Back to nursery

Today Casper did his first day at nursery since covid-19 tilted the world off its axis.

He’d only just settled again after the Christmas break when he had to stop going, when we started shielding. A lot has happened since then. Devon seems to be managing the disease better than the rest of the country. Both Casper’s condition and his medication (still twice a day, every day; still working) have been downgraded, so we no longer have to shield. I have worked from home, been furloughed, and am now partially furloughed and working again, three days a week. Nora managed to go back to school to do the last few weeks of her reception year. I had many detailed conversations with his medical team about community transmission rates and infection control and risk vs reward.

He sauntered down our driveway to the car this morning, telling me he was “going to nursery to play with my friends”. I was so proud. When we got there, of course, he cried, but apart from not eating lunch and being a bit sad after his nap he had pretty happy day apparently. I nearly cried on the drive there, as it occurred to me that – aside from the last couple of Tuesdays, when he’s been with grandparents – I’ve looked after him (and his sister) all day, every day, for the last six months.

And then, when Em told me at lunchtime that he’d be going to nursery again tomorrow – which I kind of knew on an intellectual level but clearly had not processed emotionally – I cried in the kitchen.

I’ve had prolonged, close care with Nora – two summers ago, when this all kicked off and he was in hospital all the time – but not with Casper, and I’ve cherished it. Obviously not every second – circumstances have not been easy – but for the most part being primary carer for my children has been wonderful. Especially Casper, for two reasons; two is a fun age, and also because, for so long, we had that paranoia that we wouldn’t have this kind of time with him. Em always used to say that she felt he was temporary, that he was only loaned to us when he was a baby. I must ask her if she still feels that way. Dark moments come every so often, but they’re fewer and further between for me now (especially since the waking nightmares about drug supply chains have dissipated after the first few months of covid-19). I feel like he’s going to be with us for a long time now.

The portrayal of childhood cancer in BBC hospital drama ‘Casualty’

Catchy undergraduate essay title, huh?

Em and I watch Casualty most Saturday nights. We have since we first moved in together. It’s something we both watched as kids, and it’s a little bit of routine, something to turn your brain off too (but not too much). We’re not religious about it – if we wanna do something else, we will, and in the age of streaming TV we often actually watch it on a Sunday or a Tuesday – but it’s an easy choice when faced with almost infinite options.

Watching the childhood cancer story unroll over the last few months has been… odd. Like, I imagine, many medical situations, it is being played for drama rather than realism. It’s not exactly triggering to us, but it is frustrating, because it doesn’t chime at all with our own experience of Casper’s cancer. Here’s just a few reasons why.

• Childhood cancer for most families means lots and lots of (expensive) travel. OK, so Faith and Lev both work at a large city hospital, but they’ve never had to go anywhere else. They even had a magic foreign super consultant fly over to them. They’ve never had to spend a night away in a house run by a cancer charity, for instance, or set up a ‘go bag’ that they leave by the front door in case they need to rush to hospital in the middle of the night with a temperature.
• Neither Lev nor Faith have taken any significant time off work to care for their ill child, and they regularly leave him on his own in a paediatric oncology ward for lengthy and uncomfortable chemotherapy sessions while they work. I have never – not once – seen a child left alone on a paediatric oncology ward for longer than it takes for a parent to go to the toilet. And in most cases two parents have been present most of the time, especially in the early, intense days.
• There’s a LOT of waiting involved in any cancer treatment. A LOT. Not for a course of treatment to begin necessarily, but just waiting… for the consultant to see another patient, for the nurse to arrive with the chemo gear, for a cup of tea, while treatment actually happens, while your child is in the operating theatre, etc etc etc. It’s oftentimes a very boring process. I know we’re dealing with a 50 minute weekly hospital drama, but they could have made a not towards this. Time passes quicker with a montage!
• The consultant was one of the least supportive and empathetic character I’ve ever seen on television. Ours have been nothing but caring and kind. Not once have we had a meeting with a consultant about our child’s health that took place across a desk like a scary job interview. I once cried my eyes out in a hospital school classroom while the consultant gave me a hug. Stony-faced paediatric oncologists don’t exist in my experience.
• Proton Beam Therapy – the magic bullet that seems like it might offer hope of a cure for Luka – is only actually available (as far as we can tell from google) at two hospitals in the UK: in London and Manchester. More travel. Yet Luka seems to be having it in Holby, during Lev and Faith’s normal working day. I understand the logistics and drama of TV programmes, but honestly the travelling and expense thereof (and all the sandwiches you buy) are some of the most emblematic (and problematic) things about childhood cancer. We were fortunate not to need to travel much, and I was still up and down the M5 to Bristol an awful, awful lot.
• Who’s looking after their other kids? What’s happened to them?
• Not a whiff of a social worker or a counsellor.
• Or their extended families.
• Or drug companies, research trials, medical journal articles, etc etc. Luka’s cancer, like Casper’s, is rare and weird.
• Or, and this might be the most egregious absence, the level of charitable support that is not just available and offered but symbiotic with and essential to the ‘standard’ NHS care. Exeter’s paediatric oncology ward would not function remotely like it does without the CLIC Sargent nurses and social worker. There is not enough money in the system (and yes this is political – fund the NHS not just adequately but SUMPTUOUSLY, sod HS2; make massive global corporations pay their fucking taxes) to provide proper childhood cancer treatment and support, so the system is propped up by charities. Don’t get me wrong, I am VERY grateful for those charities, but that they need to exist in the first place is a disgusting failing of our society and economy. Casualty’s been quite full-on about NHS funding in recent times, and this seems like a missed opportunity to hammer that message home again. As a parent of a child with cancer I wouldn’t be offended at childhood cancer being used as a crowbar for a political message – I’m offended at it NOT being. Cancer is political like EVERYTHING ELSE in life.

