The Cancer Song

In late 1970, a man named Phil Lesh was locked into a difficult routine: at the end of each day, he had to drive from a San Francisco recording studio to the nursing home where his father was dying of cancer.

Lesh played bass in a band named The Grateful Dead. As he drove, he practised singing lyrics a man named Robert Hunter had penned to accompany a piece of music Lesh had written for the band’s ‘American Beauty’ album. The song was entitled ‘Box of Rain’ and Lesh had requested the lyrics be “a song to sing to his dying father”.American Beauty cover

The song  is an exquisite piece of music: its chordal structure and instrumentation are perfect, as is Lesh’s vocal performance. Lesh rarely sang lead on The Dead’s songs, but his hesitant delivery lends the lyrics a heart-aching honesty and emotional depth that a more accomplished singer could not have achieved.

The song is filled with wonderful imagery, but one line stands out to me at this juncture in my life: ‘Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there . . .

Few words have better or more succinctly captured the overwhelming immensity of death and its aftereffects. My father was 72 when he died of cancer and yet, given his vast knowledge on books and militaria, his infectious zest for life, and his love for his family and friends, it now feels a criminally brief period.

IMG_2985Three months and nine days have passed since he died at home. The initial period of grief was like a huge ragged-edged vortex which sucked everything into it. Now, however, the outlines of the hole my father’s absence will form in my life have become clearer and less intimidating. I can put my arms around the grief now, can look down into it and see not what I have lost, but what I have loved.

Life is a short and fragile thing, while death is endless and immane. From dust we come, to dust we return. Yet there is comfort in reflecting upon the achievements and positive aspects of a lost loved one. Like a box of rain, my father chose to fill himself with all that was clear, clean and fresh in the world.

It is an example I strive to emulate.

For those who wish to listen to ‘Box of Rain’, here is a link:

The Grateful Dead – Box of Rain


Yecla, mi alma

Tuve 22 años la primera vez que vi el paisaje de España. Estuve con mi amigo, Miguel Ángel Cipriano, y estuvimos recién llegado al aeropuerto de Alicante – yo, bien llenado de cerveza; él bien cansado (quizás por haber pasado 6 horas conmigo, lleno de cerveza) – y pasamos por el control de pasaportes con las cabezas abajas.

Pero, luego, salimos del aeropuerto, y yo entré en otro mundo.

Fue mayo, a eso de los 19:00 de la tarde, y el anochecer había pintado el cielo de una rosa incandescente; las nubes jironadas ya estaban poniéndose de color carbón, y el crepúsculo que bajaba por mis espaldas ya brillaba con la salida de las primeras 7795891926_43d42cd4f4estrellas.

Y cuanto más nos acercamos a Yecla, más bonito se puso el paisaje nocturno, hasta, finalmente, llegamos, y vi el pueblo que es mi segunda casa: la cúpula de la Purísima, la silueta del monte arabí, las ruinas del castillo.

Creo que fue, en ese momento – y con esa vista delante – que me di cuenta por primera vez que poseía un alma.

Bueno, escrito así, suena un poco hiperbólico. Pero con esa edad – 22 – todo el mundo sigue siendo un poco (o, en mi caso, bastante) gilipollas, y no nos preocupamos por “tonterías” como tener o no un alma.

Para mí fue una revelación.

Tengo buen ojo por la belleza (normalmente, lo diría en el sentido de la belleza de la naturaleza – nunca he sido muy mujeriego – pero fue en Yecla, al empezar cierta clase en cierta academia, que aprendí lo que es un flechazo, el único de mi vida) y esa vista que encontré en Yecla me afectó de una manera insólita – como una piedra tirada a un pozo, oí el eco de algo allí abajo en las profundidades de mi ser de cuya existencia no había sabido antes.

Y es cierto que tiene algo este país que resuena en el alma anglo-sajón. No es casualidad que gente como Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Gerald Brenan o Paul Preston han escrito con tanta pasión sobre España: su paisaje, sus costumbres, su historia.

8499180177_538c8c0b12_bBueno, me apetecía escribir algo en castellano porque ya llevo 9 horas trabajando en mi última novela, que trata de los Nazis, un tema sumamente deprimente; y porque la vida sigue dándome golpes por todos lados – enterré mi padre hacía dos semanas, y ahora resulta que otro ser querido tiene cáncer.

