WHAT FOLLOWS IS A SMALL BOOK TITLED: THE TREASURES OF DARKNESS.
HOW CANCER CHANGED MY LIFE FOR THE BETTER!
It is said that tons of diamonds, millions upon millions of them may be hiding beneath your feet. But before you grasp the nearest industrial mega drill, be warned. At around a hundred miles deep these life changes riches lie well out of reach. To find buried treasures of grace or goodness or heroism within ourselves is no easier than gathering diamonds from their natural habitat. We need to reach subterranean levels or have someone else do it for us. Diamonds lay hidden a hundred miles deep in an all encompassing darkness. To find something like that beauty and value in us we need a circumstance that takes us into places we fear and would never voluntarily go at any price. That is unless we are numbered among the bravest of the brave. And most of us are not like that. I am not like that. When confronted by a word we least want to hear what do we do, think or say. That word Cancer has presence. It hits you hard when it is pronounced over someone you love. So when it is you, what happens then?
I was 75 years old when cancer was diagnosed and at this time of writing I am still 75. How much life do I have set before me? Who knows! What follows is both a life story and a description of how the diagnosis of prostate cancer changed my life for the better. I have come to experience the treasures within the darkness. Life seen as a beautiful precious stone set into a dark and threatening environment. The story of a man whose experience of life had not set him up to take a hit like this one.
From the first moment of confirmation, immediately after I had been told I had advanced prostate cancer in the bone, I was given a sense of purpose. It came as if gift wrapped.
The words “You will be a witness in this” popped into my mind with a certainty that has never been shaken.
These words have remained in me as if engraved on my mental retina. Never before had I been jolted so powerfully from one place into another. The surgeon who had come to speak to me prior to a urinary operation I was about to have had passed on the full diagnosis. My cancer was incurable, it was in the bone and suspected to be in various locations. I knew beforehand that cancer was almost a certainty and that it had caused the urinary problems for which the operation had been arranged. What I had not expected was this news, raw and definitive. The full diagnosis had been unknown to both me and my wife and children: we have six, plus grandchildren.
The question of how bad news is received will of course depend on the individual. It is my misfortune, and of others around me that the wartime proverb Keep Calm and Carry On was not really in my repertoire of responses. I tended to be emotional and depressive by nature. My motto regarding the course of my life had always been pessimistic verging on conspiracy theory. Rounded down to a short precis it amounted to the following. That the entire universe had been arranged to my maximum inconvenience. This could be shortened to the pithy: I am cursed. I should say from the outset that any form of positive thinking was out of the question. The reasons for this are what makes up the great majority of this short book.
So, on hearing the raw truth, did I?
Burst into tears?
Ask the obvious question: why me?
Lapse into a sullen depression?
Rage at the unfairness?
No! Nothing like it; on the contrary a blissful calm descended, due I believe entirely to those seven life affirming words. I pondered them during the long lonely wait for the operation to release the squeeze my prostate was applying to the urethra. During that time I wrote a message to my wife Jennie. To me the most astonishing words I have ever written, and I have written a lot. They came as described above: as if gift wrapped. And I recognised the only possible source of those words. At that moment of maximum alarm they were I deduced directly from a source outside myself. If you find that difficult to believe then please believe me when I say that they were alien to me. Seven words that put me in a place I had never before experienced. An anticipation, excitement, gratitude, blessing and praise for whatever was to come. Not a negative thought passed through my mind. I was high on something, call it whatever you will, but whenever I return my thoughts to that short mission statement I renew the joy it sent racing through my entire being.
This is what I wrote to my wife Jennie within minutes of hearing that news.
Let us resolve to be witnesses to our faith. This could be the answer to prayer. A way to reach family and friends at a level that would otherwise be impossible. This could be our greatest opportunity to use our lives, spend them, empty them for our God and Saviour. The highest calling we could ever be given. You and I, together witnesses to our faith. The calling of all callings if we can rise to the occasion. It is as if Jesus had spoken to us like he did to the apostles, come follow me. The most exciting time of our life, perhaps even better than being healed.
I’m always with you: determined to honour God with you and be a witness to God’s love and care and his plan for the future; one of life and love and eternity.
We have so much life lived together to be thankful for. We will live day at a time, celebrating the whole of it! Out of the bright calm seas beyond the headland and into unknown waters. But we are not alone. And as you say, calling out to our children to follow. I Love You.
This goodnight message was after the operation, on the evening of the same day.
