This morning a bone scan at Addenbrooke’s. Tonight the results of my biopsy. Tomorrow a repeated CT scan to check whether lymph activity is still in place. For me, the perfect storm. My vivid narrative ‘what-ifs’ – played back again and again during the times of the most intense health anxiety – always featured multiple investigations with lengthy periods of waiting before the omniscient (and thus omnipotent) doctors revealed their verdicts.
And here I am now, within that perfectly imagined narrative. And has it achieved its putative objective of acquainting me with every possible outcome, including the worst? No. In spite of the histology-based scenarios outlined by an oncologist I have no reason to mistrust, the fear remains in place, undiluted, pure and potent. Why? For all my three years of counselling and constant self-interrogation, in terms of a delineated outline of what forces have shaped me and brought me to this point, I’m none the clearer.
When we’re born we come into the world in anger and confusion: all this cruel light, this abrasive air, the tyranny of gravity, these harsh voices… And then, as we breathe deep and the world embraces us, we embrace the world.
From which point the heart becomes that eternal clock, the one whose muffled, unregarded tick never falters. And life lives us, drawing us on through pleasure and pain, rewarding the activated senses and healing the spirit and the flesh. We need do no more than eat, drink, sleep, love and be loved and, however disorientating the nighttime dreams, we wake into certainty and rise into light.
All of which – within the constraints of occasional pauses for existential reflection – was my experience until 7 years ago when I got cancer. From the point of diagnosis I had to begin the entirely counter-intuitive process of recognising that within me now was the agency of my death. If simply ignored, at some point the cancer would grow to untenable size and it would metastasise, moving onto soft tissue and bones so as eventuality to stifle life functions, at which point I would die.
Fortunately progress towards its blind self-extinction inside the host that, if ignored, it would certainly kill has been slow. With the help of my oncologist, I have been able to monitor its movement and he has assured me that, with necessary management by him, I should be able to head towards my 80s in whatever strength and vigour I can maintain through self-care. By which time, he asserts with all the informed optimism of a medical man whose own health will be subject at that point to the depredations of ageing, dynamic strategies currently in preparation will then be readily available.
I’m close now to the beginning of the treatment processes necessary to keep the cancer under control. Nothing as invasive and peripherally destructive as chemotherapy, but still involving the introduction into my system of materials not natural to my metabolism. I shall have to exercise and I shall have to regulate further a diet that acknowledges cancer already so that my general health – whose overall robustness reflects both my parents’ genes – will be sustained.
None of which practical activity alarms me greatly. Bridges will be crossed on arrival and provided that I know they’re a firm and stable part of the route, I’ll negotiate them readily. What will take a great deal more courage, resolve and positivity is anxiety management. Since 2008 I have been prone to chronic attacks of dread and the despair that results when all reason fails to dispel it. Both counselling (most of it useless, some of it invaluable) and self-analysis have begun to account historically for these terrifying and disabling torrents of emotional activity and the anxiety is now in the main spasmodic and transient. But there remains at its root a simple, undiluted fear of dying. Not of death as such, but of my atrophying, dwindling, withering towards extinction with those I love and who love me fading away around me. A common enough horror, of course, but one whose detailed, narrative malignancy is unique to each individual.
So I’m about to move from that state of personal immortality – the quiet, unarticulated certainty that, for all the sometime terrors, life is living me and I need do no more than float within its current – to a state of staying alive as result of direct intervention. I must indeed now ‘strive officiously to stay alive’. What I can’t know at this point is how that’s going to affect my existential consciousness – whether it will provoke in me a sense of massively increased fragility and vulnerability or whether it will promote instead an enhanced sense of the value-beyond-reckoning of the moment. I have a notion that although the assaults upon its integrity will many and constant, the latter sense is more likely to prevail.
