Tag Archives: cancer

RIP Jeanette Cousland… So it goes…

Jeanette (right) with Scotsman critic Kate Copstick after a Grouchy Club show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014

I got a shock phone call this morning to tell me of the death of the always lively and bubbly Jeanette Cousland – aka ‘Machete Hettie’ or sometimes ‘Machete Hetty’ – who appeared in this blog over the years.

She died 15 days after being told she had cancer.

On 21st September, on Facebook, her son Barry Martin posted:

Hi folks,

2 weeks ago my mother Jeanette was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given weeks rather than months to live. She had been in good health until then apart from a bad back the last few weeks. She was just 54 the day before. 

We are at home now and keeping her at peace. She has a great support team with me, my brother and Kirsty.

She is still with it and I can pass on any messages that would cheer her up. The family is still in shock and we are pretty devastated. Please do not call my mother just now: she is sleeping a lot of the time. Also not too many questions for me or Ricky as it can get a bit much. Please, she would not want people to be sad and always tries to make people laugh.

She is still with us now and we are trying to keep her at peace as much as possible.


Barry, Ricky and Kirsty, my mum’s best friend

The next day, her son Ricky Fyffe posted:

It is with a heavy heart myself and my brother Barry Martin have to announce the passing of our one-of-a-kind mum, granny and sister, Jeanette Cousland.

After an all too short battle with lung cancer, she passed away peacefully this afternoon at home with her family by her side. 

After a period of mourning, we will update everyone on the funeral arrangements in due course. 

Our mum will forever be in our hearts.

Jeanette’s last post on Facebook was on 12th September.

She lived in Leith, Edinburgh…

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British newspapers… a novel tale of devious deals, phone hacking and death

The Lion of Fleet Street is a novel about a British tabloid newspaper reporter – one of the ‘big beasts’ of Fleet Street – the centre of the newspaper business at the turn of the century.

It is written by Patrick Symes. He worked as a freelance reporter for national newspapers, radio and television for forty years, specialising in sport. He also ran a news agency covering news and sport throughout the South of England.

So he knows the inside stories.

He has written (as  Pat Symes) 12 non-fiction books about international sportsmen.

The Lion of Fleet Street is his first novel.

JOHN: You’ve written factual books before. Why a novel now?

PATRICK: I just wanted to see if I could do it. I got to a stage in my career where I was winding down. I had sold the news agency and I did a wee stint as a lecturer in Journalism at Solent University in Southampton which was also coming to an end… and I was having cancer treatment.

I was fit and happy and looking forward to my dotage and then suddenly I discovered I had prostate cancer and then kidney cancer. I’ve had one kidney removed. Then the cancer moved to the lungs, which is where it is now. I’ve got a few nodules there.

JOHN: And, at the moment…?

PATRICK: I’ve had numerous scans. I’m never going to beat it; the tumours are there. But it can be contained and coped-with, I hope. So you just plod on in those sort of circumstances.

I had started a book. I don’t even know why. But I thought: Well, I’ll continue it.

JOHN: Why this plot?

PATRICK: One of the good things about journalism is you meet so many people and come across so many incidents and you store them away. I got this idea based on, I think, the funeral of one of the ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street. I remember that time – the turn of the century – quite vividly. 

It was a massive turning point in the world of the media and how news was disseminated.

Most of my career, if I was covering a football match, I would have to pick up a phone and dictate the report to a copy typist. That was also the way these ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street operated too; they had these huge, inflated reputations because theirs was the only conduit for news. 

But suddenly there was a twist and a change and the internet came in, though it wasn’t much good to begin with. I remember thinking: Well this is never going to catch on.

Now, of course, we all live by it every day.

It wasn’t just that, of course. Radio and television were becoming more sophisticated and news was being blasted at us all day long.

JOHN: How were radio and TV becoming more sophisticated in news coverage?

PATRICK: It was more instant. TV had taken over the role of newspapers. There was regional television, regional radio stations with quite sophisticated news production. During the day we would know instantly if the Prime Minister resigned. There was no point newspapers printing that as ‘news’ the next day. 

I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp. And there was more money around.

“I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp…”

News (in newspapers) has become softer now; it has to be very showbiz orientated.

Many of the ‘big beasts’ took hefty pay-offs and disappeared off to their gardens,; one or two others – like my man in the novel – stayed but didn’t really know how to adapt. Their salaries were quite large. New, younger, management came in with new, fresh ideas and decided that the old type of journalism was largely redundant. 

My man, with redundancy hanging over him, teams up with a phone tapper – although many of the journalists of that time did it themselves. He comes up with a couple of stories that give him a front page lead and he seems to be restoring his reputation, but redundancy is still very much hanging over him.

In desperation, he listens in to a police tape – this was at the time of the Milly Dowler murder

A certain person is going to be arrested, but my protagonist mis-hears it

When his story appears on the front page of his tabloid, the Sunday Argus, it becomes obvious fairly soon afterwards that his story naming the wrong man had been obtained by illegal means. My protagonist’s life is in ruins but he finds another story which involves… There was a hotel in Eastbourne, near Beachy Head which specialised in giving a ‘last night of luxury’ for would-be suicides.

JOHN: This was real?

PATRICK: I don’t know. Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there and there are all these crosses on the edge of the cliff where people have jumped…

JOHN: Really?


JOHN: You went there?

“Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there… where people have jumped…”

PATRICK: Yes. And I was standing there minding my own business, taking in the atmosphere when two people from a church vigilante group came up to me and said: “Can we help you?”