Goodnight my lovely wife, do not fear, do not grieve, we have so much to do together. Praise God and know that you are surrounded by love. Mine, the love of Jesus and others too numerous to count. We are blessed, numbered among the saints because we are Christ’s. Rest in the peace of Him who called us into the Light. You are his daughter, a shining star who blazes with light. I love you and count myself blessed to have spent so much time in your company. Sleep well, and wake up to a future that is good and ready to be filled. Remember how you filled the children’s stockings at Christmas. God is about to do the same. All my love, proud beyond measure to be your husband.
I will return to the cancer story later and describe how God has changed my entire view of the world. How a pessimistic and negative cellular unit, (me) become positively charged in the midst of the most negative of all diagnoses.
My type of cancer is sometimes called metastatic prostate cancer. It most commonly spreads to lymph nodes in other parts of the body or to the bones. It can also spread to other organs. My response to this has surprised everyone who knows me, including myself. It is best described by the scripture which headlines this little book. It is taken from Isaiah 45 v 3.
“I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hidden riches of secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by name.”
Cancer brings darkness into lives and I imagine few find treasures in that darkness. For me cancer has had the opposite effect to that expected. This is I believe entirely down to a faith which gives hope to the hurt and the oppressed and the troubled. Beyond that it gives another way to view things, a new perspective. For me this has not been through searching or positive expectations that all will go well with me. These virtues have only rarely showed themselves in my life. Negativity and hopelessness have been the backdrop to much of my life. My faith up to this point had not given me anything like what I am now experiencing. This despite innumerable blessings, which we are encouraged to count. Something I had stubbornly refused to do.
The Christian faith is centred in Jesus who told his followers to take up their cross and follow him. Cancer is a curse and I know that full well. Consequently I cannot really fathom the reaction that came upon me. One not properly or fully appreciated until this moment of writing: about six months subsequent to the diagnosis. The first moments of coming to terms with the realisation that something very bad was occurring coincided with a life threatening experience at A&E. I had developed a bad case of shingles overnight and my immune system was operating at nil points: at 0.0. If my wife Jennie had not insisted I got out of bed with what I thought was a mild temperature and insisted I must be taken immediately to A&E then I would probably have died. The opinion of two doctors I spoke to after the event and during my recovery. A nasty introduction to Chemotherapy has been survived and recently stopped after the completion of three sessions. At this current time I am doing well and in a short period of rest. This illness is a curse upon any life and not to be welcomed. Its effects however are another story. For me it has opened doors to healing of a very different kind and touched areas of my life that have pulled me down, beginning at the age of about six: 69 years ago. Fears both great and small have dropped away and blessings both great and small have come to me. Explaining a miracle is beyond me, but what has happened is I realise, having read the literature, not normal. Here is normal: something from the CANCER INSTITUTE website about the known effects on a person diagnosed with cancer.
Fear and Worry
Stress and Anxiety
Sadness and Depression
Two words on this list apply to me now which had not, until the cancer diagnosis, ever registered highly on my list of characteristics: these are hopefulness and gratitude. Seeing them listed surprised me, but they are the only two which come close to describing my present feelings. However not everything came easy, far from it. When something causes your entire mind-set regarding life to change in an instant, from negative to positive then we tend to take notice. Especially when the result is so counter intuitive. This response was to become even more weird as the full range of what was going to happen opened up. Each person faced with cancer will encounter fears. It is a condition that hits you with a series of very different blows. A process of degeneration seemingly designed to push the buttons you have avoided all your life. And there are no avoidance techniques that make matters better. Chemo is so destructive and it pulls you down in ways that cause the maximum of hurt: mental and physical. And these are closely linked. The more sensitive you are the more the problems build until they are truly mountainous. Perhaps the worst of these attacks on our self esteem is the loss of hair. The realisation that Chemo would make he as bald as a coot was a fear of monumental proportions. Here as a counterpoint to myself is a creation not known for his sensitivity: Homer Simpson.
If you are sensitive about your appearance, which I was, then to lose a good head of hair and a hairstyle which had remained more or less identical from my teenage years was a loss I feared above almost any other. Baldness was a horror to me, and yet there it was happening before my eyes. At that point you begin hankering after an outlook on life like Homer Simpson’s. Sensitivity and well judged self analysis are not characteristic of his world view. He tried on his wife Margie’s towering blue wig, and liked it! When I realised I was losing all my hair you I began to long for Homer’s thick skinned approach to life. Laughing in the face of adversity was not my style at all. Weeping, swearing, moaning and hiding were my default mechanisms when under stress. So as I peered into the bathroom mirror while running a hand very lightly through my hair I watched a large quantity come away from the side of my forehead. I looked and realised I could not go outside or show my face to anyone, let alone friends and family. Going to the shops, or to church or to meet friends from the bowling club was an abiding terror. I could not face it, and yet it had to be faced. So what were the alternatives? A wig, for a female a good solution, they work well, but on men? No! For me it never became an option. I had seen these rugs on peoples heads and was certain I would feel an idiot and be a coward. With hair falling off my head I had to make a decision and there was only one. But to make matters worse I had not been to a hairdressers for over fifty years. My wife Jennie had always done this job. I was so self conscious that the thought of going to a hairdresser, especially in this condition made a long held fear into something monstrous, gigantic, impossible. In my mind I became a one man army surrounded by implacable foes bent on nothing less than total humiliation and surrender. This was ground upon which I could not see myself putting up a fight.