Es en momentos así que me encuentro más y más buscando la tranquilidad de mis memorias y de mi imaginación. Tengo suerte, supongo, que solo necesito boli y papel para viajar a donde me de las ganas; pero a veces el alma desea algo más, algo real para saciar los ojos.

Y si pudiera elegir ver algo, ahora mismo, en este momento, sería esto: una española, vestida de Sevillana, bailando entre almendros y cerezos, sus giros y los movimientos de sus brazos causando el aire de llenar con las flores de las ramas, mientras el sol anochezca y el crepúsculo estrellado baja a mis espaldas, suave y silencioso, como una sábana de seda para tapar las heridas de este alma que encontré entre la sombra y la luz de España . . .

Proposals, Engagements and a Rae of Sunshine

I have been through an emotional meat-grinder recently. The vortex caused by my father’s death and by the failure of my legal attempts to regain contact with my kids (18IMG_3584 months now without seeing them) have completely swallowed one of the happiest moments of my adult life: I have got Rae (the little beauty pictured here) to agree to marry me.

One of my friends told me it was “essential you take her somewhere nice before you pop the question and get the ring out” but I knew that wasn’t necessary. As a writer, I can use words as a tool to make any location or occurrence feel special. Here is the poem I used to “soften” her up before I jammed the ring on her finger – jammed being the operative word, as the effing thing was too small!


I once did delve the shadowed depths

Beneath the ocean’s waves,

And saw its coral and its pearls,

All lit by light poured down from day.


And mountains have I wandered,

Explored both peak and cave,

And tasted chill, clear water,

From a frosted foothill’s glade.


And yet I find these worldly things,

Are worthless to me now,

For they were mere sketches,

I chose now to disavow,


To me your eyes hold lambent depths,

Free from the cold sea’s flow,

Your hips and hair hold shaded hides,

No mountain-side could grow.


For when two lovers choose to share,

and ask nothing in return,

Mere love may slip its moorings,

And mould one out of a pair,


And through your light and lifting love,

I find all I sought in me,

And in the vows we choose to swear,

We find we both are free.

Things I Miss About Dad

Dad and LoochTwo weeks ago, my Father died of cancer. The initial blaze of grief has now burnt itself out, leaving behind the cold, grey ashes of spent emotion, but I no longer feel quite so overwhelmed.

When a loved one dies, it initially feels like a huge, ragged hole has been ripped in the centre of Life. I now realise, though, that by talking about my Father, a definite silhouette is being shaped from the shadows – he is gone, but the legacy of who he was and what he did remains. It is small compensation for his loss, but a compensation nonetheless. Here are some of the things I miss most about him.

Children loved him

You can tell a lot about a person by the way children react to him or her, and children (for the most part) loved my Dad: his own children and grandchildren, his nieces and nephews; and those he taught in a scholastic career that lasted more than 25 years.

Why did children love him so much? The answer is simple: Dad possessed a fantastic imagination, and combined this with a child-like sense of fun and irresponsibility. Only six months ago, I had an angry phone call from my ex, in which she explained that my children were repeating an inappropriate limerick at school that began ‘My friend Billy had a 10-foot willy. . .’ the words of which had been carefully implanted in their minds during an afternoon being “looked after” by their grandfather.

It brought a smile to my face, as I had been taught the self-same rhyme as a child . . .

He taught me to revere the written word

I was not spoiled as a child . . . except when it came to books. Dad loved second-hand bookshops, and introduced me to the pleasures of nosing around amid dusty stacks early on in Life. When it came time to leave, I was often weighed down beneath a pile of books, but was never forced to leave any behind. As a result, I grew up with a deep-seated love of reading and the acquisition of knowledge.

His sense of Humour

Dad had a fantastic sense of humour – cheeky, irreverent, and rude – and he loved a wide range of comedy greats: Laurel and Hardy, Tony Hancock, Dads’ Army, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Alan Partridge.

He was also a great lover of anecdotes, especially when they related to some minor mishap that had occurred to him or a friend. An example? Dad made a painted sign – FARNBOROUGH GALLERY – that was screwed to the woodwork outside my uncle’s picture framing shop. When a night of heavy wind struck, though, it whipped off the front half of the sign, leaving behind the words, ROUGH GALLERY.

He was kind, gentle and humble

Life teaches us lessons. Some of us learn from them and, in the process, develop wisdom and maturity; others ignore them, and merely grow old.

Dad belonged to the first group, and valued a simple, uncomplicated Life surrounded by family and friends, who in turn valued him for his kind, gentle nature.