Finally, I have to make it clear to the demons and saboteurs whose work confounds our best hopes and intentions (and a tenacious, bone-deep apparent belief in whose existence confounds my atheism!) that I am aware of the certainty of raid and ambush. That the interposition of nothing malign and morbid – heart attack, neurological decay, dementia – would surprise me on my way towards, into and (who knows?) through my 70s and 80s. Staying alive is an aspiration backed up by my oncologist’s knowledge of my now long histology; the precise vicissitudes of everything else are as unpredictable as the next moment. Or the next, or the next…
I wrote my first poem at the age of 15. It was a war poem depicting my experiences in the trenches during the first Battle of the Somme. Or, to be more accurate, distilling the experiences of a range of the First World War poets we were studying at the time and then filtering them onto the page via my attempts at jaded profundity within an ABAB rhyme scheme. Shortly after that I performed a similar service for the then very current Beat poets, distilling and then filtering onto the page their accounts of narcotics-fuelled road trips between New York City and San Francisco and the sexual marathons that took place both at either end and in transit. In these early poetic endeavours I was very fortunate to have the patient and forbearing support of my English teacher, the poet Brian Merrikin Hill. He would read these feverish creations carefully and manage through the elegantly tactful manipulation of his critiques to encourage me further whilst suggesting gently that I try to tackle themes a little closer to home.
There’s no doubt in my mind all these years on that without Brian’s gentle, tactful support at that time, my verse-making would have been limited to the hormone-driven years of adolescence. But beyond my own callow attempts at emulating the war poets and the Beats, Brian instilled in me and many of my contemporaries an enduring love of poetry and a recognition of its unique role in the deployment of language beyond all of its semantic and expressive limitations. Everything that I have written in the decades since my five years at Wennington School has sprung from an active taproot running back to that time.
Deriving from that period too is a sense of identity. In an unfussy, unpretentious way, Brian established the status of ‘poet’ as being as legitimate and substantive a self-ascribed status within the arts as ‘painter’ or ‘musician’ or ‘dancer’. For all that those nomenclatures carry with them a set of procedures and disciplines linked with specifically applied skills – the wielding of a paintbrush, the plying of a bow, the bending of the body around the dictates of a musical soundtrack – the fact that all that the poet wielded, plied or bent were the words that are accessible to all of us in no way limited or constrained the poet’s creative role and its potential achievements.
I have always seen these two acquisitions as gifts and I’ve cherished them as such. Their value to me and the particular resonance of that time and place were enhanced greatly in 1986 when I paid a visit to Brian Hill in his little bungalow on the Wennington School estate. Sadly, the school had closed 11 years earlier, but Brian and his family had security of tenure on the house. Before I called round I wandered through the two or three acres of mixed woodland contained within the school grounds and re-visited the three-story sandstone mansion that had housed the main part of the school. And I was, of course, subject to the nostalgia attendant on all such re-visitings. All the agonies of the teenage years notwithstanding, I had enjoyed my five years there and was conscious even as I rejected authority and embraced modish and pretentious rebellion that I was absorbing influences and energies that I would carry forward with me. Brian and I talked subsequently of those years and, generous again, he offered to read anything that might be upcoming in the poetry line.
That visit had the immediate and dynamic effect of coupling the continuing drive to write, manifest up to that point in a largely random and unfocussed form and style, with a new, refined sense of the coalescence of past and present; of the seamlessness of the junction between early emotional experience and the more evolved self. It’s from 1986 that I date the writing of the poetry that has, for me, approached most closely in the product the fulfilment of the process undertaken. And I perceive all of the work that has emerged between that time and up to 2015 as having, for all of its thematic or stylistic disparity, an underlying continuity of intention and purpose.
But it was in 2015 that I stopped writing poetry. I’d had fallow periods within the nearly 30 years between those two key dates. But during them I retained a constant sense of a conduit to the place of creativity remaining open. It was always more a case of the need to draw breath, to recharge the batteries that powered the familiar procedures that would draw a poem up from inchoate, pre-verbal form into language. And always that charge did build up and I each time resumed the process.