So what happened? I found an ounce or two of courage, based on the fact that there was no other way ahead; a haircut was the only option. I went to the only source of help I could bear. I asked Jennie, who knew full well what this meant to me. I asked if she would cut it down to a grade one or two, a virtual shave. She looked at me and tears filled her eyes. I realised she could not do it, and with both of us with dampened eyes we hugged each other. I said do not worry, I will get it done at the hairdressers. Jennie was going out that afternoon and I resolved to do it, for her sake, while she was out of the way. It was a horrible wet afternoon and I went round to my local barbers. A notice on the door said away for a holiday until the next week. I went back home, got into the car and drove up the hill to where another hairdresser was located. I went it, asked if they cut men’s hair, realised it was obvious they did not, and withdrew. Last option was to go to my local town: Newton Abbot. There were three barbers, all located down one of the main streets. I ended up entering the Humble Barbers: yes really! To be humbled was what I anticipated and here was clearly the right place to endure the ordeal. I sat and waited and watched what to me was a new and wondrous art form. No more short back and sides, these were craftsmen at work. I watched as young men were treated like Crufts Dog Show champions, machine trimmed to perfection. I sat waiting and watching for about fifteen minutes wondering what I should say to the hairdresser with a bun on top of his head. He was becoming available having finished his work of art on a satisfied client. I approached the chair, it felt like a place of execution and told him the story. I had cancer and needed a grade two haircut. He was really nice to me and did as I had requested. I watched in the mirror as my head of hair fell to floor, awaiting the broom after closing time. I came out really pleased, I had done it although my head felt very cold. However I had a peaked cap to cover my head from any close investigation. And so began the future without hair, and soon without a hat because I knew to have a real victory this was necessary. No more hiding. The response to great change is often not what you expect. People were so kind and most said they liked the cut. A few gentle jokes came and went, and I got used to the new look. As time passed I began to quite like it, then came to the conclusion it was preferable to what I once had, and resolved that if my hair grew again I would keep it around grade two level.
At this moment with Chemo ceased my hair is growing back. I think in a couple of weeks it may be ready for a trim, which Jennie will do. That would represent the full cycle and a great victory over my past terrors which are at last fading away. As I must keep on saying, because it is true, cancer has changed me for the good. And even more surprising I cannot think of anything else that could have achieved this miracle. And the use of that word leads me to say thank you to God who used the greatest darkness to release the light in me. There is a saying: God is Good! I now know this is true in a way I did not realise before cancer came into my life. And it is also true, and I have now experienced it to be true that God is good all the time, even when it at first seems impossible to believe. Those words that came into my head ring ever more true in me.
“You will be a witness in this.”
A REALITY CHECK
OK, you may by now have formed a totally false impression of me which I need to correct. The words I shared with my wife Jennie and quoted above were not natural to me, and in fact they were in one sense miraculous. To state this less strongly: as rare as hen’s teeth and out of character. And yet the words I wrote to her were not written because I wanted to put a positive slant on the matter. I am not, nor ever have been one of those steady good under pressure people who laugh in the face of adversity. I am, or was panicky by nature, anticipating threats before they arrive and often before they even exist. To that recipe add an extra topping of victim-hood spiced with self-loathing and self-pity and you get a fair idea of what I was, not years ago, but just months ago. In other words I have been a mental mess for a very long time, thinking ill of myself and others; veering from contempt or fear of others to contempt for myself. I have lived life with caution, sickened by the fear of messing up. My major ambition concerning life from quite a young age was simply to get through it in one piece. I have at times walked closely with God, at others wandered far away, hiding sins from a God I was well aware knew everything there was and is to be known. My God is Jesus Christ, and if this is written for any other purpose than glorifying his name and perhaps shedding a faintly fresh light on the subject of suffering, then it has no good purpose. It would be just a demonstration of conceit and self-advertisement.