He was also the most effortlessly talented person I have ever met – whatever he turned his hand to, he was good at, be it painting, drawing, cookery, DIY, motor repairs, sport or playing the guitar and piano – yet he was truly humble, and disliked any form of praise.

And so the grief begins . . .

DadMy father died on Tuesday. Through a constant whirlwind of creativity, I have kept ahead of the emotion, desperately laying lines of track in front of the steam train of grief that rumbled behind me.

But yesterday, the engine’s prong caught my heels and set me to stumble; the wheels were upon me in a moment, and I was crushed beneath their weight. I lie forgotten now upon the sleepers, a parched and broken thing, my lidless eyes fixed upon the glare of a dark and distant sun: my father is dead.

Emotion now leaks from me like water from a colander, leaving me feeling dirty and soiled. Grief is a carrion-feeder, and it has rolled me through its claws, spitting me out pecked, ripped and raw. The pain is physical: it slithers through hollows in my guts I did not ever know were there and grips at my heart, squeezing clumsy rhythms from its pulse; my body strains for release from a pain that is inescapable and coldly cruel: even the condemned man can at least draw comfort from the shadow of the noose and know that his suffering will end.

As a young man, I pictured growing old as a series of stages. It is not. We grow old through a process of accretion: age gathers against us like drifts of dead leaves blown against the foot of a fence: the baby disappears below the infant, the infant below the child, the child below the adolescent . . .

But the ashes of each iteration remain, withered to charcoal, but still capable of combustion. And when the winds of Life blow hard, they lift the leaves, expose the embers, and ignite the fires of everything we have already been. Who among us can truly claim, on occasions, not to crave the warm reassurance afforded the baby? Or to feel sometimes the fear of a lost child?

Grief has stripped me bare, leaving all of these different aspects exposed, each one uniquely painful. The baby within me wails incessantly, the child strains and reaches out for arms that are no longer there to lift, hold and comfort.

And so I find myself today suddenly yanked into a future I never thought I would have to face, reflecting upon time wasted, words left unsaid, and the fact my own children will likely one day face this horror, too . . .

Yecla, mi querida

El año 2017 fue difícil para mí emocionalmente y, a veces, pensaba que no podría más con los golpes.

Pero, hace unos seis meses – cuando el dolor fue inaguantable – algo curioso empezó a ocurrir: empecé a soñar casi cada noche con Yecla. Los sueños fueroiglesia_purisima_yecla_t3000780_jpg_1306973099n (y siguen siendo) como ningunos sueños que he tenido jamás.

En primer lugar, no contienen nada de imágenes confusas ni indistintas – los sueños son totalmente coherentes, hasta tal punto que, al despertar, parece que realmente hubiera estado allí momentos antes. Y tengo la cabeza llena de sensaciones casi reales: el sonido de las campanas por la mañana; el olor del pan fresco por las calles; el sabor del café bien hecho; y la sensación del viento en mi cara, ese viento caloroso que sopla a finales de septiembre en Yecla, cuando el calor del verano se ve vencido por el otoño y el anochecer llena el cielo con colores rosados y dorados.

Pero, sobre todo, sueño con la gran belleza del pueblo, la belleza que solo se refleja en los ojos de un extranjero, porque para él (o ella) hasta el edificio más dilapidado o rutinario es nuevo e interesante. Sobresalen en mis sueños las calles rectas del centro del pueblo, sus iglesias, sus montes, sus olivos y campos.

Me he preguntado por qué mi mente hace estos viajes nocturnos a Yecla tan a menudo. Creo que es una forma de escapar de los estreses de mi vida, porque el año que pasé en Yecla hace 18 años fue, sin duda, una de las épocas más felices de mi vida. Tenía 24 años, y estaba lleno de grandes emociones, esas emociones que uno se siente cuando tienes todas las libertades de un adulto, pero ningunas de las responsabilidades.

Conseguí la amistad de un grupo de personas excepcionales prácticamente al llegar, personas que me cuidaban y que tenían la paciencia de pasar tiempo conmigo cuando mi dominio sobre el Castellano consistía en “Cerveza” y “Soy de un pueblo cerca de Londres”. (También tenía la “ayuda” y “cuido” de los hermanos Ortín Ortíz, quien llenó mi libro de vocabulario con tonterías – gracias a ellos fui a una ferretería buscando una “boina para hacer café” y dije “Hola, tengo mocos grandes” a un camarero cuando lo que realmente quería fue suelto para tabaco).