I said: “Why do you think I need help?”

They said: “Number one, you haven’t got a camera. Number two, you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets, deep in thought… If there’s anything we can do to help you…”

JOHN: So you said “I’m a journalist”… and they said “Jump”…?


JOHN: All first novels are autobiographical, so…

PATRICK: Phone tapping WAS rampant throughout Fleet Street at that time. It was so easy. They were all expected to do it – on the tabloids anyway – and some fairly prominent people in the newspaper industry of that time got away with it. News International are still paying off victims of that nigh on 20 years later.

JOHN: Have you an idea for your next novel?

PATRICK: I went to a school that had part-boarders and there was a very encouraging English teacher there. He got sacked because he was fiddling around with some of the boy boarders.

He became an actor. His name was Roland McLeod.

He never rose to any great prominence, but he was in Worzel Gummidge and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and The Goodies and so on. He tended to play the bank manager or something similar in sitcoms.

He suddenly got the gig of his life when he appeared in Coronation Street – a 6-month or  a year’s contract – and there was a big, big build-up when he was going to propose to Emily Bishop (one of the central characters). A huge build-up. It was in all the papers.

Eileen Derbyshire (as Emily Bishop) and Roland McLeod (as Bernard Morton) in Coronation Street

I didn’t know he was in Coronation Street at first, but you couldn’t avoid it. I mentioned his background to some colleagues in the office and they said: “You ought to put that up to the News of the World. They’d love that!”

Walking behind the newsdesk at the time, by coincidence, was a guy who heard the words Ryde School and he said: “Oh! I went there! I was a boarder and I had ‘difficulties’ with teachers.” So it suddenly became a revenge mission for him and it took me over, really.

I thought: Well, he didn’t do ME any harm…

So it was a real crisis of conscience for a day or two but, in the end, greed overcame my conscience and I rang the News of the World and, of course, they loved it.

I went back to my parents’ house to see if they had any school reports signed by him, which they had. It became a front page lead in the News of the World, I’m afraid to say.

I was well-remunerated, as you can imagine.

The News of the World found him on the day before publication, boarding a plane at Luton Airport. They tapped him on the shoulder and said “Roland McLeod… It’s the News of the World” and he said “I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years”.

It was an astonishing admission when you think about it. 

JOHN: What happened on Coronation Street? Did they pull him as a character?”

PATRICK: I think his role was finished anyway; he had proposed to Emily Bishop and she had said No.

He still got bits and pieces of work afterwards, so I didn’t feel that bad about it. I could justify it by saying to myself that, in many respects, he…

JOHN: …got his comeuppance.

PATRICK: Yes. He did deserve it. 

JOHN: Kiddy fiddling is serious stuff…

PATRICK: Once the News of the World revealed it, he had a speech ready and he said something along the lines of “Homosexuality is a curse. It’s not what I wanted to be.” He tried to justify himself. He had a prepared statement.

JOHN: Over your 40 years in the business, you must have encountered lots of stories which never got published… Did you think of putting them into the novel or future novels?

PATRICK: Little bits and pieces. You knew about people who were on the fiddle. There were stories which suddenly ‘died’; they just didn’t appear.

JOHN: I mean, Jimmy Savile. There would have had to be real, solid, cast-iron evidence to print a story while he was alive.

PATRICK: Yes and he, too, gets a mention in the book. Every newspaper tried to nail him at one stage or another. But they never had solid proof and, if he thought they were getting too close, he would always say: “Well, I’m a national treasure. I’ve raised £50 million through my charity walks and things. Do you want people to know you stopped me doing those?”

… Some of Pat(rick) Symes’ sports books…

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Vertigo, a stroke, partial paralysis, two heart attacks and an inoperable cancer…

Irony upon irony.

In the UK, we are in the middle of an extreme heatwave.

Irony upon irony. It never rains but it pours.

Last Wednesday, torrential rains started in western Germany triggering deadly floods. At the time of writing, the German death toll is 188, with around 1,300 missing and an estimated 31 dead in Belgium. Poor old Belgium always gets forgotten.

And let’s not even mention the current Covid infection rate. Yet.

Irony upon irony.

The newspapers here in the UK are billing today as ‘Freedom Day’ when most Covid restriction in England are lifted. Yet the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, yes, the Health Minister are all quarantining lest they have or spread Covid..

And, as ‘Freedom Day’ – freedom from Covid day – approached, there was a large surge in Covid cases which continues.

But more important to me, in my own little world, is that my vertigo returned with a vengeance this morning at 5.00am and I have been in bed all day. If I lie in bed on my right side – ie with my right ear on the pillow, it is like the inside of my head is being pulled apart by centrifugal force while I am spinning round on a phenominally fast fairground ride. 

But the importance of anything is comparative. 

In Germany: 188 flood deaths seems very bad… But they have had 91,370 Covid deaths.

Joe Palermo in hospital… He’s a fighter AND a lover…

I have vertigo again, but…

About a week ago, comedy critic Kate Copstick sent me an email saying that comedian Mark Dean Quinn had been hospitalised by a stroke and was paralysed down one side.

And London-based Italian performer Joe Palermo had had a heart attack.

Joe lived. So did Mark.

Mark Dean Quinn in better days at Edinburgh Fringe

After a week, Mark Dean Quinn was back at home. His speech was still slightly slurred, but he was able to cut two eggs, two onions, two tomatoes and open two jars… though it took him 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, before all that, on 8th July, Copstick had also told me about 87-year-old London-based American comic Lynn Ruth Miller. Copstick wrote:

Lynn Ruth Miller had what she calls a “mild” heart attack last week.