I was born in the mid nineteen forties, so my clear first memories are of the limitations imposed by a post war ration book defined environment. I have two older brothers and a younger sister. My family would be described as middle class. My father was an artist, and to his great credit working in that trade was something of a rarity. One who managed to keep up a regular income from artwork over a prolonged period: much of it self-employed. This skill coincided with the only one I was aware of which applied to me. I tried to follow a similar path through life and was far less successful, probably because I was far less conscientious than my father. But due to his hard work we all enjoyed a modestly privileged life. Three of us children did well, I did not until I met Jennie at the age of eighteen. The reason is not difficult to identify: I could not or would not learn. Whether this was born of some innate stubbornness or that of having a character like an abused animal who took its beatings as if this were normal, I cannot say. Self-analysis is I think impossible to do with any accuracy.
How do we weigh the negative and positive proportions that lean so heavily upon us? They are so many and very complex. It has however not been difficult for me to understand why I sank like a stone in a murky pond while my siblings did so well. I wondered about this as well. The effect was part resentment bewilderment. Why did they measure up and I did not? The failures, which I attributed to myself just left a trail of unanswered questions centring on the single most obvious: why am I like this? These thoughts go back decades, they have trailed me like Inspector Javert‘s remorseless pursuit of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. In that case the madness was in the pursuer. This duality in thinking raised questions to which no answer was forthcoming: was I the predator hounding myself or the prey constantly looking over his shoulder?
And just six months ago the hunt for answers vanished, became irrelevant, and I now stand as a man redeemed; and yet still being treated for cancer, still facing whatever may be coming. How does such a change happen? There is a big question here, who or what can do such things? However before following that thread more deeply it is probably best to drop into the world which dominated much of my inner life. I speak not of the outward appearance, which may have appeared OK to most people. On the surface, most of the time I would present as more or less OK. But we all know the surface or exterior of anything does not necessarily tell the whole story. I am unsure whether or not I have suffered from PSTD for most of my life, but many of the symptoms would be true of me. Irritability or outbursts of anger / Irrational and intense fear / Difficulty concentrating / Panic attacks / Anxiety / Depression / Mood swings / Feeling jumpy and easily startled / Anger or aggressive behaviour / Tense muscles / Feeling Isolated. Taken together and placed in a person they will not provide the best candidate for the reception of bad news such as a prostate cancer diagnosis.
THE INNER CESS PIT.
Rubbish builds up and more in the mind and imagination than anywhere else. It leads to most of the mistakes made in the course of a lifetime. For me the descent into this dark place began suddenly and without warning and at an early age. My memories may not be entirely accurate time-wise but the following is true in all its essentials. I came out of kindergarten, where I had been happy and among friends. From there I was sent to a Catholic School run by the Jesuits: an order of priests who devote their lives to their religious vocation and also to education. I have reason to think I entered this school a term or a year late. The education system was recovering from the war years and I may have been only six years old when I walked into the grounds of the imposing school alone. I had got off the bus in Worple Rd Wimbledon in my brand new blue blazer and cap, turned left and walked up the hill past the huge Sacred Heart Church. The church we used to be marched up and down and to and from on holy occasions. Donhead School was further up on the left. My appearance at the gates of Donhead was not on the first day of term, why I do not know. There were no other new pupils waiting as anxiously as I waiting to be told what to do and where to go. No-one to direct me or hold my hand or take me to reception or speak on my behalf. I had never experienced anything like the sense of dread which descended upon me at that moment. But it was to get much worse only a few minutes later.
I believe I had made the journey from home alone, but am unsure about that. This involved two bus journeys. I searched around, found the entrance to the school, walked into the interior and stood before a person who may have been a receptionist. I felt a very small figure in a very big and frightening place. I am not saying anyone was unkind, I was just asked to tell them my name. It is amazing how a very small thing can constitute the greatest trauma of my life. A simple question was asked.
“What is your name?”
