TWO days on and I am still finding it hard to come to terms with the death of Pete Seeger.
Okay the old buffer was 94 years-old, and his passing was surely imminent; but like Nelson Mandela of a similar vintage, his death is more than sad.
He touched countless lives singing for unions, children and presidents and ordinary working people.
He turned a Bible verse and an African chant into hit records, travelled with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and championed Bob Dylan.
He also adapted a gospel song to sing for union workers and created a timeless anthem for civil rights with We Shall Overcome.
As a singer and songwriter, Seeger led the re-emergence of folksong performance during the 1950s and was a key figure in the folk revival in the 1960s.
A multitude of artists recorded and performed his work across six decades, including Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.
He recorded more than 100 albums himself.
But above all, Seeger, blacklisted in the mid-1950s at the height of McCarthyism, was a radical and a true leader of dissent against what is/was wrong in our world.
Seeger made his first recordings in New York in 1940 with the Almanac Singers and the group recorded popular anti-war ballads.
But war is war, and Seeger was drafted into the US Army and was drafted to the Pacific in 1942. The following year he married his lifelong sweetheart Toshi Ohta.
In 1948, together with Lee Hays and other veterans of the Almanacs, Seeger formed the Weavers.
They quickly became one of the most successful musical acts in America.
But then came the anti-communist blacklist.
The Weavers were banned from radio and television.
As the US wide paranoia grew and with their scheduled appearances and commercial recording contracts cancelled, the group dissolved in 1953.
In the 1960s came the folk revival, and later the folk-rock boom caught up with him. Covers of songs he wrote or recorded became global hits.
The newer generation of more commercial musicians owed him a deep debt: Peter, Paul and Mary regarded themselves as the Weavers’ successors, and singers from Joan Baez and Judy Collins to Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan have all paid tribute to him.
The 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home contains insight from Seeger, Bob Dylan and others into that legacy.
Seeger’s political activity increased after his blacklisting in the 1960s, with the challenges to liberalism and the division of the US over the Vietnam War.
Despite musical progression, Seeger remained a favourite at demonstrations, teach-ins and sing-outs of all kinds for the next 40 years.
He continued to adapt to changing situations and political issues.
In 1969 he launched the sloop Clearwater in the Hudson, beginning a 30 year campaign to clean the river, which was close to his home in Peekskill, New York, and to publicise the ecology movement.
Over the past few years he spoke out strongly against US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Through all this, Seeger endured and performed steadily.
During the inauguration weekend for Barack Obama in 2009, Seeger, on stage with Springsteen, delivered a rousing version of the Woody Guthrie favourite This Land Is Your Land.
It was an extraordinary moment in American life with the singer-rebel at the very centre.
But it was also steeped in deep irony, as like Bob Dylan before him at Bill Clinton’s inauguration Blue Jeans Bash in 1993, here was the leader of counter-culture hand in hand with the leader of the corporate world he so deeply distrusted.
And the similarities don’t end there.
At his death we have a world tangled up in blue, a world gone wrong, a world in the grip of greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, wall to wall pornography, war mongers and global murderers, a police state set fast in imposed capitalist ethics.
Pete passed on the folk protest movement baton to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 as the ‘younger generation’.
Bob may have dropped that baton a few times and the music has moved on, but others such as Billy Bragg, Michelle Shocked, Ani DiFranco, Tom Robinson and Paul Weller have picked it up and tried to carry it.
But with Pete’s passing we lack a global leader… a living spirit of musical protest.
Even my own hero Bob Dylan is almost 73, and his political candle never burned as brightly as Pete’s.
Something is missing… or more poignantly, someone is missing.
We need the oxygen of a new leader to help us learn how to think and question this insane world we live in.
We live in a corporate world begging for the individual to make a difference.
Music and true word can do that.
RIP Pete… never forgotten
You touch me like the wind
It has a tale to tell
Cast iron ballad
You are my planet wave
Your light it shows the way
The air it is so cold
Struggling to the ledge
Is buried in your past
Your light it shows the way
One lost moment of bliss
The phantoms of my youth
A heart so full of joy
Your light it shows the way
Now a song of freedom
Rests under your wing
Beautiful beyond words
Your light it shows the way
I love you more than blood
We play it on this Earth
The torch is lit again
Your light it shows the way
I HAVE just explored the Stats section of WordPress properly and it tells me the most popular topics I have written about during the past few weeks.
So in order to boost my readership still further I am going to:
Give poppies to the ghost of Charlie Livesey, who was poetry in motion when he used to play for Brighton and Hove Albion. Sadly he never appeared in the 1984 FA Cup Final against Manchester United.