I appreciate that Casualty is a drama about the people and trauma encountered in a hospital emergency department and not a drama about childhood cancer. I also appreciate that our experience of childhood cancer is not universal – everyone will have different experiences, and perhaps for some the plight of Luka and Faith and Lev will absolutely ring true. But it really doesn’t for me.

Your Wilderness Revisited, by William Doyle

Apparently familiarity expands space but contracts time: when asked to draw maps of places they know, people inflate the scale while also underestimating the time it takes to travel between locations. What does this say about the suburbs? I’m not sure yet, but I feel like it’s reaching towards something mildly profound about the relationship between memory and place. It’s certainly a phenomena that I can identify with – revisiting lately the places that I knew earlier in my life I’m often struck by how small they seem; seeing clearly the boundary of fields that in my memory stretched forever. The idea that ‘it was all fields round here (when I was young)’ takes on an extra dimension when you acknowledge that this was only in your mind.

I have spent a substantial amount of my life (mainly childhood and teenage years but also chunks of my adulthood) walking and cycling around parochial hinterlands, seaside commuter towns, and city suburbs, exploring and observing the fascinating, complex mundanity. The cyclepaths that follow and traverse the river Exe and its canal; purpose-built routes through new developments on the edge of the city to shuttle you safely to Swedish homeware stores; bridleways along the backs of terraced garden walls; estates of 1930s semi-detacheds; 70s developments modelled on heritage villages, backed by woodland and farms. An entire estate you didn’t know existed half an hour ago, all those lives. Joining up the topography, watching the houses get newer and newer (and then older again) as you move further out from the centre. I grew up in an end-terrace on a cul-de-sac only two years older than me, playing football and listening to friends strum Beatles songs on acoustic guitars in twice-yearly mown fields rather than municipal parks. The markings on our pitches existed only in our imaginations.

Whenever people I vaguely knew talked about ‘finding themselves’ somewhere exotic and distant, I always felt like I’d done my own soul-searching and discovery in the lanes, cul-de-sacs, and coastal paths around Dawlish and Teignmouth, listening to expansive techno on headphones while standing on cliffs or climbing stiles or turning down residential streets I’d never turned down before, finding something beautiful in the ordinariness. I often think that if I could have my time again I’d like to have been an architect or a town planner, to help create the spaces that other people create the narratives of their lives within.

Now, at 41 years old, I’ve found myself feeling most comfortable living on the edge of the city I call home; country lanes are closer than cinemas and just as essential to my wellbeing, but I can see the city spread out before me from my livingroom window. Streets I would never cycle down for any purpose other than curiosity or exploration reveal architectural juxtapositions and quirks of town planning that make my heart expand: inexplicable Victorian glass addendums on the side of houses; expansive ironwork wisteria arches; hidden croquet lawns and bowling clubs; repurposed youth clubs decorated with mosaics of 80s kids playing table tennis; kayaks in carports; garden gates emblazoned with multi-coloured seahorse murals; water butts, solar panels, loft conversions, allotments; impossibly narrow padlocked gates leading to seemingly nowhere; paths by allotments that lead to babbling streams where children skim stones and paddle and swing on blue ropes tied to branches.

One of my favourite of Nora’s picture books is There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzie Stewart, in which a little girl (also called Nora) is bored at her grandma’s house, and tasked with finding the eponymous tiger in the garden. “Don’t be silly, tigers live in the jungle,” says Nora, until, of course, she finds said tiger.

“Are you real?” Nora asks the tiger. “I don’t know; are you?” the tiger replies. It’s heavy existentialism for pre-schoolers. Some children’s books are fantastical, about amazing journeys and yearnings for excitement, but There’s a Tiger in the Garden celebrates the adventures that children can have in ordinary suburban gardens, amongst the shrubbery and ponds. Imaginations can turn ginger cats into tygers, suburban sprawl into existential labyrinths.

After two albums as East India Youth, William Doyle has reverted to his given name and explored in song exactly these types of places, the places that speak to me most profoundly. The edgelands. Avenues, riverbanks, cement gardens, houses with names as well as numbers. The places where we’re told nothing really happens. The places you need to leave to find excitement. The places you need to escape from. The places where creativity actually flourishes because there is time and space. Places where imaginations wander.
In 1994 Damon Albarn screamed in frustration that “all the houses look the same”; Your Wilderness Revisited suggests that, actually, if you look again, they really, really don’t.

The shadow of grief hangs over much of the record (Doyle’s father died when William was only 12 years old, so songs about the environs of his childhood are of course painted in those emotions as well as so many others), creating an elegiac tone that never feels morose or moribund. In fact the record is profoundly uplifting, harnessing that strange territory where sadness and joy interact, refracting and causing each other.