She is leaving hospital today.

That is not the worst of it.

She has been told she has oesophageal cancer. A large, ulcerated tumour which is wrapped around her oesophagus. Inoperable, they said.

She cannot eat solids.

They can operate to put a stent into the oesophagus to stop it closing completely BUT they are not happy about surgery because of her age.

She is talking to them on Tuesday to discuss treatment options – chemo or radiation.

She is continuing to do her gigs.

I talked to Lynn Ruth after that billed Tuesday NHS appointment.:

“How did it go with the doctors?” I asked.

“I am getting the same runaround you are from the NHS,” she said. “I am unable to eat food and I am unable to sleep. They keep postponing the consultation that will tell me exactly what kind of cancer I have and what they can do about it – and they are doing nothing at all about it. I have to find out what kind of cancer it is and what stage it is at first before I can fight it and they keep moving the date forward.  

“I do not know what to do or where to turn. I do not want to die just because no-one got around to figuring out how I can eat and sleep but that is exactly what is happening.

“I do know if I don’t get some help pretty soon I won’t make it and I want to make it very very badly. 

“In other news there is a dead rat stinking up my kitchen and I cannot find it.”

I got in touch with her again today.

“I have been complaining about the symptoms since mid May,” she told me. The NHS has known about this cancer since the end of June because it showed up on a CT scan when I went to A& E.  

“On July 2 I had the mild heart attack and, while I was having it, darling, I made the bed, brushed my teeth, did my etc and dressed properly, got the coffee ready and then collapsed.  

“When they took me into A&E (for a second time) the doctor knew what was wrong and said: You had a heart attack and you have oesophageal cancer…  

“WHY DIDN’T THEY TELL ME THAT AT THE END OF JUNE? I might have avoided the heart attack!   

“In all this time, NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING has been done to treat the fact that my oesophagus is closed and I cannot eat solid food and it is getting worse. I have lost about 12 pounds and am losing more every day.   

“I have told them that and they have increased the pain meds (they are working).

“I now have a ton of meds for my heart,  but nothing for my digestive problem and, when I was in the hospital, the dietician couldn’t get it through her head that I really really really cannot chew or swallow ANYTHING… They kept giving me Heinz’s cream of chicken soup.  

“So the bottom line is I can’t eat solid food and I cannot sleep because the pain is keeping me awake. Without food and sleep one dies… I am not in the mood to go this soon. I have a lot more trouble I want to cause.  

“I also have a LOT of morphine I am planning to sell on the street to finance going private. Who do you know?

“Tomorrow I am supposed to get a diagnosis. I still do not have an oncology doctor or a gastroenterology doctor or a diagnosis.  

“They have put off telling me three times. 

“And this is socialized medicine!  

“What has this world come to?”


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The death and funeral of theatre producer Calvin Wynter in New York

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but a big Fringe

Calvin Wynter RIP (25 November 1959 – 30 October 2015)

On 16th September this year, I posted a blog headed:


That blog ended:

“I’m headed off right now,” Calvin told me, “to have my teeth cleaned and also they did a biopsy on my jawbone. They performed dental surgery, removed the lesion and put it in for biopsy research. They called me on Friday which means I think I may have cancer. I don’t know. So far, everything that’s thought to have been cancerous was not – like the polyps I got from my colonoscopy. I had three polyps. No cancer. So who knows? Maybe the third time isn’t so good but, y’know look – I’ve had a shaved head before. I can have a shaved head again. I’m still Episcopalian, which is like your Church of England, but my philosophy is Buddhist which is essentially: What do we seek? Happiness. What is pain and sorrow? The route to happiness.”

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

Calvin Wynter when he talked to me in September via Skype

The following day, 17th September, I blogged:

Calvin has now to come back to say: “My jawbone lesion is benign… Yay!”

On 24th October, ten days ago, knowing I was going to be talking in London to US performer Penny Arcade, I asked Calvin if he could give me any background.

His replied included this:

Went under oral surgery to remove the lesion on my jaw and the bone graft from my thigh on Wednesday. I will be able to speak on Monday. Thank God I have experience at being silent. Thank you John for giving sometime to leave experience. Best wishes with your interview. – Cal

He also e-mailed me this selfie of himself headed: ‘Post Oral Surgery’


I replied: Holy shit! You look like a cartoon Godfather with one of those very high 1940s formal collars! Blog currently not happening because WordPress are fuck-ups…

His response was: Hahaha… Best wishes with your blog app.

I replied: If you want to tell me about your experience (preferably on Skype – but you might not want to actually talk too much!) just let me know when.

Calvin Wynter in 1977

Calvin Wynter in 1977

He told me: Thanks for the offer, but I can’t speak until Monday. Slow healing process.

I replied: Oh, yes, I meant after that. I doubt if I will have sorted the blog out until Tuesday.

His response was: Perfect timing.

That was the last I heard from him.

Tonight, I received an e-mail from a mutual friend in New York City. It read:

Calvin as a child with his father

Calvin Wynter – happy as a child with his father

I’m sorry to have to tell you that Calvin died last Thursday night. I don’t know specifics, 

I was hoping you could announce Calvin’s passing and the arrangements to the community over there via your blog.

The funeral will be 5.00 pm on Friday the 6th November at Cobbs Funeral Home in East Elmhurst (Queens), NY. Interment Saturday morning at 10 am. He is being interred with his parents at Flushing Cemetery. 

So it goes.

The anniversary of his birth is in three weeks time.