And with this question my world collapsed, and any sense of being a person of worth vanished. The question had been asked and my mind searched for the answer. Nothing came to me, I could not remember my own name. So I stood dumbly before people who had me to themselves. Were they going to be good and kind? I did not know. I guess most of them were basically good but I was rarely to experience what I understood as goodness. Until recently I wondered if I had ever recovered from that moment. School was a terror to be endured and my entrance into its strict world began an ongoing nightmare. One which materialised into reality and gripped me, body and soul like a choke hold around the throat. I do not blame the school, it was of its time when problems like me were resolved by recognising that I was either a lazy or a stupid, backward child. I am not certain there was ever a consensus on the matter. I became a quiet and cooperative pupil who took his punishments as if they were normal and well deserved. I never complained. I was a schoolboy in an establishment whose purpose was to send well educated young Catholics out into the world. In this they failed up to a point, although I perhaps learned more about my faith than I or they realised. Later on in life I was well able to defend my belief system based as it was on well-defined doctrines. These were learned from a Catechism by rote. First question: Who made you? Answer: God made you. A very similar method to learning the times tables: 7×8=56. Simple and a simpleton should have coped. I coped, but only up to a point. Like a child who would advance into the sea until the water covered his ankles and then retreat. I never really flourished, primarily because I could not learn or retain information beyond the most basic first stages. I think an abiding panic ruled my mind and shut down the normal learning process. Out of class I was OK, I made a few friends and survived. Within class I did next to nothing and as I have said, took the resulting punishments as my due for being a stupid ignorant child. Much later in life, my dear father; a good and gentle man whom I deeply loved told me something that should have been kept secret. That a teacher had remarked to him that your boy will amount to nothing. It was an accurate prognostication. I failed all the way through the education system. I somehow avoided taking the 11 plus exam, and entered the late teenage years without a single qualification. A situation not remedied until I was in my sixties.
I headlined this section THE INNER CESS PIT so I had better explain. What is the character and function of the Cess Pit? Simply put it is a holding tank without an outlet. There is no intent to treat or discharge the sewage, it is simply to collect and store waste. That is a perfect description of my condition, one which only changed substantially over recent decades. However it is only since the diagnosis of cancer that these symptoms have vanished altogether, including fears that had remained fully intact until only months ago. Under certain circumstances the little panicky child returned and inhabited a seventy five year old man. The accrued rotting mess had nowhere to go. I was effectively paralysed as regards finishing or accomplishing anything. I sat in front of homework that was never likely to be done. And even if done it would rarely be passed on for marking. I became adept at swapping unmarked homework for a beating. It was a trade, I did nothing and received the due punishment.
In many ways, looking at this regime from the comfort of a modern perspective this mistreatment of a problem child appears almost criminal. Did no-one try to find out what was going on? The answer to that is no! Underlying problems were not within the brief of teachers. The price to pay was punishment. At the prescribed time you stood in line with other miscreants in a corridor and waited for the buzzer to go. This meant it was time to enter the headmaster’s office. He asked for the chit of paper, or asked what tariff you had been awarded. I think it was either four or six whacks over your hands with a ferula: a 1ft-long, leather-covered rubber strap. Anthony Poole in A History of Wimbledon College wrote the following and it is entirely accurate.
‘Punishment was dealt out at two set times during breaks. A short (occasionally long) queue of boys gathered outside the respective master’s study door, the wiser ones warming their hands on the central heating pipes, and one by one they knocked and were invited in. It was then their part to ask ‘Please may I have (x number of) ferulas?’ The details noted in the punishment book, his hands duly whacked with stunning report, the poor unfortunate duly had to say ‘Thank You’.’ All of that I remember very well. My brothers both attended Wimbledon College, Donhead was the junior school to Wimbledon College and located the other side and appropriately further up Edge Hill Rd. So I met this dreaded ferula, and began the nosedive which marked the next decade. As an aside, the advice about warming your hands was good. I was once advised to put my hands under the cold tap and screamed so loudly I drew quite a lot of concerned faces. However I cannot look back a couple of generations and blame an institution for how things were then understood. Society has changed, and things are known about disabilities and proper care is given to children with learning difficulties. In those days you were expected to take some hard knocks without complaint. The only time I ever recall doing well was one of those random unaccountable things that just happen to fall into place. I do not remember the task that was set before us but I took an interest in finding out about the British Protectorate in Aden. I wrote to the embassy asking for information about Aden. The information came and on the basis of this I wrote my first considered piece of literature based on research. Did I get credit? No, I was accused of having either cribbed it or had someone else write it for me.
I have established that learning was one problem, my body image was another. I was deeply ashamed of it, crazily so. I was a young kid and most of us in those days were skinny. But I was obsessed with not being seen so I learned to hide and avoid many things I feared. Being physically exposed was one of the most feared. Somehow I contrived on most occasions to avoid being seen in a state of near or total nudity. Staying out of sound and sight and notice became my top priorities, and they were achieved by lying, deceiving, hiding and waiting for the inevitable: the roof to fall in. To be found out and to endure another round of reproach and punishment. Nevertheless I got out of a lot of classes I should have attended, rarely if ever appearing in the outdoor swimming pool of any of my schools. I missed most long distance runs and many of the most embarrassing or challenging activities at the physical education sessions. The one thing I did enjoy was climbing the ropes to the ceiling in the gym. But running towards the gymnasium horse and jumping over it was a jump too far for me.