Musically Doyle expands upon these ideas with cues and styles that feel to me like they’ve always belonged in and expressed the suburban landscape – that classic lineage of eccentric British pop, personified by Bowie and Eno, psychedelic but not pastoral, touching jazz and ambient, classical and electronic, but most of all rock of the experimental sort, arguably the most suburban music of all (I’m not a fan of Pink Floyd at all, but while they formed in London both Gilmour and Waters are products of suburban upbringings). Let’s not forget that while Bowie was born in Brixton, he did most of his growing up in Bromley.

At no point is Doyle mocking or belittling of his subject; the emotion and passion for these places is sincere. The experiences that happen within these locations are absolutely as profound as those that happen anywhere else: love, grief, discovery, pain.

That grief is explicitly mentioned in opener “Millersdale”, named I believe after the area where Doyle lived before his father died. After an initial verse the song moves through a tension-building jazz passage, before turning a corner and opening up an elated vista of synthesiser and forward-moving percussion. “Nobody Else Will Tell You” is one of a pair of songs on the album (alongside the Wild-Beasts-ish “Continuum”) that are as close as we get to straightforward pop, blessed with a saxophone solo and a lyric about the transformational power of just going for a walk. “Zionshill”, by contrast, is hymn-like, but with enormous, reverberating clouds of feedback that remind me of Fennesz’s acoustic guitar deconstructions, again dealing explicitly with grief (“Once suffered a substantial loss / go into the arms of field and copse”).

The centrepiece of the album is the extraordinary “Design Guide”, which starts with Brian Eno reading phrases seemingly chosen from architectural briefing documents: “Distinctive and positive identity / An understandable layout… / Active street frontages… / A sense of community”. His monologue is close-mic’d but with heavy reverb, so it sounds at once like he’s giving a lecture in a huge auditorium and speaking directly and intimately into your consciousness. It’s like the emotional inverse of the deadened computer voice delivering “Fitter Happier”. In fact the whole of Your Wilderness Revisited is like a positivist mirror image of OK Computer, flipping the idea that urbanism and modernity dehumanises us, and demonstrating that suburbanism can actually humanise us.

At one point Doyle sings “there is nothing we want more than for / a sense of space among flowers and water.” The mythology of rock and pop often suggests these desires are boring, conservative, that we should abandon them and yearn for something ‘more’ (exactly what is seldom explicit). But actually there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s arguably less radical to want excitement and glamour for yourself than it is to want peace and space and calm for everyone. Hedonism is ultimately a capitalist yearning; the socialist dream isn’t that no one has anything nice, it’s that everyone has something nice.

The main refrain of “Design Guide” is perhaps the key to the entire album; “Labyrinthian into forever”. It speaks to me again of familiarity expanding space; the suburbs become all, geographically and psychologically. With a snare slightly behind the beat, the song has a languid, repetitive propulsion accentuated by the way the main lyric, like Eno’s spoken word, acts as a list gradually increasing in intensity. ‘Repeat-with-layers-and-drama’ is a common trick of modern alternative rock (Radiohead, Elbow, The National et al), and can sometimes betray lazy songwriting as much as it signifies experimental tendencies and emotional sophistication. As with “Millersdale”, it’s an approach subverted here by an unexpected musical twist, in this case an absolutely wondrous guitar solo (it’s not often I type that), that would be almost Frippian if it wasn’t ever so slightly reserved, its focus on emotional impact rather than virtuosic intensity. It’s a genuinely magical moment that I want to revisit constantly.

“Continuum” and “Full Catastrophe Living” give us more saxophone, the latter 99% instrumental, a child of side two of Low and “Heroes”, while the former expresses an urgent desire to move outwards, unclear as to whether this is away from or towards something. Perhaps a little of both.

“Blue Remembered” and “An Orchestral Depth” are an expansive pair, both sounding, to my untrained ear, like they owe a debt to the repetition of Steve Reich. The former – more percussive and urgent – is literally about cycling around the suburbs to clear your head; at one point Doyle lists house names – “Everglade, Albion, Lakewood, Arcadia” – that seem ridiculous, but which are simply yearning for a bucolic idyll. After all, who wants to be known by a number rather than a name?

The latter is yearning and cyclic, and contains one of my favourite lyrics on the record – “that’s when all the colour turned an orchestral depth / even magnolia flourished” – which expresses to me – through delivery as much as content – both the emotional heft of domesticity and the borderline psychedelic experiences that can happen in unremarkable circumstances. The latter part of this turns a similar trick to Richard Dawson on “The Vile Stuff”, where he injects occult mystery and drama into school trips and the wallpaper of adolescent bedrooms. It’s the same sense of psychedelic mysticism I experienced a few times as a teenager, half dozing to The Stone Roses or that first Verve album and feeling the music expand my liminal consciousness. You don’t need drugs to capture this inner landscape – though we sometimes chased it that way – you just need a pair of shoes and some headphones, or a bicycle and an open mind, or a quiet bedroom and a tired brain.

“An Orchestral Depth” ends with a monologue by the writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades, not someone I’m massively familiar with, which encapsulates the whole record as he talks about how “the fabric of places where I learned about the fabric of places has remained uncannily consistent”, and how he considers “suburban avenues and riverbanks, backstreets and woods to be the greatest free show on earth”.