But somehow I knew from the start of this particular cessation of activity that it was qualitatively different. That conduit was closed; no current fed the batteries; not a phrase or a word floated into being. The silence was total and it consumed all the familiar territories within which a poem would grow from a nascent whisper to its final crafted form. And so it is now: I can read and recognise and appreciate, but I can’t write. I feel the loss more keenly than I can say. It’s like the dysphonia that robs the singer of the power to sing: I feel all the need, the urgency, to transform the winds and currents that still arise regularly into the form that once defined my creativity, but I can’t utter a note. I’ve tried all manner of strategies, either to re-open that conduit or to find a new route down to the old, familiar place, but I’m denied access.
Two activities help to dull the edge of the feeling of abandonment – teaching and music. The former absorbs time, provides a sense of purpose and allows for a level of generative activity. The latter caters – unstintingly so far, thank God – for the other area of creative activity that has sustained me through the years. But neither of them compensates for the withdrawal of the exclusively personal, self-contained creativity that’s afforded by poetry. Maybe it will return as unaccountably as it departed. But until that event (and how I have tried to avoid the upcoming loaded word with its overtones of circumstantial melodrama!) I have to sustain what amounts to a feeling of bereavement whereby my sense of self is irremediably damaged. Life goes on; laughter prevails; I get up in the morning and go to work with a will. But poetry – the writing of it, the sharing of it with fellow poets, the reading of it out loud – is conspicuous by its entire absence and I wish daily that this were not the case.
The band that emerged from the dismembering of the Drama Band we called Big Sur, named after the wild coastal region of Central California redolent of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and the wide-open spaces of our shared sense of a mythical America. Initially no more than a theoretical extension of Robin’s guitar and my bass for the few weeks that it took to conjure dreams into auditions, a form and substance emerged remarkably quickly as the Melody Maker small ads did their magic. First of all, PJ on vocals, 4-string guitar and songwriting and Len on bongoes joined us from Goldsmiths’ and South-East London School respectively. But it was at this point that the key member of the next few incarnations of Robin’s and my musical collaboration and beyond came into the circle. From Halifax in West Yorkshire, Keith Washington was an English student at London University. He played a 12-string acoustic guitar, he had a fine singing voice and he wrote songs. Keith’s sense of humour, his tolerance of the circuitous routes whereby we arrived at our musical solutions and his sense of his own place in the setup from the start sealed the deal. And overall shared good will, mutual regard, respect for each other’s distinctive abilities and a readiness to just let the sum of the parts find its own level and outlet produced something of real musical value.
Big Sur’s music was airy and expansive, strummed and plucked on acoustic guitars with primitive contact mics fitted, a homemade lap-dulcimer, a mandolin and a bowl-backed Greek bouzouki that I’d brought back from Cyprus. Initially, we occupied the same whimsical, genre melting-pot territory as such contemporary ‘weirdfolk’ outfits as the Incredible String Band, Comus, Dando Shaft and Doctor Strangely Strange, Robin’s gnomish musical imagination and my rather self-consciously off-the-wall lyrics pushing the direction. As time passed musicians came and went as ever, particularly drummers/percussionists and with them the style morphed and evolved according to what characteristic each brought into the band. But the core of Big Sur comprised Robin on ‘string-driven things’ (guitar, mandolin, the bouzouki and the dulcimer), Keith on 12-string guitar and vocals, PJ on his 4-string guitar and lead vocals, myself on bass guitar and various whistles and Len on bongos and hand-drums.
The great virtue of the band was this readiness on the part of its members to adopt and adapt. Robin’s strange serpentine melodies and surreal lyrics – the weirdfolk touchstone with its compound of surreal whimsy and degree-level high-brow melded with Keith’s romantic and very hooky ballads. There was, during the earlier times at least, a real honesty and authenticity to our aims and achievements. Our overall approach didn’t arise from the wilful eclectic perversity that had so many of the cross-genre bands of that time disappearing up their own musical orifices; we were genuinely intrigued and excited by the possibilities of synthesising diverse influences. Which is not to say, however, that we were guided constantly by a corresponding awareness of the need for an element of structure and discipline. Rather sadly, and definitely counter-productively, such concepts were seen as belonging to the old order and so we were driven more by an uneasy balance of organic process and chance. But that collective sense of there being nothing so unfashionable, so off-genre, so outré that it wouldn’t be up for consideration was very liberating. And so Robin’s extraordinary multi-movement galactic dream In Space sat comfortably alongside Keith’s lament for stalled romance Going Wrong. And my apocalyptic World War X1 might follow comfortably Robin’s entirely wacky Adult Tree Ballad.