Calvin Wynter (25 November 1959 – 30 October 2015)


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Wilko Johnson: the rock star who lived in ecstasy while under a death sentence

Last night, courtesy of Michael (son of Micky) Fawcett, I went to the premiere of The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, director Julien Temple’s almost abstract movie about the legendary British guitarist who also played mute executioner Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones. There is a trailer on YouTube.

It is a companion piece to Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s 2009 film about Wilko’s band Dr Feelgood.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson was going to be about Wilko dying of terminal cancer, except Wilko did not.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson poster

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson poster

Charlie Chan, a friend of Wilko’s who juggles being a music business photographer with being a breast cancer surgeon, realised that there might be some hope. Surgeon Emmanuel Huguet operated on Wilko for nine hours at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and the result was there to see last night.

Ironically, Michael Fawcwett told me, Wilko survived because he did NOT take any chemotherapy treatment. He just accepted he would die, did concerts and last year made a hit album Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey as part of his ‘farewell’.

“I decided,” said Wilko, “just to accept the situation and go through it and die, to live whatever life I had left and go with the flow, whether it was booking gigs or Julien making a film.”

Wilko’s wife Irene had died of cancer in 2004. So it goes.

Walk performing at the 100 Club last night

Wilko performing at the 100 Club last night

If Wilko had taken the chemotherapy treatment, he would have been too ill to survive the operation which saved his life. So his acceptance of death resulted in his life continuing.

The film had a special relevance to Julien Temple because, at the time it was being made, his own mother was dying. So it goes.

“All the twists and turns,” said Wilko, “that happened during that year…”

“That’s the thing about a documentary,” said Julien. “You don’t know where it’s going. There’s something fantastic about the element of chance which is what life’s about, really. If you over-script things, sometimes you… You would never write a film like this. No-one would believe a fiction film if you had written it like this. Who would ever believe a rock star so erudite?”

“If you wrote it in a book,” Wilko said, “it would be condemned as an improbable fiction.”

After the screening (L-R) Sheri Sinclair, d Derick ‘The Draw’ Hussey, Julien Temple & Michael Fawcett

After yesterday’s premiere (left-right) Sheri Sinclair, Derick ‘The Draw’ Hussey, Julien Temple and Michael Fawcett

After the screening, I went to the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where Wilko and his band played a one-hour, sweat-pouring, full-throttle gig. I had thought the 100 Club had closed but, like Wilko, it is still very much alive.

In the red-walled basement club, I bumped into Edinburgh Fringe regular Ronnie Golden aka Tony De Meur of the former Fabulous Poodles. His girlfriend Grace Carley was executive producer on The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. 

“I love this club,” Ronnie/Tony told me. “I remember it from the late 1970s. It looked almost exactly the same. It’s just a brilliant, brilliant shit-hole. In those days, there was no air-conditioning and they had a stall over there that sold Chinese food so you had this smelly stench and everybody smoked so the air was filled with smoke and this stench. It was insane and our drummer passed-out on stage. The sheer heat and everything.”

Ronnie Golden, former Poodle, at the 100 Club last night

Ronnie Golden, former Fabulous Poodle – 100 Club last night

“While he was performing?’ I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “And it happened in the Marquee Club too. He was susceptible to passing-out.”

“What,” I asked, “did you do when he passed out on stage during the gig?”

“We walked off and they played some music on records and then we came back on again.”

“With the drummer?”

“Yeah. It happened in Philadelphia too. But he would always rally very well.”

When I left the 100 Club, I walked to Oxford Circus station with Emmanuel Huguet, the surgeon who saved Wilko’s life. I asked him, perhaps tritely, what it is like being a surgeon.

“You get to meet some very interesting people,” he said.

There is a video on YouTube of Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltry’s Going Back Home.

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Filed under Death, Movies, Music, Rock music

Ex gangster drug runner Jason Cook tells me how a rat became an astronaut

Jason Cook - from crime and cocaine to children’s books and cheese

Jason – from crime and cocaine to rats and cheese

I have blogged about Jason Cook a few times before.

He became a drug addict at the age of twelve and then started to sell drugs from his bedroom and on the streets to pay off his growing drugs debts to local dealers. Then he got into trouble with Yardies and was forced to smuggle drugs in order to save his friends and family “from danger”.

At the age of 20 he was heavily involved in the drugs world and he was also taking steroids to build himself up. He reached 18 stone, with a sizeable drug habit, was arrested and spent 3 years and 9 months in Pentonville Prison where he found drugs use was also widespread.

After a second prison sentence, he realised that he needed to turn his life round for his family and – despite being dyslexic – started to write a series of four semi-autobiographical books

Jason Cook’s first two semi-autobiographical crime books

Jason Cook’s first two semi-autobiographical crime books

Jason has five children. This month he published his first Kindle children’s book Rats in Space.

For each downloaded eBook or Kindle copy sold, 50p is going to be donated to the Macmillan Cancer fund. At the start of the book, it says:

Jason Cook’s book - Rats In Space

Jason Cook’s kids’ book – Rats In Space

The author, Jason Cook, would like to dedicate this book to his son, Hughie Cook, for truly being a brave boy during his chemotherapy treatment. Jason would also like to dedicate it to the other children and adults who are fighting this disease every day. Also to the doctors and nurses that help so many of the sick adults and children and thank them for the support they show the families. So thank you, all who helped support not only Hughie, but me and the others in our family at these tough times.