Otra aventura: mandé una carta anónima de amor a una de mis alumnas adultas en la academia donde trabajaba (escrita con la ayuda de un amigo español para que las faltas de ortografía y la escritura no revelaran mi identidad, una decisión que tuvo consecuencias desastrosas cuando la novia de mi ayudante encontró la carta y pensó que tenía un amor secreto).

No sé porque nunca tuve el coraje de decirle a la alumna como sentí, pero cuando pienso en eso ahora, entiendo un sentimiento expresado por un poeta inglés: que las palabras más tristes en cualquier lengua son, “Pudiese haber sido”.

Este año ya ha traído cambios: mi padre se está muriendo, he pedido la mano a mi novia, y ya voy terminando mi sexta novela. Llevo cinco años sin salir de Inglaterra, y más de ocho sin visitar mi querida Yecla. ¿A lo mejor ha llegado el momento de hacer otro cambio, y coger un avión?

Malcolm Young, R.I.P.

Last week, one of the greatest riff-writers and rhythm guitarists in the history of rock died – Malcolm Young of AC/DC.

Malcolm Young was Angus’s elder brother, and while all of the focus has always been on Angus’s jaw-dropping lead guitar and onstage histrionics, it was Malcolm who ran the band. Without the sound of his Gretsch slashing out those super-tight chords in perfect lockstep unison with the bass and drums, the band would not have rocked half asMalcolm Young hard, especially in the guitar solos – listen closely to a song like Gone Shootin, and you’ll find that when the solo really takes off, it is because Malcolm has changed what he is playing, not Angus.

Also, never has any musician done so much with so little – a few simple chords played atop basslines that pump out root notes – and for such a length of time: no matter how many times Young returned to the well, fresh water remained, water with the sharp, ice-clean bite that only the DC can deliver.

So perfect was the formula, in fact, Young never needed to change it. During AC/DC’s entire career to date, there has never been any deviation from the pattern: no minor chords, no acoustic guitars, no experiments with synths or brass sections or trios of backing singers. What you got was simple: Malcolm’s guitar on one side, Angus’s on the other, and a thunderous rhythm section straight down the middle.

Malcolm Young suffered dementia at the end of his life, to such an extent that his memory began to fail him: a music journalist wrote that the most heart-breaking sight he witnessed in his career was Angus, 30 minutes before a gig, teaching Malcolm how to play his own songs, a process they had to go through on every night of the tour.

Both the Young brothers have influenced my guitar playing style over the years, but it was not until I focused hard on how Malcolm played that I learned how to make music rock with the type of dense, dynamic wallop I had always heard in my head. Malcolm Young may be dead, but I am certain his music will still be relevant and influential 50 years from now to anyone who writes ROCK in capital letters.

Samuel Peyps, Sexual Predator

Samuel Pepys. The very name conjures images of 17th century London and Merrie Olde England – powdered wigs, livery coats, lantern-lit taverns, plague, fire – and his diary is celebrated as one of the most important historical documents in English social history.

And yet, Pepys was a rampant sexual predator. There can be no doubt of this, for, unlike Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey – against whom, we must remember, there are mountains of allegations, but no convictions as of yet – Pepys stands accused by his own pen. Pepys

On 18 August 1667 Pepys wrote: ‘Into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I … stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again’.

Elsewhere, there are more successful encounters as he gropes and forces himself upon shop girls, tavern girls and street girls, with Pepys showing a particular yearning for girls in their teens, such as his wife’s 17-year-old companion, of whom he wrote on August 6th, 1665:

“Dressed and had my head combed by my little girle to whom I confess that I am too friendly, recently often putting my hands in the two things of her breast; but I had to stop it lest it bring me to some major inconvenience.”

So, here’s the thing: where does Pepys fit in among all the recent public indignation about sexual predators among celebrities? Are his diaries tainted by his predatory ways? Should their place among the canon of English literature be re-evaluated because of this disgusting and reprehensible behaviour?

Or, if on the other hand, we dismiss his sexual predations as the norm for that period in history, where is the cut off? When is the point in history that we say, ‘Before this date, it was fine to grope women, as that was the way men were back then; but after this date, it becomes criminal behaviour’?

WWI: Popular Misconceptions

I have read about WWI nearly all my life, and with it being November 11th today, I decided to compile a list that I hope might rectify some popular misconceptions about the war.