Out in the playground however I was very good at British Bulldog. I was an elusive runner in confined spaces and was often last to be caught. One method I devised which I was pleased with was how to avoid being touched by a faster runner. When being pursued by such a person I would slow slightly, wait for the near moment of touch, which naturally involved the pursuer slowing slightly, and then change direction slightly, accelerate and leave them wrong-footed. This worked a treat because the change in pace was negligible and most never realised what I was doing. On the other side of this while playing in the only practice rugby game I got involved in, I found myself running free towards one of the slowest overweight boys in my class. I could run rings around him any day. The certainty of a try was waiting to be taken. With the rugby ball clasped in one hand and the try line just behind him I ran towards glory. But at this moment of imminent triumph I got confused as to which side to pass him on. In this state of indecision I managed to run straight into him and got tackled. It annoys me to this day.
These outdoors activities played to the competitive side of my character which developed later. In the classroom it was all a very different matter. Within that cold academic environment I lost my way and became the school whipping boy, unable or unwilling to learn. I was I think unteachable. One teacher was so frustrated by my stubbornness that she took my by the hair and drilled a propelling pencil into my scalp, I think only to make a point. It was nothing deep, but sufficient to draw blood which dripped to the floor onto which she had thrown me. This lady was a teacher I had a soft spot for; she had a finely tuned kiss curl which descended over her forehead. Such adornments were fashionable at the time. This event was never reported, I said nothing beyond the mundane about what was going on. How was school today? It was alright I would reply.
Truanting was the only option out of it, and this was to become a way of life. After Donhead I managed to stay away from the next school for nearly two entire terms. The one following that I truanted again. And so life went on, a miserable long road a winding which as far as I could see would either never end, or terminate somewhere no-one would want to end up. My parents, when the worst of my deceits were discovered were much kinder than I had any right to expect. At around the age of sixteen my they enrolled me in their last hope: an Art School. A place to unwrap my natural talent. But before I get into that I need to explain the school experience as it relates to religion. The first and second schools spoken about above were both Roman Catholic to the core. Heavy duty expectations both secular and religious were laid upon the hearts and minds and spirits of us maturing boys.
THE IMPACT OF RELIGION
I experienced religion and its magisterial priesthood as burdens which bore heavily down on me: my spirit, my mind and even my body. Every part felt crushed beneath its weight. As a child I was very aware of the doctrines of heaven and hell, but it was hell and purgatory that dominated and haunted my life, bringing up spectres of unpurged guilt and terrible punishment. And I could see no way out because I had cut myself off from the forgiveness of God. How had that happened you may ask? As I was taught to say and think; it was all through my fault, my most grievous fault. The form of the Confiteor as used in the celebration of the Latin Mass, the mea culpa was said three times. Mea culpa is Latin for through my own fault. It was ingrained into the heart and mind of us Catholic children.
The third time this prayer is said it is with the addition of the adjective maxima (“very great”, usually translated as “most grievous fault”). It is accompanied by the gesture of beating the breast. I am guilty. The way out is through confession and receiving Holy Communion. As you will read, both of these ways of rectifying my sins were cut off to me, or at least that is what I thought.
I was living a life I knew to be sinful and with this knowledge came a growing fear of retribution from a God I had every reason to fear. Hell was the destination for sinners. How did I, a maturing child become swept up into this theological maelstrom? It was the truancy that posed the major difficulty, along with the sacrament of penance. As a Catholic there was a requirement to go to confession at least once a year. Into a darkened booth, divided between priest and penitent by an aperture: a wire grill or curtain. Once on my knees in the semi dark I was required to say the formula prayer: forgive me Father, for I have sinned. There was an obligation to tell the truth. To lie in confessional was, I then believed, a mortal sin deserving hellfire. My truancy which was ongoing was not in itself the direct problem, it was how to get the sin confessed without stopping the truancy first. I was a perpetual liar who had by a strange coincidence learned his faith from the same religious order which had invented a way for people to avoid the consequences of sin. If I had had been the ten year old son of a rich Catholic in 17th century France I could have escaped my problem via the use of casuistry. A false and corrupt principle invented by of all people, the ingenious Jesuits. The very religious order which had taught me my faith. Of course at the time I had no knowledge of this disgraceful theological device, which was brought to end partly by the investigations of Blaise Pascal. A truly good example of a devout Catholic who risked his life to expose a lie. The hypocrisy of casuistry was monumental, but I was in no condition to argue this or any case before the solid ranks of clerics who patrolled the corridors of power in the Church.