Rats in Space “tells the sad, very emotional yet ultimately happy story of the rats who live in the tunnels of the Underground at King’s Cross station…

“Can a rat really reach the moon? When a global cheese shortage threatens the entire rodent community, a brave group of rats come to one decision: if there is no cheese to be found on the Earth, then it’s time to look off the Earth. Hector Duddlewell has always dreamed of the stars and, when he catches a glimpse of glorious space travel, he’s willing to defy all odds to win the girl of his dreams and take his place as one of the first ever RATS IN SPACE.”

“It’s true,” Jason told me this morning. “Hector really did go into space.”

“Of course he did,” I said sympathetically.

Jason has plans to film Rats In Space

Jason has plans to film Rats In Space – the script is written

“He did,” said Jason. “Hector really did. He was flown into space.”

He showed me the Wikipedia entry. It read:

“France flew their first rat (Hector) into space on February 22, 1961.”

“My book tells the back story of Hector,” explained Jason. “How he actually became an astronaut.”

Stranger things have happened.

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My father dies on 26th/27th June

In recent weeks, I have been posting extracts from my 2001 diary about the period when my father was dying from cancer.

I previously posted a shorter version of what follows in November 2011, when Apple boss Steve Jobs died. I think this one has a better ending.

Edvard Munch’s Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature)

Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature) painted in 1893 by Edvard Munch

Saturday 23rd June

My father’s mind was on another planet. He did not recognise the nurse when she came in. He could not recognise words said to him. It was not that his ears could not hear them; it was that his brain did not recognise their meaning.

Sunday 24th June

When we visited my father this afternoon, he was unable to communicate, staring blankly into the middle distance.

Monday 25th June 

My father told the nurses he felt pain this morning. So he will now be given an extra daytime tablet with a morphine-element in addition to the one he is given in the evening. His eyes stared, as if at something faraway and long ago. As I left and put the trolley tray by his bed, he looked at me and said: “There’s something not at all right with me.”

Tuesday 26th June

I had a 2-hour medical check-up in a BUPA building near King’s Cross.

London was sweltering in extraordinarily hot weather, but inside the building it was cool and relaxing. Later, I sent an e-mail to my friend Lynn, saying:

They say I’m getting into the start of being dangerously overweight and VERY slightly too cholesterolly. I do wonder if it was really necessary for the short Chinese gent to put his finger up my bottom to test for Prostate Cancer. Surely there must be another way to do this or was he just ‘avin’ a larf?

I phoned my mother around 6.00pm and she told me that, when she had visited my father in the afternoon, there had been no response to anything she or my aunt (his sister) said. His eyes were open but staring ahead. “I think he was drugged up to the eyeballs,” she told me. “I don’t think he’s in any pain.” (Later, the matron told me the medication he was on was not that strong and that they had not given him a daytime tablet to avoid making him zombie-like.)

At around 8.30pm, I was mowing the grass on my front garden. The matron phoned me on my mobile phone to tell me my father had deteriorated very badly and I arranged to leave at 10.00pm, to get to the nursing home around 11.30pm, telling my mother I was getting to her home in Clacton at 1.00am and not to wait up for me. I was going to see how he was at 11.30pm and decide what to do.

The matron rang back at 9.30pm to tell me the doctor had just been and said my father only had four to five hours left before he died, so I went immediately, told my mother I had been phoned by the matron and asked if she wanted to go to the home to see my father.

She said (quite rightly) No, with a sad, tired, tone to her voice, and I phoned her just after 11.05pm when I had gone in and seen my father briefly. I suggested my mother take her two nightly sleeping tablets and go to bed and I would stay with my father all night and phone her at 7.00pm when she got up. She knew it was terminal because she had told me where the undertaker was. There was some surprise in her voice when I phoned her:

“Is he still here?” she asked.

When I arrived, the nursing home’s night sister warned me he had deteriorated a lot since my mother had seen him this afternoon and warned me “his eyes are open”.

The first thing that shocked me when the door was opened, though, was the sound. I had never realised the phrase “death rattle” was anything more than a colourful phrase. It is an exact description. I had also thought it was a brief final sound rather than an ongoing sound.

It was a rhythmic, rasping sound.

His face was side-lit in the darkened room by a yellow-cream glow from a bedside table lamp sitting not on a table but on the floor of the room with old-fashioned floral wallpaper. It was bit like a Hammer horror movie of the late 1950s in slightly faded Technicolor.

His bed was behind the door and when I saw him lying there on his back in bed I was shocked again because his face was like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.

His false teeth were out, so his mouth was abnormally small considering it was open to its fullest extent, the skin between his upper lip and nose seemed wider than normal; and there was an indented line on his nose between his nostrils which, in profile, made him look like he had two noses.

He was lying on his back staring straight up at the ceiling with wide open, unblinking eyes as if he was shocked by something he saw on the ceiling. His head was tilted back slightly from his torso as if his head had been dropped into the soft pillow from a great height.

This tilted-back head, the shocked eyes, the open mouth all combined to make it look like he was frozen in a silent scream yet the sound coming out was a death rattle from his throat, as the air mattress beneath him made discreet little isolated cracking sounds presumably caused by the slight movements as his body made the rattling rasping breathing and his distended stomach rose and fell under the bedclothes.

The rattle was like a machine breathing through a very slightly echoey plastic tube partially blocked by air bubbles in water. I wondered if he was dead already, inside. It was as if his brain or heart must be telling his throat and chest to desperately gasp for air even though they knew it was pointless.

Towards the end, the rattle became less pronounced as the sound of the breaths within the rattle became slightly more human.