The soldiers were not always stuck in trenches: 1914 and 1918 saw huge armies engage in huge battles that swept across Belgium and France. It was not until the beginning of winter, 1914, that the armies became immobilised, and trench warfare began. This static period of warfare lasted until 1918, when the German spring offensive, and the subsequent British, French and American counterattacks, created a war of movement again. horses-and-men-in-gas-masks-during-tests-to-find-the-best-protection-against-gas-attacks-pic-dm-965360765

The British were not heavily involved early on: Britain had a very small standing army, and was only able to send six divisions (roughly 60,000 troops) in 1914, most of whom were dead by 1915. The survivors referred to themselves as “The Old Contemptibles” after a dismissive remark made about them by Kaiser Wilhelm.

The French suffered terribly: disastrous tactics and uniforms that included bright red trousers meant the French had already lost 300,000 men dead by the end of 1914 (or, to put it another way, in just five months). The scale of this disaster is best seen in the perspective of subsequent years: for example, in the whole year of 1916 – which included the terrible Battle of Verdun – the French lost 252,000. By the end of the war, nearly 5% of the entire French population was dead (as compared to just over 2.5 % for the British, and 3.5% for the Germans) and a further 2,300,000 men had been wounded.

CaptureThe Germans nearly won the war in March, 1918: the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) broke the British lines and sent the British army tumbling back in conditions that verged on a rout. A twelve-mile gap opened in the line, and German troops poured through, threatening to break out and drive a wedge between the British and French armies. However, the fast-moving German stormtroopers leading the attack could not carry enough food and ammunition to sustain themselves and the offensive petered out.

The soldiers were not always floundering knee deep in mud: in spring and summer, the trenches were relatively dry; in winter, they iced over. The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele is mainly responsible for the popular image of WWI soldiers as being perpetually slathered in mud, as torrential rain flooded the Ypres area while the British were conducting a major offensive. The troops were made to fight there for more than three months with very little to show for it; the entire battlefield was later captured in a single day during the summer of the following year.

Poppies were chosen as a symbol of remembrance due to a poem written by a Canadian doctor, In Flanders Field.

German helmets, though similar in design, were far bigger in WWI than they were in WWII. This is something film makers nearly always get wrong. Watch out for it.

Parents Without Children – Part 2

Yesterday, I saw my children for the first time in 17 weeks. The reunion was intense: my daughter and son ran to greet me, shouting my name, and leapt into my arms when they reached me. My six-year-old son clung to my neck like a monkey; my nine-year-old daughter merely nuzzled my chest softly as I stroked her hair and fought back tears.

IMG_6831Then we sat down in my mother’s living room, and I listened to all their news, gabbled at that 78 rpm speed so typical of excited children: what they’d learned at school, what books they had read, what sports they had played. For a brief moment, the champagne of emotion washed through me – fizzy, fun, intoxicating – as the emotional bonds of parenthood rekindled, and I connected again with all that is best in me, those facets of personality I strive to possess on a permanent basis – to be kind, attentive, caring, humble.

But as is so often the way in the muddied maze of divorced parents, the grey clouds soon gathered as innocent comments made by the children began to form a composite picture of what was happening at the other end of the line: letters and presents that had been posted but had not arrived; inconsistencies in the reasons given why the children could not stay with me at weekends.

As I listened to this with growing irritation, I noticed that my children are now realising something is amiss between Mrs Mummy and Mr Daddy Man. My six-year-old suddenly announced that his greatest desire would be for everyone he loves – parents, Grandparents, aunties, uncles – to “all live together in a big house”. He then asked why this wasn’t possible, but in a rhetorical kind of way, speaking more to himself than to me. “Don’t we have enough money, Daddy?” he asked. My attempt at a response stuck in my throat like a wishbone.

My daughter is nine, and sharp as a tack, with a quick, agile mind far beyond her years. She said nothing on the subject, but her eyes as we parted spoke volumes. She does not yet possess the language to vocalise her thoughts on the situation, but the dismal, spiky shadow of divorce’s after effects already creeps behind her, mirroring her steps, waiting for the chance to trip her, bloody her nose and beat out a little of the child from within her.

As we kissed and embraced at our parting, I thought suddenly of my ex and of all the years of pointless bickering and petty hatreds that have filled the gravel pit formed by our failed relationship and that lie now between us like brackish, stagnant water – the slightest stirring of the scummed surface releases all sorts of foulness. And I realised the irony that, as my children grow towards maturity, part of me is constantly stumbling back towards the pettiest facets of infantilism . . .