The album closes beatifically with “Thousands of Hours of Birds”, Doyle harmonising with a hundred versions of himself and sounding like nothing so much as The Beach Boys in space looking at down at Wiltshire housing estates, acoustic guitars and spectral harmonies about how “love happens to us / if we let it happen first”. It has that sense of deserved, homecoming calm that I find in my favourite album dénouements, that feeling of not quite being the same person you were when you set off on your journey.

In many waysYour Wilderness Revisited has been a perfect lockdown record; covid-19 has made the entire country into an enormous suburb, encouraging us to walk, or jog, or cycle around endless quiet streets, to explore the paths and avenues less travelled despite their immediate proximity to our homes. We’ve watched the rainbows in people’s windows slowly fade in vibrancy as lockdown progressed, and started explorations at our front doors rather than by driving to somewhere supposedly adventurous or scenic before beginning.

I’ve never felt like I really belonged anywhere; at school, university, in the south west even (my family moved here from Yorkshire a couple of years before I was born, and my accent is unidentifiable as someone born in Exeter). ‘Normal’ people have always called me ‘weird’, but I’ve never felt weird enough to be a proper outcast or genuine weirdo, to be ‘cool’. (I know – especially now – that this poor-white-boy alienation seems guiltily navel-gazing). But as I’ve got older I’ve come to realise that actually the suburbs, the edgelands, are where the real outsiders reside, the ones with obscure, half-hidden pastimes, secret second careers as artists or makers, who run unusual altruistic charities out of garages. Since leaving supposedly trendy areas nearer the city centre I feel like I’ve got to know more people, and while I still don’t quite feel like I belong I get the sense that not many of us round here do, which makes us an accidental community; my favourite kind.

I’ve also sometimes felt like my life has lacked profundity because of an absence of big dramatic events, that I have led a very normal, boring existence, achieving nothing miraculous or of significant note. I have not had a spectacular career, nor made discoveries or creations that have changed anybody’s lives. Dealing with childhood cancer and a global pandemic over the last two years now makes me yearn for that lack of profundity, as I realise that the big dramatic events are actually unfurling around us all the time, often quietly and with fastidious boredom, behind curtains and in kitchens and bedrooms unseen by anyone not directly embroiled. It’s a cliché mostly unknown to our younger selves – or mine anyway – that life itself is the profound thing, whether it is spectacular or not.

That’s what this record does for me; it captures and expresses the profundity of mundanity, the beauty of normality (as experienced in one small corner of the western world at a particular point in history). I doubt it will resonate so strongly for everyone, and that’s fine. To me it is extraordinary.

Coping / corona

I wrote this for our work Teams platform to share with colleagues as we get to grips with what looks increasingly like national lockdown. Thought it was worth sharing here, too.

As you know, I have some experience of dealing with prolonged traumatic and unexpected situations, and I just started scribbling down some thoughts on coping, which might be useful.

Initially the novelty of it, the strangeness, is almost exciting – gathering resources, adrenaline flowing, all those post-apocalyptic films and books have prepped us for this, right?

But then comes suffocation, and denial – that sense that you might wake up from this shitty disaster movie you’re now living in, because this is not how life should be. Surely it’ll just stop, because someone got something wrong and we need to hit reset? It must stop. It’s not real.

But then the realisation- you’re not going to wake up from this, because this is life, get used to it, this is normal now, and you need to cope. You have to adapt. You can adapt. You are adapting.

When Casper was first ill in some ways it was easy – there was a medical protocol to follow, lots of support, the normal world fell away and we went into survival mode and just concentrated on getting him treated and looking after Nora.

That’s not the case with this. There isn’t a plan, there aren’t experts telling us exactly how to cope, and we’re trying to deal with work, family, home, emotional lives all at once, as well as the virus and that risk. And by ‘we’ I don’t mean just my family – I mean all of us, the entire country, the world, we’re all in the same boat. Or on the same ocean – our boats vary.

We can and we will emerge on the other side of this, and we will be scarred by what’s happened, but hopefully we’ll have learnt a lot of things about ourselves and each other, about our society and our culture, and some of the things that have had to change might actually improve the way we live in the future.

There will be days – and lots of them – when you struggle. And that is ok. It is ok to wobble, to despair, to cry, to be upset. Accept it, and be open about it. You’re not on your own in this, in feeling this way. Let people help, however they can. It makes it easier, trust me. People’s generosity will astound you, and if you let it your own capacity to cope will astound you too.

Caribou – Suddenly

Let’s try and write something about music again, shall we?

Dan Snaith might be the musician I’ve listened to most music by in the last 20 years. I picked up his debut album (Start Breaking My Heart) not long after meeting Emma in autumn 2001, and his albums since then have soundtracked my life – our life together – in uncanny ways. It helps that he’s about a year older than me, so makes records that reflect those life events and then releases them in time for me to have similar experiences (except he did a PhD rather than just thinking about it, made records rather than wrote about them, etc etc).