Towards the very end, the rattle slowly died out and human light breathing returned, getting gentler and gentler as his life ebbed away. When the breathing ended, I pressed the buzzer for the night sister.

When she arrived, there was some slight breathing again, but only for 40 or 60 seconds. For perhaps the last 15 seconds of his life, his mouth – until now rigidly open – partially closed then reopened three times, then his eyes slowly closed, his mouth partially closed and reopened twice more and he was dead, his eyes closed and mouth open. It was 00.35am and 22 seconds on Wednesday morning. I had arrived at about 11.03pm.

After he died, I went downstairs to the nursing home office with the night sister, whose father-in-law had died in the same room – Room 11 – of the same disease. I then went back up to the room where my father lay for 15 or 20 seconds during which time there were a couple of tiny surreal flashes through the window from the outside world.

When I went outside to my car, the black sky was flashing white with lightning. Every few seconds, the whole night-time sky was silently flashing white with increasing – but still silent – violence. On the drive back to my parents’ bungalow in Great Clacton, the flashes became whiter and more frequent and the thunder sound arrived. On the drive beside their front garden, small surreal white specks were being blown across the tarmac. When I got out of the car at my parents’ – now my mother’s – house, there was a neon-like flash of vertical lightning and a sound of rustling which continued for 60 or 90 seconds.

I took my bags inside the bungalow and then the rain started. Torrential rain thundering on the streets and windows and roof. Violent and angry rain.

It all struck me as unfathomably dramatic. My father’s death… then immediately the heavens in turmoil… then strong winds… then thunder crashes and angry, violent rain… As if the heavens, in turmoil, were protesting.

It reminded me of the death of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play.

I looked up the quote later:

There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

My father was a very ordinary man. Yet it was like the heavens were protesting.

Wednesday 27th June

In the morning, my father’s dead body lay on an occasionally cracking air bed in Room 11 of the nursing home.

People were talking about the dramatic overnight storm. The telephone lines had been cut at Weeley Crematorium but the fax line was working, so the funeral director could only talk to the crematorium by fax.

Thursday 28th June

The curate who will lead the service at my father’s funeral came round to chat to my mother.

“What was Harry like as a person?” he asked my mother.

“He was very placid,” she told him. “But if he was riled he would go through a brick wall. It would take an awful lot to get him riled, though.”

My mother partially broke down later in the day saying of the funeral: “It’s only his family that’s going to be there – only his family not my family.”

Almost immediately – within 15 seconds – the phone rang. It was her cousin Sybil ringing from Edinburgh to say she and husband Osmond (who is dying of cancer) would be coming down to the funeral.

Friday 29th June – Clacton

My mother partially broke down again in the evening.

“I’ve been worrying about this all day,” she cried to me. “When I said yesterday I had no family……. I’ve got you……. That was a terrible thing to say!”

Of course, when she had said there would be no members of her family at my father’s funeral, I had taken it the way she had meant it.

Her parents were dead. She was an only child. Almost.

She had had a brother. He died when (I think) he was aged 16 and she was 11.

Her parents had adored her brother. He was the perfect son.

My parents after their wedding

My parents married in the 1940s. My mother died in 2007, aged 86

My mother was born with no left hand – only a rounded stump. When she was a small girl, her mother told her: “Keep your left hand in your pocket. Don’t let anyone see.” She always hid her left hand from strangers.

Once, in the 1930s, she saw a man in a Glasgow street – she still remembers him clearly – leaning on the wall by an office doorway and she saw he “had exactly the same as me”. But he didn’t care if people saw it; he just behaved as if it was natural. “I wanted to talk to him but I didn’t,” she told me. “I wish I had.”

Before my mother married my father, my aunt (my father’s sister) told her: “I wish Henry could marry a whole woman.”

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… and, as my father dies from cancer…

My parents in Edinburgh, perhaps in the 1970s. Who knows?

My parents in Edinburgh. My mother is hiding her left hand. She was born with no left hand – only a stump. As a child, her mother told her: “Keep your left hand in your pocket. Don’t let anyone see.”

Over the last few weeks, I have been posting occasional extracts from my 2001 diary, when my father was dying of cancer. Here are some more extracts:

Saturday 16th June – Clacton

The other night, my mother’s cousin Sybil phoned. Her husband Osmond is dying very painfully of cancer in Scotland and her sister Daisy is visiting from the USA. Sybil almost broke down talking to my mother on the phone. Tonight, my mother said to me: “I think Sybil might be upset about Osmond. Or maybe she was just upset that Daisy was going home.”

Sunday 17th June – Clacton

Father’s Day. My mother did not want to visit my father today: she said it was too cold and windy outside. I went on my own. He was comparatively perky: when I went in, he was watching tennis on television. While I was there, lethargy slowly took him over but then he started watching TV tennis again and his brain was able to concentrate more on that.

Monday 18th June – Clacton

A neighbour came in, telling my mother that she thinks her son has managed to sell the family butcher’s business in Walthamstow, East London. It has been in the family for 60 years and the neighbour can remember when there were 9 or 10 staff. Now there is just her son and a couple of youngsters. The business has run down particularly recently because of BSE (Mad Cow Disease), the recent outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease and now scares even about chicken meat. She also says the area has become 75% Asian and they don’t shop in “our” (ie white) butchers’ shops.