But I digress, back to the story. I had to go to confession once a year. The sin I dared not admit or confess was that in order to finance my two terms avoiding attendance at a private school, I stole small amounts of cash from our kitchen cupboard. The housekeeping for each week was kept in a kitchen cupboard called an easywork. In it and open to view was a pile of scattered change, pennies, three-penny pieces, sixpences, shillings, two shillings, half crowns, ten shilling notes etc. All this was left carelessly scattered on a shelf. My parents did not suspect that a thief was in their midst. I took a small amount change for food and on occasion enough to get a ticket for the cinema, my afternoon treat. Instead of my ten bus journeys a day, yes really, fifty a week getting to Purley and back, I now walked out of my home at Hook in Surrey in my school uniform, the jacket, cap and tie of which was kept well out of sight, buried in my satchel. When it was cold these marks of obvious truancy were hidden under my raincoat. Instead of school I surreptitiously headed off instead to the nearby towns of Surbiton and Kingston. How I was never seen or questioned or reported I do know. I lived in a state of near constant apprehension, making hiding places in undergrowth, sitting in men’s toilets for a read of a comic or something, anything to kill time. This included walking and looking at and around the shops. Once, while in a gent’s toilet a man peered over top, he must have been standing on his toilet seat. The next moment he was climbing over the top. I got out in a wild panic just in time. That was my worst moment and the only one of real threat. I have often wondered what might have happened if I had accepted the company of this person who obviously wanted me. At that time I had no knowledge of what this might have involved. About homosexual predators and paedophiles I knew nothing.
How could all this happen and remain unnoticed for so long you may well ask? Partly I think because conformity to rules of behaviour were just expected. I was a quiet well behaved kid who made few ripples and kept his head down. At that time in the late fifties things were very different. Parents expected their child to be doing what they appeared to be doing, going to school every morning in uniform and satchel and returning each day as expected. As for the school authorities, the headmaster at this semi-private school in Purley was very old, and I imagine the check-up system and office work personnel might have comprised just a single secretary. And even if the missing pupil was noticed, it was clearly just accepted that one might suddenly disappear from the register without consultation from its parents. No action was taken, I went through the school holidays as usual, found an old school report in the bureau, altered it where required and presented it to my parents, who accepted it without comment. So it went on into the second term. Every time I passed a Roman Catholic Church I felt the terrible weight of my failure to confess both my truancy and my thieving. I knew I faced judgement and hell, knowledge that added to the sense that I was in every way a lost soul. I was a liar and cheat, a person without character who would amount to nothing beyond being a disgrace. A person who deserved everything I had brought down upon my own head: through my own most grievous fault. There seemed no escape from the impasse. I just waited for the inevitable, and when it happened I was treated very well and without unkindness or shouting. I was sent to another school, and failed there as well. Because my only talent seemed to be art and drawing I was sent to a very different kind of educational establishment. Metaphorically I exhaled my first life enhancing breath in about a decade. I had finally finished with the word for trauma spelled… S.C.H.O.O.L.
Between childhood and old age I have passed through some of the major types of Christian denominations, beginning with forty years as a Roman Catholic. This as I have described became a heavy weight upon me which I could not shift. I cannot in all honesty blame the RC Church for all of this, since I now realise I contributed greatly to the weight I felt myself crushed beneath. After forty years I left this church with my wife, who had converted to Catholicism and our six children, all of whom had been brought up in this faith. With that name tag comes a host of teaching which impacts those who believe its doctrines. I believed them for at least thirty of those forty years. I taught them as foundational for salvation to my children with little thought as to the impact on them. Perhaps worse was to follow; after becoming an evangelical Christian I almost certainly terrified some of them with End Times eschatology. A word meaning: theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. I may well have put a burden on them at an inappropriate time in their lives and without explaining the context or the love of a God who desires the eternal death of no one. In this I was a terrible father and I am so sorry for damaging the lives of my dear children, whose love for me over recent times has in my opinion been thoroughly undeserved. There came a time when questioning my faith became a critical exercise. This worked wonders in me, the case against the claim of this Church to be the One, True and Apostolic Church established by God had to be proved to my satisfaction.