2003’s exuberant melange of psych, pop, jazz, and cascading drum samples (Up In Flames) was an epochal record of my time as a music journalist, defining my taste and the weird ‘scene’ or community I belonged to (loosely – geeky 20-something boys spread across the world, connected by the internet, adolescences defined by indie rock, now fascinated with pop, electronic, experimental music, downloading the entire history of music as fast as nascent broadband would let us and mashing it together in playlists, editorial policies, or our own records). I can still remember listening to it for the first time, in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house that I had set-up as a music room, squirming with delight every time a ridiculous sample took me by surprise. I hoovered up EPs, b-sides (“Tits & Ass: The Great Canadian Weekend”, “Air Doom”, give’r), and became a bona fide fanboy.

The Milk of Human Kindness almost passed me by at first in 2005, but then Em and I bought our first flat and moved in together in 2007, and it became our most-played record, used like a piece of statement furniture or an accent wall to stamp our style on the place and make it feel like a home. Cooking dinner? Stick Caribou on. Reading a book and sharing a bottle of wine? Stick Caribou on. Playing with the kitten? Stick Caribou on.

And a month before we got the keys he’d released Andorra, which had refined all the jittery tricks from Up In Flames, grafted them to some awesome songs, and perfected the whole electronic-psych-pop thing before pushing in new directions, with the final couple of tracks, towards that edge-of-collapse dance/electronic/jazz/kraut/whatever territory that I’ve spent the last dozen years exploring (James Holden, Floating Points, Four Tet, Daniel Avery, The Comet Is Coming, Battles, Blank Project by Neneh Cherry, Dan Deacon, Fuck Buttons, Moses Boyd, etc etc etc and on and on and on). 2007 was the final year I really thought of myself as a music journalist – the final year I wrote all the time – probably because it’s when Stylus folded, and it was also – for me – one of the best years for music in my lifetime. And Andorra was one of the best albums in one of the best years.

Fast forward through two years of career hell and minor health problems, and Swim came out in 2010 – the next best year of my life for music, and also when I sorted my career out, got married, started cycling again, began Devon Record Club, and felt like life was what it ought to be. Swim did exactly what I wanted it to, and felt like part of a tripartite of albums – alongside Four Tet and Owen Pallett – that I could call favourites in my 30s in the same way as In Sides or The Stone Roses had been when I was a teenager. Even if he was singing about relationships collapsing on “Odessa” and “Leave House”, the joy, surprise and craft on show was still delightful. We capped it off at the close of 2011 by seeing the Caribou Vibration Ensemble at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Minehead – James Holden and Kieran Hebden and Marshall Allen on stage, plus two drummers, modular synths, four-piece brass section, insanity and delirium.

Our Love in 2014 seemed like another weird synthesis with our real lives – a sonic refinement further into electronic dance territory, but crucially a reaction to having become a father, and a celebration of the way that changes you. Except that – maybe because of the very coincidence that 2014 was when Nora was born – it didn’t quite click with me emotionally or aesthetically like all the others had. “Can’t Do Without You” and “Silver” were amazing pieces of music, up there in my esteem and my heart with anything else he’s done, but nothing else really stuck or seeped under my skin. It was immaculate, but it lacked something crucial, some essence that had connected me to everything previous. Maybe it had stepped away from the edge of collapse?

And so now (and I know I’m discounting the Daphni records – I have them, I enjoy them, but they aren’t the main deal for me) we have Suddenly, a record reflecting adulthood, fatherhood, and the unexpected turns and traumas that can come along. It embraces juxtaposition and surprise, it surfs close to the edge of collapse, it feels more melancholy than anything prior but just as joyous – albeit tempered, perhaps – sometimes almost subdued and sometimes almost insane. And it comes 18 months or so after our horrific, traumatic, unexpected collision with childhood cancer, after Casper being diagnosed with LCH, and it hits me square in the feels. Because it’s a complicated record that covers diverse sonic and emotional territory, very often within the same song, and that’s how life has been since cancer entered our lives. Siblings apologising, parents lullabying, emotions and noise and changes blindsiding you, coming home to uncertainty but it still being home, moments of normal life when you dance and forget what’s happened, eulogies for things that haven’t quite passed yet, that horrific sense of the time that’s gone, that’s been tainted, that’s left ripples of pain through the future even amidst the good feelings.

I’m only three days into my relationship with this record, but I already know how rewarding it can be. I don’t know what’s happened in Dan Snaith’s life over the last few years, and I hope it’s nothing like what we’ve been through, but I’m so glad he’s caught it in music for me again.

So we took our cancer child to a music festival…

And it was alright.

In fact it was pretty good. Really good, at points.

We’d always wanted to take the kids to festivals, to give them that kind of experience at a young age, and with everything that’s happened over the last year+ we kind of just went ‘fuck it’ back in the spring, and bought tickets and a tent. We thought End of the Road might be the best bet, but the line-up for Green Man was so good this year that we couldn’t resist.

I’m glad we didn’t. Even though I’ve always (jokingly) maintained that standing in a muddy field surrounded by Shed Seven fans on drugs sounded like hell. (It still does.) Even though I’ve never camped properly before, let alone done a camping festival. (we have done All Tomorrow’s Parties a couple of times, pre-kids, but you get a chalet, so…)

So it rained – relentlessly – on the Friday, and was horrific and muddy, and Nora had more than one awful pre-schooler tantrum (including an immense one at half past midnight at the festival toilets which culminated in her yelling at me “it’s my body! It’s my decision! Don’t touch me!” when I was trying to get her onesie off and get her to have the wee that she’d requested I take her for. Yes, there were other people present. No, no one said anything. Yes, some people looked sympathetic, albeit in that ‘stupid fucker kept a 4-year-old up after midnight’ way).

