of medical literature I could find. Somehow I had to cope and knowledge is a weapon.

My sister-in-law was a cancer research specialist at Leeds University Hospital and furnished me with reams of reports about this rare and seemingly deadly cancer.

As I prepared for the surgery, I asked questions of doctors, cracked jokes with my parents and worried for my ability to cope. I saw fear in the eyes of those I loved and suddenly felt alone.

Eventually I cracked… and phoned the Samaritans.

It was probably the most important call I have ever made. I hurriedly explained to the female voice at the other end of the phone that I was not suicidal, but terrified of dying. I detected an intake of breath at the other end of the line. There was a rustling sound as she rummaged through her files and with an uplift in her voice she gave me the number of the organiser of a local cancer support group.

I tucked the number away.

A few evenings later, when the depression hit me again I picked up the phone. Diana was her name. At 38, she was a few years older than me and had recently been given remission from breast cancer. Diana was ebullient, encouraging and above all told me that whether I lived or died was up to me.

“You must visualise this thing that has invaded your body and fight it,” she said.

“Only you can beat it… with perhaps a little help from the surgeons and God.”

That was the key.

Diana and I were to begin an enduring friendship. I was able to reciprocate her help, I hope, when her cancer came back to taunt her three years later. I began to learn the value of friendship.

But what about God?

I had always believed in the saving grace of a higher spirit, but my church-going days had lapsed many years earlier and to be frank I was an atheist.

Somehow I had to find my own strength and faith to deal with this cancer.

The next morning, calmed by a warm early autumn sunshine I walked to my nearest church. After all, if there was a God, this was where he was supposed to dwell.

Gothic, cold and empty, the church provided space to think and pray to whatever was out there.

I made a few more visits to the empty church over the next couple of days before I was taken back into hospital for the surgery.

The operation to remove the cancer and replace my shoulder and back with re-constructive surgery was awkward, at times bloody painful and most of all seemingly endless.

Many days and nights of lying cramped on my left side as the skin grafts and flaps healed. Days and nights to think and determine whether I would recover.

I didn’t fear death… but I did fear pain.

I lay there warmed by the gospel lyrics of my musical hero, Bob Dylan. I still find it difficult to call it God, but a gentle spirit always seemed to be there and never again did I become frightened of this cancer or its likely consequences.

Three months of radiotherapy followed at Cardiff’s Velindre Hospital. Three months of finding more about myself and more about my fellow human beings.

Housed in a small hostel within the hospital grounds, up to 50 patients of all ages and with all forms of cancer worked within and without to tackle their own disease.

There was Coral-Ann, who denied her own malignancy. “It’s just a small tumour and is what you say: benign,” she lied. There was Maureen, colostomy bag in hand, who sipped morphine as she told tales of her childhood in Rhymney.

There was my roommate David, whose pituitary cancer had given him a grossly large head, hands and feet and made him appear like a freak at his job in the local tax inspectors’ office.

“Well boyo, this thing won’t beat me,” he cracked. And it didn’t.

And then there was Andrea.

At 21, she was the sweetest and most beautiful girl I had ever met and we quickly became inseparable soul mates.

Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer, she knew her chances of survival were slim.

“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.

“I want to live a bit before I die.” She did.

But that did not dull the agony when three years later David and I stood together and shared tears at her funeral.

There is no reasoning in this.

My memories of Andrea remain. Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the gym floor guffawing at how silly all this was.

And then there was the rainy December day when she returned from a Christmas shopping trip in Cardiff City centre laden down with presents and a £300 hole in her Visa card.

Her pleasure was manifest and her laugh stays with me.

A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.

I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.

I giggled. “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair,” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op.”

I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl under an horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.

But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.

I had found God in my fellow human beings and in the karma of knowing that far from myself being the key in this battle, the door was unlocked from without.

When the cancer returned to my right lung some months later I knew I had the strength to face it down.

My life was saved by the dedication and skill of the surgeons. But my spirit had already been saved.

At the time I was told I had less than a one in 10 chance of surviving beyond a year. But I was also told: “Doctors are seldom right when they predict the end.”

Now 26 years later, to the very month of the diagnosis and first operation,  the cancer is gone for good and I know my life is still in its springtime.

And Andrea never leaves me.