Gigs were spasmodic (and sadly the Marquee managed to bill us as ‘The Big Fir’!) But the Oval House continued to provide us with hospitality and having it as a headquarters enabled us to work on content and presentation. Nick Condron’s friend Robin Murray-Rogers stuck with us and we continued to feature a light show. Robin’s multi-instrumentalist brother Jed joined briefly on various keyboards and Alison Martin’s words and movement contributions maintained a link with the Drama Band’s espousal of mixed-media performance.
With a base, we were also able to make overtures to those that we thought might be able to advance our cause. For a short while we had the attention of the Waldman brothers, the hard-headed duo behind the legendary Middle Earth club in Covent Garden at which both the Nervous System and Tintagel had had regular bookings. There was talk of management and a publishing contract with Middle Earth Music, the publishing arm of the record label that they set up following the demise of the club. They put a few prestigious gigs our way (including an appearance as ‘The Big Fir’ in support of their star outfit the Writing on the Wall at the Marquee). But we fell just short of signing the contracts that they’d already written up after a chaotic session convened to seal the deal. Equipment shed sparks everywhere; we managed to generate no sparks at all.
So as we fizzed and crackled, misfired and stalled the usual bail-outs took place. Much as with Pete Currie and I three years previously, Robin and I stayed constant, as did Keith, and gradually what passed for balance in the resolutely asymmetrical Big Sur was restored. However, the absurdity of a band name known only to readers of Jack Kerouac and/or Henry Miller or to backpacking Californians escaping the city became apparent to us. The usual list-making took place and after pondering such dope-derived options as Ra, Penguin Dust, Sleeveless Tree, Toadwater and Vacuum Shoes, we reverted to Tintagel, picked ourselves up and motored on.
At around this crossover point, as a result of a contact made concerning a record he played on his show, BBC DJ Pete Drummond took an active interest and soon became a very practical friend of the band, featuring us on two of his late night Radio 1 Sounds of the Seventies. There survive rickety recordings of a couple of numbers, both taped with a cassette recorder mic placed next to a portable radio at the time of the programme’s transmission. In Space is probably the most representative of them all in its fruit salad of influences and inspirations. It’s very much of its time: the product of a generation still breathing in the fumes of that heady herbal mixture of West and East – of the likes of Lewis Carroll, Arthur Rackham, Isaac Asimov, and Tolkein blended with cod Zen, the Beats’ take on the Sanskrit Vedas and the fragrance of patchouli oil and the Bengali bong. Here it is, filtered somewhat through GarageBand, but still sounding very much as though life is imitating art and the signal is being downloaded from some distant star cluster. Keith Washington is singing the lead with harmonies from Robin, myself and supplementary guitarist Kent Parker. I’m playing a very battered bamboo whistle, its dividing strands held together with cellotape and with four tracks available to us Robin has dubbed on a slide solo from a zither made out of boxwood and mandolin strings. Robin and Kent are playing acoustic and electric guitars and I’m playing my Hofner ‘Violin’ bass.
Recording at the Beeb’s famous Maida Vale studios – all functional uniform grey 8-track reel-to-reel tape recorders clad in mellow-grained wooden cabinets – was exciting. Following the broadcasts we waited for the high-tide to bring in messages from stunned listeners and competing record producers. But like yesterday’s local broadcast news our 15 minutes of psych-folk floated up into the ionosphere, ending up, appropriately enough, somewhere in space.
We re-trenched at Oval House for a while before having to relinquish our small corner of the premises to a mime troupe who were actually getting regular work. Gigs for us were by now fewer and further between and when we did pull in the odd prestigious ones, technical problems caused by terminal equipment decay and narcotic confusion generally rendered them patchy at best. But, as ever at that time, we were simply unable to draw a pragmatic distinction between the cheerful, hazy, fume-filled chaos of our daily lives and the ordered routines of practice and performance. A few decent gigs lifted spirits and aspirations a little. But rehearsals in Robin’s tiny bedroom in Goblin City, the shabby Victorian villa he shared with his two brothers, descended all too often into giggling cacophony within which only we could hear the sound of the lost chord.