But on the other days – Thursday, Saturday, Sunday – it was generally sunny and warm, and the mud dried up quickly, and the setting was exquisitely beautiful (surrounded by verdant Welsh mountains, in a natural amphitheatre with a babbling stream and a pond and gently undulating fields for camping), and the food, though expensive, was great – Dosa Deli I love you; Goan Fish Curry I love you, Los Churros Amigos I love you – and the kids’ field was brilliant, and the line-up was fabulous, and Em saw a Caitlin Moran talk, and Nora got to watch Kiki’s Delivery Service in the cinema tent, and I even got to see (at least some of a set by) the following:

These New Puritans
Sharon Van Etten
Four Tet
Sons Of Kemet
Fat White Family
Big Thief
Stella Donnelly
Emily Magpie
Poco Drom
Aldous Harding

I also got to listen to the following artists quite clearly from the tent:

Yo La Tengo
John Talabot
Father John Misty (Em got to watch this one, with sleeping Nora in the buggy, while I took Casper back to the tent)

That’s actually not a bad return considering that we had two very small children with us.

We managed Casper’s meds. We just about managed Nora’s emotions. We saw old friends, bumped into lapsed and distant ones, and made new ones too.

We’ll do it again.

Who are we if we’re not that cancer family?

We took part in a social bike ride on Saturday, jointly organised by three local community initiatives (Ride On, FreeMoovement, and Exeter Cycling Campaign). We cycled from Exeter quay to Turf Locks, Em pulling Casper in the trailer, and Nora and me each on our own bikes. We arrived last of the group of 25+ people, but everyone was incredibly impressed that Nora (still only 4 years old, remember) rode all the way herself – it’s more than 7 miles from our house to Turf!

(Afterwards I cycled home fast with Casper, jumped in the car and then fetched Em and Nora, whose little legs were understandably knackered – she made it halfway home though.)

When we got to Turf we had a spot of lunch and chatted to the people who’d ridden with us (the ‘social’ bit was the main point of the ride). I got talking to a guy called Andy who, it turned out, knows Ian, who used to be my boss and who recently rode the Nello and sought sponsorship not just for Force but also for CLIC Sargent in Casper’s name.

“This is Casper, who Ian was raising money for.”

Then I spotted Simon, Casper’s paediatric oncologist (our paediatric oncologist, I should say, because when your child has cancer, your whole family ‘has’ cancer), who had also ridden out to Turf for a spot of lunch with his daughter. Not really surprising – it was a lovely day, Simon’s a triathlete (the lunatic), and there are few nicer places to cycle to for a sandwich and a cider shandy than Turf Locks on a sunny July Saturday.

“And there’s Casper’s oncologist.”

Cancer conversation ensued. It gets everywhere.

(Though not with Simon; that wouldn’t be fair. We did talk a bit about bikes, though.)

Casper had only seen Simon two days before, when two significant things happened.

Firstly, Simon referred Casper to have his port-a-catheter removed. The port-a-catheter is, for those who don’t know, a button under his chest that looks like a third nipple, with a tube that goes from the back of it down a vein in his neck and into his heart. It’s how chemo was administered, and how bloods have been taken. He’s not had chemo in nearly nine months now, and is big enough for bloods to be taken from his arm. The port is an infection risk, his current meds are administered orally, so out it comes.

Secondly, Simon has suggested that he only needs to see Casper every month now (appointments are currently every fortnight). My understanding is that typically the paediatric oncology team meet people, see them intensively for a period of months (or years) while treatment is administered, and then say goodbye and fare well once they’re OK, seeing them perhaps once a year or so to check they’re still OK afterwards.

Casper is different – this is more like managing a longterm chronic condition than an acute cancer now, and we’re shifting to that pattern of treatment and monitoring. Casper is ready to not be seen so often, to be as close to a normal boy as possible.

The question is, are we ready?

If you’ve ever dealt with chronic depression, you’ll know that you can cling to it as if it was an intrinsic part of your character, your personality, rather than a disease that affects the shape of your character and personality. “Who will I be if I’m not depressed?” “What do I look like, sound like, and act like without depression?” You may hate this thing that’s affecting you, it may make you feel awful and unable to deal with the world, but it can become very, very hard to relinquish. I imagine bad relationships, and various other patterns of negative behaviour, are very similar.

Because even awful things can become routine, and by becoming routine become, somehow, sort of comfortable, just through familiarity and repetition. Very few things are 100% bad; we’ve received a lot of love and support from the medical team, and removing that (even if not fully) feels scary, for instance.

It’s the same with Casper’s cancer; who will Em be if she’s not taking him to hospital all the time? Who will we be as a family? We didn’t want to be “that cancer family” when this began, and we still don’t, but… We also are that cancer family, and the repercussions of this last a lot longer than the diagnosis or initial treatment. Casper is 18 months old next week – we’ve barely existed as a family of four without cancer being involved. Despite the frequency of appointments dropping and the prospect of his port being removed soon, we are not finished with cancer and cancer is not finished with us.

In other news, Neil at work is cycling LEJOG next week, and raising money for a charity that research the family of diseases that Casper is affected by. You should sponsor him.