The poppies are in memory of the dead of World War 1, but not of the many poems written about that tragedy. Poems which would have graced the writing and lyrics of Bob Dylan, who has probably never had a pee at Toddington Services.
Well, let’s see if that works! 😉
I am far from being a capitalist and have never put much stock in material things. But to lose everything, including my home, was one life blow too many. And at the age of 50 it did not give me any time to recover.
I bought my first house way back in 1981, when I was aged 25, and over the next quarter of a century grafted and worked hard for everything I accrued.
When I moved in with my new partner in 1999 I had already seen my assets stripped by a previous partner. But I was not in debt and knew I could always get a mortgage or bank loan. With my new partner we had a healthy combined income and soon bought our first home together and sold it for a small profit.
We married in 2003, and with a mortgage we could easily afford we bought a good sized family home. So we fed our salaries into one joint account and I added my new wife’s name to my three credit cards.
All went well for the next two years but in the autumn of 2005 I caught my wife cheating with another man… it was the end of our short marriage.
We went our separate ways and agreed to put our house up for sale.
But I had no idea how hard life would become.
My new home in Wales was over 200 miles from our family home in Tyneside and I left my wife to deal with the viewings for our property, negotiate any offers and open the joint mail.
That was my downfall.
Five months after I had moved away I made an unannounced visit to the family home. My wife was away and I used the opportunity to pack some belonging to take back to Wales. But I was not prepared for the surprise when I opened one drawer in the dining room… it was full of unopened mail from our bank, building societies and credit card companies.
I sat down and began to open the 30 plus letters in some sort of chronological order… I wish I hadn’t!
We had missed at least five mortgage payments, all joint credit cards were maxed out and our joint bank account was overdrawn and accruing daily charges and interest. The second revelation was more sinister. Only my payment transfer had entered the joint account each month.
It was a financial nightmare and the last few letters I opened revealed warning notices of court action, demands for immediate payment and repossession.
It was all too late.
By September the house – which would have been a financial lifeline – was in negative equity and the debts on the joint loans and joint credit cards were crippling. My salary was now not even enough to keep a roof over my head.
I was lucky in that I had a very good friend who was a solicitor and his advice probably saved me from a worse fate… I had to file for personal bankruptcy and let the mortgage companies take the house.
It was a crippling decision, but I had no other.
One October day in 2006 I stood in front of a county court judge to be declared bankrupt. Our family home was repossessed just two weeks later. One month later I was finally divorced from my wife.
I lost everything.
I was discharged from my bankruptcy in April 2007 but for the next three years had to pay a sizeable monthly amount to my creditors. I was not allowed to have a proper bank account or credit card for the six years. My credit blacklisting was only fully lifted last month.
Yes I should have been more savvy and kept a better check… but hindsight is a perfect science. Life has a way of playing an unexpected hand and sometimes it just isn’t fair.
Yes, I have had battles in my life and I suppose if I put bankruptcy into context with surviving child sexual abuse, cancer and alcoholism it is a minor hiccup.
Now seven years on I have reshaped my life, refuse to use a credit card and am never overdrawn. I use money to live, I do not let money use me.
At the risk of sounding like a cliché: life, love and happiness is far too important for that.
Or as Bob Dylan once wrote: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”.
IT was a rainy day in Glasgow, but in March it is always wet on the west of Scotland.
This particular March day in 1997 it was a very wet day outside and decidedly wet, wet, wet on the inside.
I was enjoying an afternoon music shopping in the city with my eldest son when we decided to visit Tower Records at the end of Argyle Street.
It was about 2pm as we entered the store and I was surprised to find it almost empty. Two heavy set men in black jerkins were prowling the front of the store. Searching for some Bob Dylan related CDs we made our way to the back and began browsing the shelves.
Suddenly I was aware of four arty haired guys looking at CDs a few rows in front of us. They seemed strangely familiar.
Gradually one of the young men stood next to me and glanced at the copy of the Dylan CD I had in my hand.
“Hey he’s cool,” he suddenly remarked, smiling at me.
I glanced back at him and smiled blankly.
The guy moved on and the faint recognition became more solid. I turned to my 12 year-old son and asked quietly: “Do you recognise him, Ben?”
My son looked back at me and quipped: “Yeah, I think he is the singer with Wet, Wet, Wet.”
You mean “Marti Pellow?” I asked.
“Yeah I think that’s his name,” replied Ben.
Before the “Oh my God” sensation sunk in, I looked up to see the four members of the band leave the store with a black jacketed security guard and jump into a car parked outside.
I looked in bemusement at my son before buying a copy of Ian Hunter’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic and continue back to our own car.