Tuesday 19th June – Borehamwood/Greenwich

I went down to see comedian Malcolm Hardee in Greenwich. He is still living in a council flat opposite his club Up The Creek but has just bought a 22-tonne ship moored at Surrey Docks and he partly moved in today, courtesy of my Toyota’s boot. Since April, he has been sharing the council flat with another comedian. Malcolm told me the other comedian idolises him to the extent that he is now going round sleeping with women Malcolm has slept with in the past. Malcolm came home one night and found the other comedian “had just been shagging” an ex-girlfriend of Malcolm and was even wearing Malcolm’s dressing gown.

On the phone, my mother told me that my father today was “very confused and very yellow – jaundiced”. When telling me how confused he was, she got very confused.

Wednesday 20th June – Clacton/Colchester

When my mother and I visited the nursing home in the afternoon, we were told that, in the morning, my father had been bleeding a lot of “frank fresh blood” from his bottom, but it had stopped itself before the nurses came in. “Frank” is a medical term apparently just meaning “fresh” too. My father was confused, with a faraway look in his eye and slightly yellow, but not as badly jaundiced as when my mother saw him yesterday. When I left the nursing home, the matron told me (alone) that she thought the liver cancer was taking over.

In the evening, my mother and I went to Colchester for the arranged appointment with the bowel consultant and his associate the cancer consultant. The appointment – as it had been a month ago – was supposed to be with my father, but he is in no condition to travel from Clacton to Colchester.

My father was given two liver function tests two weeks apart (the second one yesterday morning) as well as one after the operation. The one after the operation was OK though not very good. The one given two weeks ago was worse. And the one given yesterday was worse still. We were told that there could be several reasons for my father’s jaundice and physical weakness.

The bowel consultant described the arteries going into the liver as like a tree. There’s the thick main trunk, then less thick branches, then thinner and thinner branches. When he operated, the tumour seemed to be tucked away, not affecting any serious part of the tree. It could have moved and be affecting a more important branch, preventing bile being drained off and causing jaundice/lack of energy. Or the cancer could have started to take over significant percentages of the liver, preventing it functioning more and more. If the latter was the problem, there was nothing that could be done.

If the former was the problem, then they could put in an ERCP – a small plastic tube. This is inserted via the mouth into the liver. It might drain away some of the bile, alleviating the jaundice and lack of energy problem.

In order to know the cause of the jaundice, they would have to give him an ultrasound scan in Colchester – he would have to come up from Clacton for the day. If – and only if – the problem could be treated by the plastic tube, then he would have to come up to Colchester again for the insertion of the tube and he would return to Clacton the following day. If – and only if – the tube was effective, then his jaundice and energy problem might be slightly alleviated and there was a chance – but only a chance – that his liver function test results might return to what they had been three tests ago and, at that point it might – but only might – be possible to give him chemotherapy treatment.

The decision for us was whether we wanted to put him through that process for the possible result. My mother’s reaction was to say: “Is it worth it?” She didn’t think so. Neither did I.

Returning to Clacton, I stopped off at the nursing home at 7.45pm where my father’s GP had been due to see him at 7.30pm. I waited until 8.00pm talking to the night supervisor. She was horrified at the very thought of my father being subjected to any trip to Colchester: “He’d never make it,” she told me. When he is taken to the commode in the mornings now, they mostly have to use a hoist for him because he hasn’t the strength to go supported by two nurses. He is basically, now, incontinent and, before I arrived, he had been again bleeding from his bottom though slightly less so than this morning.

The GP eventually came around at 9.15pm after going to an emergency elsewhere. He has prescribed daily 30mg doses of pain reliever MXL, which includes some morphine… and three 2mg doses per day of the steroid Dexamethasone to try and relieve the liver. When the GP saw him, my father was very confused, saying he lives in Thorpe-le-Soken (a village several miles away), is eating very well and is going home soon.

The night supervisor had told me that, this morning, my father looked at her and said fatalistically: “I’m not going anywhere, am I?”

Back home, my mother partly broke down in my arms. After I had phoned to tell my aunt (my father’s sister) the news, my mother said to me: “She’s hard as nails. Last night she said to me…” then partly broke down again.

Last night, my aunt told my mother: “We’re going to lose him.”

Breaking down, my mother told me: “That doesn’t help…”

“The meeting with the bowel doctor was a big shock to you?” I asked my mother.

“Yes,” she told me, “I’d hoped against hope.”

I think this may be the first time she has fully accepted he is going to die. She blamed herself (unjustly) that he cannot come back home because she cannot cope. And she is deeply upset at the decision she has now taken not to drag him to Colchester for the ultrasound and possibly also the ERCP treatment. “We can’t put him through it,” she told me, partly breaking down.

Thursday 21st June – Clacton

The matron told me that the GP last night found my father so confused he thought there might be secondary tumours in the brain. I noticed my father was no longer wearing his wedding ring. I guessed his fingers had become so thin that it had simply slipped off.

Friday 22nd June – Borehamwood/Clacton

As soon as I got back to Borehamwood, my mobile phone rang – it was the matron at my father’s nursing home. My mother and aunt had walked in to see him and found him lying back with his mouth open, apparently not breathing (and, as I later found out, his false teeth dropped down from his upper gum), a spoon in his hand and a bowl of jelly in front of him. My aunt, a former nurse, found he had no pulse.

The nursing home matron was up in the room within about a minute and found he had a strong pulse but, by this time, both my mother and aunt were in tears.

I drove to Clacton from Borehamwood in the early Friday rush hour – about 2 hours 45 mins instead of the normal 90 minutes – to find my father looking dramatically thinner, bonier than he had when I saw him yesterday afternoon. I got there around 6.30pm by which time my mother and aunt were dry-eyed but still twitchily upset. I drove them back to their homes around 7.00pm – my mother broke down in my arms – and then I went back to the nursing home where my father was asleep. When I had left, I told my father:

“I’ll be about half an hour.”