12 months of childhood cancer

Depending how you look at it (Christmas or Easter, essentially) either today or tomorrow is 12 months since this whole cancer thing started. Tomorrow by date, today by day. It will always have happened on the Saturday after Em’s birthday, in the morning, just hours after I got home from a conference. Those are the signifiers burnt into my mind. The precise date almost doesn’t matter. Easter Sunday. Cancer Saturday.

Or did it start on that holiday to Brittany, those days in a French hospital? Or when he had chickenpox at three months old? Or when he was in the womb? Or at some other point? We will never, and can never, know. But today (or tomorrow) is the day when we met Simon the paediatric oncologist for the first time, and he said “it might be Langerhan’s Cell Histiocytosis”, and this whole fucking elongated, awful, frightening, boring, anxious nightmare began properly.

I could have requested his hospital notes for this post, totted up all the blood transfusions and X-rays and nights in hospital, reduced everything to brutal statistics (30+ transfusions of various blood products; 50+ nights in hospital; 12 weeks of chemotherapy), but as numbing and horrific as those numbers are, they don’t tell the full story. Nothing can.

Three weeks ago we managed out first family holiday abroad since this that trip to France. A week in Portugal, in a villa belonging to Em’s aunt and uncle. Our neighbour, who is Portuguese and a medical researcher, kindly translated the hospital’s letter for us, in case the worst happened. It didn’t. The worst thing about the holiday was managing two small children in a hot and unfamiliar environment. It was pleasantly uneventful.

Life is mostly uneventful now, if not always pleasantly so, and while somehow managing to still be busy. We camped last weekend – one night in Woolacombe – a dry-run for when we go to Green Man Festival next month. It was also pleasantly uneventful. We argued, of course, stressed, said we should just sack it off and go home before the tent was even up, because, even though life is “normal” now compared to the whirlwind of diagnosis and chemo and surgical procedures to install valves and tubes that can pump drugs into and extract blood directly from my baby’s tiny heart, life is not ‘normal’, and never will be again. “It’ll never happen to us” was a default setting. The worst thing imaginable happened. Why the fuck wouldn’t it happen again? We know now that it can. Every blemish, every cough, every dip in appetite, every odd step; is the cancer back? Has the gene inhibitor stopped working?

It’s a long time since I’ve had that weird, vertiginous sensation that this is all a shitty, horrible film about cancer that I’m stuck watching, or a dream, or someone else’s life that I’ve somehow been zapped into like Sam in Quantum Leap, and had that desperate, irrational hope that someone ineffable, somewhere, will snap their fingers and this will all be over. I had that feeling a lot in the early days, in those first few weeks. Every so often – only every few months, probably – it comes back, that sense of the world tilting and coming up to meet you as you realise and acknowledge, again, that your baby has cancer.

“He’s NOT a baby daddy; he’s a toddler now.”

There was a guy, with a homemade banner about god, preaching on the High Street today, telling us that only god can save us from hell and damnation, and I wanted to slap him, grab him by the shirt, and scream in his face that I’ve been there, that it’s here now, that eternal damnation is just that – eternal, low level, ambient somehow, a permanent disquiet that soaks into your bones, like lenses of glasses scratched so much that you barely notice, most of the time, that the world is scarred and blurred and unclear in ways it never used to be. And then you do notice, and you remember that it’s like this forever, and you can never escape. I wanted to ask him how he could justify his god having afflicted my absolutely innocent baby with cancer when he’d barely had chance to be alive. I wanted to name all the other kids with cancer who we’d met, name them and their cancers, the neuroblastomas and the lymphomas and all the others, and ask him how he squares this with his faith. But I just walked past, because what good would it do? I don’t believe in god. Christian values I’m good with. Love thy neighbour, etc. Do unto others. The meek will inherit the earth. I just don’t see our political leaders acting them out much. I do believe that we invented ‘god’ as a concept as a way of explaining love.

Casper is, as ever, oblivious to this, except when we give him his meds. We started a new delivery method this week; still via syringe into his mouth, but dissolved tablets rather than powder. It doesn’t taste as good; he used to actively like the last lot; now he fights you. The fear that he’ll spit it out, not get the full dose, and that the cancer will come back is there at every administration.

Casper is also, it must be said, an idiot. He plays the fool almost constantly, doing things to get a laugh from his sister or from us; plate on head, funny faces, waving his arms and making weird noises, then laughing, laughing, laughing. There is a glint in his eyes – Em has said this almost since he was born – that means mischief, which Nora never had. As if he’s not put us through enough already. And good grief does he love to touch bikes and cars, especially wheels and pedals. We went in the bike shop today to pick up my bike after getting it fixed, and his eyes went like dinner plates.

How oblivious is he really? He’s been unsettled tonight; I’ve had to settle him three or four times between 7:30pm and 10pm. Has he picked up on us being slightly unsettled? What will he remember of this in five years time? How will he explain his scars to girlfriends or boyfriends when he’s older? Will there be emotional wounds we can’t see now?