I later discovered that Wet, Wet, Wet had played a widely advertised live gig from the top floor of Tower Records about an hour before we had arrived. The store had been cleared for them to do a bit of shopping after the gig. Somehow we must have breezed past their rather lax security!
WE are approaching 11 November… in the UK it is known as Armistice or Remembrance Day.
Throughout the country people buy imitation red paper poppies to remember the soldiers from our side who have died in the many wars and armed conflicts since 1914.
For the millions of wearers of these poppies it is a good and noble cause to remember “those who died to protect our freedom”.
While I too mourn the loss of these soldiers’ lives, I also mourn the loss of the lives of soldiers from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Iraq, Argentina, North and South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Russia and many other countries.
And I mourn the 142 million innocent men, women and children killed in these wars.
I stand by the line from Wilfred Owen’s famous World War 1 poem: To children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
To translate the Latin, the old lie is: It is sweet and right to die for your country.
I could have been drawn into a long discursive piece about the evil nature of any war and why I am a pacifist and wear a white poppy.
Instead I draw my poem Red or White together with my piece about Bob Dylan, by publishing, with permission, the words to Dylan’s song John Brown. Dylan was just 22 years old when he wrote this, which speaks volumes about his talent and his insight:
John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him!
He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”
As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout
Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood:
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood
She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile
As she showed them to the people from next door
And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun
And these things you called a good old-fashioned war
Oh! Good old-fashioned war!
Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come
They ceased to come for about ten months or more
Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train
Your son’s a-coming home from the war”
She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around
But she could not see her soldier son in sight
But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last
When she did she could hardly believe her eyes
Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!
Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face
“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done
How is it you come to be this way?”
He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move
And the mother had to turn her face away
“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home… acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”
“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
Oh! Lord! Just like mine!
“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink
That I was just a puppet in a play
And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke
And a cannonball blew my eyes away”
As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.
Forty banners united over the field
Where my life lives and grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves
HOW can I do justice in words to a writer I have admired beyond all others for more than 40 years and to whom my words are like dust?
So I will not try to even pass close to justice. Instead just a simple narrative about my love affair with the greatest and most profound poet of my generation.
I came to Bob Dylan by way of a detour through David Bowie. I discussed some of the details in my recent eulogy to Lou Reed. It was one song by Bowie on his 1971 album Hunky Dory that provided my own Highway 61. The song was unsurprisingly titled: Song for Bob Dylan!
The lyrics are a refrain to my life:
Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man
With a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance
They could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more.
After playing this one song more than a dozen times in the first week I bought Hunky Dory, there was an inner need to discover more and answer some unanswered questions. Sure, I had heard Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone on the radio when I was younger, but what makes this guy Dylan so important that my hero Bowie writes a whole song to him? And what was I missing?
The answers came quite soon.
It was late 1972 and a lad in our upper sixth form was a Bob Dylan fanatic – he even had hair like him and was forever being reprimanded by teachers for not wearing a tie! So I asked him why… he eagerly lent me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits on vinyl LP and suggested I should get a copy of Blonde on Blonde to discover the real Dylan.
Then two related events overtook me. First I bought a copy of More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits simply because 21 tracks seemed like good value. Then CBS suddenly released the film soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and the single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door made the UK charts!
Now armed with two albums, plus the Heaven’s Door single I was beginning to discover Bob Dylan and it didn’t take long before I was hooked. His voice like sand and glue and words of truthful vengeance had me pinned to the floor, and like those before me I started to dissect his lyrics and find a new meaning to living.
More Greatest Hits was a delight. From Watching the River Flow to Crash on the Levee I was entering into his world of music and poetry. Two songs in particular drew me in… the wonderful Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and the forgiving Tomorrow is a Long Time.
If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all
I spent the rest of my sixth form and university years buying up Dylan’s back catalogue of albums on cassette tape and allowing his music and words to become the soundtrack to all I did. Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They are a Changin’ led me to discover folk music and in turn Fairport Convention, while the awesome Planet Waves and Desire wrapped me up in stories, vignettes, lyrics and emotion I had never previously known.
On its own Forever Young became the anthem to my life, which I have played to each of my children in turn:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
These years also included the magnificent Blood on the Tracks, but more about that later in this narrative. He had already lit a burner on my stove and brightened my life.
And suddenly it was 1978… an important and pivotal year.
For the first time in my life I was working – as a trainee psychiatric nurse – and earning money. It was the first disposable income I could really call my own. So apart from buying Dylan’s latest LP Street Legal I also got to my first gig.
It was life changing.