By the end of 1970 the elusive charms of 30-minute acoustic jams fuelled by marathon smoking sessions began to elude even the musicians adrift inside them. So in a burst of unaccustomed energy and resolve, we brought in three new recruits – Vern Cochrane, an American drummer with his own kit, a van and high-credibility shoulder-length curly hair plus full beard; Steve Moorby, a young guitarist/vocalist of prodigious ability, and Jenny Holland, a Californian flautist/vocalist on the London leg of a home university scholarship to study ancient Greek music. For a while it worked startlingly well and with the musical blandishments brought in by Steve and Jenny, we levered ourselves up and out of our Wonderland whimsy and into something with a real cutting edge. Steve’s stinging, light-gauge string guitar work, reminiscent of up-and-coming Richard Thompson (although entirely of Steve’s own generation) brought a rock front line sound to the band for the first time. And Jenny’s enormous positivity and sharp musical intelligence imposed a discipline and structure that we’d pretty much lost.
The core of the band. This was taken shortly before Vern Cochrane and Jenny Holland joined, From left to right: DJ, Steve Moorby, Keith Washington, Robin Stone.
Apart from a couple of quirky arrangements, our material was still all self-written. Keith and Robin provided the bulk of the songs, with Robin using some lyrics by me. Within a week or two of Steve’s joining Tintagel, I gave him the words of a song I’d just written. Called Drunk in a Gale, it depicted via a series of vaguely apocalyptic images the existential distress that was at the centre of so many songs at that time. The melody and arrangement that Steve provided fitted the narrative perfectly – in fact, arguably, it lent a dignity to the somewhat overwrought words that they didn’t really merit! And from that point a creative deal was sealed and the nomenclature ‘Moorby/Jones’ appeared at the bottom of a rising pile of typed-out manuscripts.
Rocking hard, but still with quirkiness in full flow, we managed a couple more Radio 1 broadcasts, this time on Jon Curle’s late night show Nightride. We also got through to the semi-finals of the prestigious national annual Melody Maker Rock and Folk contest, beating bands across the country to the punch and for a while it seemed very much as though we might be insinuating our way back into the commercial-but-with-credibility stakes. Writing contracts signed with folk-rock band Lindisfarne’s publisher Hazy Music for Keith, Robin and Steve and I seemed to confirm the upward trajectory. Barbara Hayes, the chain-smoking Central Casting one-woman dynamo behind the operation fought our corner for several heroic months, pinging her various lines of communication along the complex network of DJs, A&R men, producers and agents that linked the vast jungle-floor tangle of bands and singer/songwriters with the movers and shakers at the top.
Sadly, events sometimes run counter-intuitively to deeper currents and for all of the advances that these few months produced, the sum total of the disparate parts, musical and, increasingly, inter-personally, didn’t gel for long and once again the band began to falter. Musical allegiances once strong and friendships once binding began to unravel. Keith’s subtle, melodic, well-crafted songs were increasingly out of kilter with the edgier, rockier direction in which we were moving and in one of those cowardly coups managed by ‘phone call and letter, he was dropped from the lineup. However, there was no clear consensus as to what that new direction should constitute and with Jenny’s departure for Greece in pursuit of her studies, Vern’s divisive manoeuvrings and Robin’s increasingly fragmented commitment to a common cause, Steve and I (also conscience-stricken about the dismissal of Keith) found ourselves increasingly uncomfortable within the band. Time passed; the gigs dried up; the Hazy Music contracts were discontinued; the increasingly recalcitrant Vern was dumped, and rehearsals at Goblin City became increasingly directionless and fragmented and then increasingly infrequent. Robin took a musical break in a function band with brother Jed on the Isle of Man and with his departure Tintagel died quietly and undramatically, leaving just Steve and I, a songwriting duo without a band.