“You’ll be back – and the boatman?” he asked me.

“The boatman?”

“The boatman.”


When I got back, I asked my father if he felt hot.

“I really don’t know,” he replied.

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While my father is about a fortnight away from death in 2001, life goes on

My father and mother on Clacton seafront

My father and mother on the seafront at Clacton in Essex, UK

In the last few weeks, I have been posting extracts from my 2001 diary, when my father was dying – quite quickly – from cancer.

In the extracts below, he is still alive but only about a fortnight away from death – which, of course, I did not know.

Thursday 7th June – Clacton

I voted in Borehamwood this morning. There were three voting slips despite the fact I am only aware of there being two elections. One was for today’s General Election; one for a local election. I have not the faintest idea what the third slip was for, but fear I may have subscribed to Readers’ Digest.

Then it was off to Clacton to drive my mother to vote, take her for lunch and shopping, go visit my father in the nursing home, then take my mother to her GP to re-dress her scab. It now looks like a miniature deep-pan pizza.

Friday 8th June – Clacton

We were told that, from Monday, the local Clacton health authority will pay for my father’s costs at the nursing home. Until then, we will have to continue paying.

Saturday 9th June – Clacton

My mother does not like going to the nursing home: seeing the man who was always physically stronger than her and who has always ‘looked after’ her lie in bed weak of mind and body. The irony is watching your partner fall apart physically and mentally in front of your eyes and not realise it’s happening to yourself too.

My eye is mending. The previously bloody half is now mostly yellow with vertical red streaks and most of the blood has now gone below the pupil, so if I raise my eye to heaven, it looks like my pupil is supported on a pillar of blood.

Sunday 10th June – Clacton

Sometimes I wonder how I will die and, if it is to be in bed like my father, think it would be good to allow my brain to drift off into a fantasy world, allowing the whirling confusion to take over and go with it. Flowing with the stream of consciousness.

Monday 11th June – Borehamwood

My mother told me, on the phone, that when she arrived at the nursing home, my father had been watching TV and knew the names of the people he had been watching.

Tuesday 12th June – Borehamwood

My mother told me my father was quite chatty again.

Wednesday 13th June – Clacton

I went with my mother to visit my father. He was a little brighter but still terribly confused and unable to put his new hearing aid in properly.

Malcolm Hardee rang up this afternoon to tell me he has “bought a ship – not a boat – off a man in Ware”. He says he is going to live on it at Surrey Quays in Rotherhithe……Why do I think this is all going to end in nudity and flames?


Three months later, the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York.

Four years later, Malcolm Hardee fell in the water and drowned, while walking a few feet to his boat in Rotherhithe.

So it goes.

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As my father dies of cancer, there is a slapstick moment

In the last few weeks, I have posted occasional extracts from my electronic diary in 2001, when my father was dying from cancer. I will continue until he does/did. The extracts below are a strange interlude:

My father’s father was a Merchant Navy captain

My father’s father died when my father was 3.

Saturday 2nd June 2001 – Clacton

Driving to Clacton in the morning, it was like someone sticking a needle in my right eyeball. When I looked in the mirror, there was a vertical line of red blood in the white to one side of my pupil.

At the nursing home, my father asked me: “What do you think?”

“About what?” I asked.

“About me going home. I was thinking about the cost to your mother.”

I explained she couldn’t cope with him being in bed 24 hours per day, couldn’t support him to the toilet (he needs two nurses and a zimmer frame) and he needed professional tending.

“Do you agree?” he asked my mother. She nodded. I think she is frightened he might come home and she might somehow have to try to physically cope.

In the evening, my mother phoned her friend Doug in Canada to tell him about my father’s illness, his operation and the fact he is now in a nursing home. Doug’s wife answered and my mother was flustered.

“I couldn’t remember what I was phoning for,” she explained to me afterwards.

Sunday 3rd June 2001 – Clacton

My eye is still sore, the blood spreading in the bottom half of the outer white of my right eye. I presume it is a burst blood vessel.

Monday 4th June 2001 – Borehamwood

My eye was still achy so I popped into an optician who said it was a burst blood vessel and it would last a week. She recommended I have my general blood pressure tested but do nothing. The right hand white of my eye is white and the left hand white is doing an impression of the closing scenes of The Wild Bunch.

Tuesday 5th June 2001 – Clacton

My eye is itchy like taut skin.

At the nursing home, my father’s hand was cold and he said he was cold.

Until now, since the operation, he has been boiling hot.

Wednesday 6th June 2001 – Borehamwood

Just for safety, I popped into my GP this morning to ask about my eye. He too, immediately, said it was a blood vessel and said it would take about two weeks to clear. He too said to do nothing. I did not mention blood pressure to the GP but he volunteered: “It’s got nothing to do with blood pressure, but I’ll test it anyway,” and did the tight-thing-round-the-arm blood pressure test.

I asked if it could have anything to do with glaucoma and he immediately said no. (I have glaucoma on both sides of my family: it is incurable once it sets in, but can be prevented if caught at an early stage, so I have annual glaucoma tests.)

As I walked to the doctor’s surgery, I was looking at an interesting row of houses to my right and walked straight into a concrete lamp post in the middle of the pavement – right full-force into my left temple, left cheekbone, left leg of my spectacles and left knee of my leg. I have never found slapstick particularly humorous but this was real Harold Lloyd stuff.

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