I bought the ticket for one night at Earls Court in London after queuing for hours at an over-the-counter box office in Brighton. For weeks afterwards I was sweating with anticipation. At the age of 22 I had been blessed to have seen some amazing live acts; David Bowie (twice), Roxy Music, the Average White Band, Al Stewart and The Stranglers to name just a few. But as Dylan had not gigged in the UK since 1966, I – like thousands of others – had to wait to see my hero live.
Saturday, 17 June 1978 dawned like no other day in my life. I had hardly slept the previous night and was up at the crack of dawn with my ticket clenched firmly in my wallet. My father gave me a lift to our local railway station on his way to work, and I hopped a commuter train to Brighton and then a connecting express to London, Victoria. I arrived in the capital just before mid-day, grabbed a coffee and had hours to wait until the evening performance… but I was not going to miss this life event.
I spent most of the day in and around Oxford Street browsing record shops and at one side street outlet was a breath away from buying my first Bob Dylan bootleg… but that would have to wait. At around 6pm I met a friend from my university days and together we shared a couple of beers and our mutual excitement. The tension was palpable. It was Dylan’s third night at Earls Court so he should be relaxed and well in tune… we hoped.
And our hope was rewarded.
By 7pm we were in the venue and took our seats way back in the auditorium. Suddenly something was happening… the opening number was an instrumental Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, with sax and keyboards blasting the arrangement and pinning us back, waiting to hear the voice of the man himself. There he was singing an (at the time) unknown number Love Her with a Feeling, complete with female backing vocalists. He was live in front our eyes and invading our senses.
Dylan was awesome. The sound and the view weren’t great from our seats; but when he sang “You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man babe, now you’re back where you belong,” it didn’t matter… this was amazing, and yes “the sun was always shining”.
Sure I had heard his 1975 live album Hard Rain, but to listen to new interpretations of his songs straight from his mouth and guitar in the same room where I sat was without precedence. I had bargained for salvation and here he was giving me a lethal dose.
Dylan was this tiny figure in a waistcoat singing for me. His voice was strong and his harmonica electric. Here’s your throat back, thanks for the loan.
The highlights were many: Tangled Up in Blue was sung like never before, almost a hymn, and after about 45 minutes Like a Rolling Stone had me on my feet singing back How Does it Feel? I was tangled up by every song and by the time he sang All Along the Watchtower I was enveloped by tears of emotion.
The full setlist that evening was: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Love Her With a Feeling; Baby, Stop Crying; Mr Tambourine Man; Shelter From the Storm; Love Minus Zero/No Limit; Tangled Up in Blue; Ballad of a Thin Man; Maggie’s Farm; I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); Like a Rolling Stone; I Shall Be Released; Going, Going, Gone; Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later); You’re a Big Girl Now; One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below); Blowin’ in the Wind; I Want You; Señor (Tales of Yankee Power); Masters of War; Just Like a Woman; Simple Twist of Fate; All Along the Watchtower; All I Really Want to Do; It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding); Forever Young; The Times They Are A-Changin’.
We left exhausted and exhilarated… my love affair with Bob had entered a new dimension and I vowed to see him again, and again, and again.
I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you
The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times
Bob was no longer invisible but he still had secrets to conceal.
To be continued
MY encounter with the portly and incredibly funny Mel Smith was brief and eternally memorable.
For those who don’t know me, one of my lifelong passions – indeed an obsession – is the music of a certain Robert Allen Zimmerman, known to the world as Bob Dylan.
I have followed Mr Dylan to gigs across the UK and Europe, and as age catches up with me and my hearing fades I truly believe the voice of the legend just gets better and better.
Anyway I digress.
It is February 1990 and I have tickets for three successive nights of a six night Bob Dylan residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in London.
On the first night at the Apollo I manage to brush shoulders with former England fast bowler Bob Willis and the late and great Dylanologist John Bauldie in the theatre bar. I also manage to get my car locked in a multi-storey car park and have to pay the attendant £10 to free it for me.
So when the second night arrives – and to save any repetition of the car park fiasco of the previous evening – I decide to beat the rush and leave during Bob’s second encore. On this evening that song is a delightful solo of Dark is a Dungeon.
I catch just the first two verses on the alleyway to the stairs before leaving quietly and quickly.
I arrive at the swing doors of the Apollo in an empty foyer and am set to leave into the cold winter night. I fumble in my leather jacket pocket for my car keys when suddenly I am almost knocked over by a bustling and puffing man also making a fast exit from the gig.
I look up to see the smiling and slightly red face of Mr Smith.
“Oops, sorry mate,” he says as he pushes through the doors.
He turns briefly and adds: “Sorry I am in a rush”, before disappearing into the night.
I guess there were two concert goers that night who missed the full beauty of Bob’s Dark is a Dungeon… Mel and me!
“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.