In a few weeks he’ll start nursery, at the same time as Nora starts school and Em goes back to work. His nursery is on campus – the same one Nora went to, except he’ll be the first cohort in their new building. The staff all know him and his story already. I take him into work to show him off so often; look how alive he is! Look how he can walk, and babble, and smile! When your baby has cancer you kind of convince yourself that he’ll never do the normal developmental things; he’ll never walk, he’ll never drink from a cup, he’ll never manage solid food, he’ll never… be more than a baby. Be a toddler, or a little boy, or a child. Your brain freezes time in the present, because the future could be unimaginably bad, so you can’t imagine it at all.

The last 12 months have been horrific. I am, at heart, a positive person; energetic, talkative, about solutions and newness and change – not glass half empty or even glass half full, but rather “let’s go to the tap together and fill the glass and talk about making sure it’s always full in the future!” – but I’ve been as close to suicide this year as I can imagine I ever will be. Not just suicide; in the darkest moments I’ve wanted to end it not just for me but for all four of us, because my family is the most important thing in my life, and the thought of it splintering, collapsing, decaying and disintegrating is my biggest fear, my strongest trigger, the one thing I cannot cope with.

But I got through that, and now, mostly, things are OK, and I am OK, and we are OK. To look at us in the street you’d never know, most of the time. Em has entered the London Marathon for CLIC Sargent next year. We’re making progress on getting the house how we want it. I’m beginning to care about work again, sometimes. We’ve had, so far, mostly, a nice family summer – Portugal and camping and bike rides and eating in the garden. But it’s all tainted, all stained, all a little spoilt, like when you buy something new and you scratch it almost straight away and even if you can polish the scratch away you know it happened, that it’s there underneath, and no matter how many people tell you “but you know it’s yours now” it doesn’t matter because you just wanted to have whateveritis perfect, unscratched, for just a little while.

We watched Arrival at some point over Christmas, despite several people having told us explicitly not to. If you haven’t seen it, the plot is… relevant to out recent experiences. At the end I cried – great big gobby tears that shake your whole being, like a damn is breaking and concrete is being pulverised by the pressure of the built-up water behind it. It was one of the most cathartic things I’ve ever experienced. I am OK, now, mostly. But I think I want to watch Arrival again soon, just to purge. Break that damn again. Feel the ground rise up. We are in this for a long time. My son has cancer.

My son has cancer.

My son! He has cancer.

My son.

My daughter.

My wife.


Our family has cancer. It’s in our son. It’s turned off right now, but it hasn’t left properly yet.

Our family has had cancer for a year.

No news is good news

Never quite knew which way to take that phrase. There’s no such thing as good news? Or, if there is no news, it must be good? The difference is significant.

There is no news about Casper. He remains well, and strong, and increasingly noisy. The dabrafenib does what it does. You still worry, constantly, and post traumatic stress disorder lurks around every corner – it’s approaching a year since diagnosis, and tomorrow morning we go abroad on holiday: last time we did that he spent three days and nights in a French hospital and was diagnosed with cancer a week after we got back. Every temperature, every blemish, every abnormal poo sets off alarm bells.

I promised that I’d keep posting here about treatment still going well as often as possible, just in case anyone in the place we were in 11 months ago finds this blog and needs good news and a longer-term perspective. Even when there’s nothing to say. Let’s take the latter interpretation. No news is good news.

Someone’s just reached out to Em on social media about their baby just starting chemo for Langerhan’s, so this post is for them. We’re a year in, and things are OK. We know what you’re going through. You’re not on your own, and you will get through it. Ask for help when you need or want it. Only work with the facts as given to you by your medical team (no dr google). Take each day as it comes and do whatever is necessary. The worst bit is probably when the whirlwind ends and the dust settles, and the emotional scars and fallout begin to manifest. You can do this.

“Basically a normal baby right now”

That’s a phrase I use a lot when people ask about Casper. I just don’t know how long it will last.

I cycled 28 miles with him in the trailer at the weekend, accompanied by my friend Jon. We stopped and had a little picnic halfway through. It was the first trip of more than 5 miles Casper had done in the trailer, and probably only his third or fourth overall. He made happy little noises from behind me for some of it, and slept for much of the rest.

Casper is still well. Still on dabrafenib twice a day. The drug company are apparently not accepting anymore compassionate cases (how Casper is receiving treatment) as they’re about to take it to market. It seems likely it will get approved by NICE and then be available via the NHS. I have no idea how long that process will take. The drug company should keep supplying it to Casper on a compassionate basis until that process is complete, and may even keep on supplying it to him afterwards. I don’t know. The delivery method is due to change though – from a powder that we make into a solution into a semi-soluble tablet, which isn’t meant to taste as nice. Not looking forward to that, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to cope.

What’s in the future? Hopefully keep him on dabrafenib for as long as possible. The best case scenario is that he stays on it until late childhood, when the disease could have burnt itself out. But there’s no certainty, either clinically or in the supply chain. There are apparently 16 children in the country on this medication for this condition, and none have been on it for very long.

Hospital visits are less frequent, but far from rare – he’s in today for blood tests, ophthalmology test, and an x-ray. Next Thursday Helen, his lead consultant, is down from Bristol for her clinic, and wants to see him. Sadly I have meetings all day so can’t justify skipping work; it’s always nice to see Helen because she’s generally so positive, and we need a dose of that every so often.

But generally we’re OK. Casper’s OK. Nora’s 4 and 1/2 and ready for school, so sometime’s hard work, but basically OK. Life goes on.