This took about a decade and involved many rewrites due to feelings that I should not be acting like an attack dog snarling helplessly at a herd of buffalo. Nevertheless I stuck at it. A process which involved learning and research, reading and writing, delving deeply into the foundations and doctrines of Roman Catholicism. Through this seeming necessity I came to believe that God began my education. Something I had missed out on now became an abiding passion. I loved the challenge, and my spirit came alive as I searched the scriptures and asked questions of those doctrines which I had imbibed. Did God want the preservation of a ministerial priesthood? Was the Last Supper and other teachings of Jesus signs that a doctrine such as transubstantiation was required? One that placed huge powers in the hands of priests. Did Mary hold the place of goddess with powers and an attraction to worshippers that rivalled those owed to Jesus? Was a papacy of the type exemplified by popes throughout history a true reflection on the role and headship accorded to the Apostle Peter? The history of this Church seemed to me to be in large part rotten to the core. These and other factors drew me away and eventually out of the Roman Catholic Church.
Following that break from the Catholic faith we very briefly attended a local evangelical Anglican church. However the priesthood in any form spooked me, so we moved on to a Baptist Union Church where we stayed until the children matured and went their separate ways. Now some are Christian, others vary between no faith and faith without a church life. For my wife Jennie and myself an interregnum like time passed, during which we cared for my dad for a couple of years until he passed away. My mum had died earlier. They were good people and I loved them both to the very end. They had chosen to live near us and were a great help. It was a privilege to see them through their last years. I wonder if their desire to be close was in part motivated by what they must have known had happened to their youngest son. None of it was ever spoken about and I never raised the subject. A very British solution.
Our children had a hard time with religion and some bad experiences at school. My admiration for them and gratitude to them is now boundless. They have been love personified to me, each and every one of them. The mission of Jesus is one of redemption and salvation. A message that was largely lost in my sharing the gospel. I hammered away at Truth written large and missed its context. In truth, without a loving sacrificial context there is no gospel which is the love and sacrifice of the God made man Jesus Christ. Made so that we can enter the place prepared for us. Much of this context I failed to convey, and I am so sorry that for some of my children it was too much to take in or believe. In spreading what I believed to be a safety net under their feet I succeeded in doing little more than catching them in a net which was in part both false and dangerous. A message gone wrong or misunderstood has been the cause of many a disaster. Now to happier times and different kinds of mistakes.
ART AND ALL ITS WORKS: BOTH GOOD AND BAD!
When even the greatest artists, like Van Gogh are rubbished and ignored until dead and buried it is unsurprising that most artists feel they get a rough deal. I got very bitter over the years which did not help my overall mood. During this prolonged deep blue period art was experienced as a type of Tantalus. A legendary king condemned to stand up to the chin in a pool of water in Hades and beneath fruit-laden boughs only to have the water or fruit recede at each attempt to drink or eat. He obviously survived in order to go through this torture and so have I, but not without having to overcome persistent feelings of frustration at seeing talent very rarely being recognised, at least in terms of remuneration. And that at the time this was what mattered, admiration does not pay bills.
I was sent to Art School because I had shown signs of talent. From early on I could draw figures well, and in most positions, including illustrations of cowboys being punched backwards over a table in a bar fight. Cowboys or highwaymen on horses, murder, mayhem and taut muscles became my signature. My style was robust, nothing timid now, raw art without anything much being planned. Straight in with whatever medium I used, little or no preparation or under drawing to guide me. Short circuiting the normal system was my way, one which did cohere with the teaching methods I was to encounter in Art School. However I was much happier, but still confused. By instinct an illustrator, one who had fallen into a course that was more design oriented, one that did not suit my natural skills. I was still incapable of real conscientiousness unless self-motivated, and so this situation did not help. I tended to do much as I had previously, which was as little as possible. Truanting was now reduced to an occasional avoidance of trouble or boredom. So I kind of kicked my heels and waited for something to turn up. Each year a new intake of students appeared, and it was normal practice for the males to look the girls over. This was in the heady simple days when the opposite sex still existed. The clear demarcation line between male and female was well entrenched as a foundation stone of society. Oh how I would like to go off on one about that subject, but it has no place in an account such as this. Homosexuality was known about, but still undercover and any thought of a gender other than between male and female was an idea awaiting its time. Those who might have been so inclined did so without advertising the fact. I entered the Art School as an innocent, a virtue which received a jolt much earlier than I could have expected. The most stunning shock to the system was being confronted by life classes. This happened within about a week after I arrived. I knew nothing about what to expect when I sat with other students wondering why an attractive young blond female was waiting wrapped in a kind of gown. Then she took it off and sat down: well all I know was that if a thought could have been caught and isolated it would have been Wow! This was indeed a new life and drawing was not so much a natural instinct but more of a distraction. But what shocks one week becomes routine the next and life and life classes came and went. I settled in, had a couple of friends and got on OK with everyone. A teacher I liked, Mr Cadman, a bearded man who always seemed to be smoking the remains of a cigarette butt, once made an astute comment about me. He said: “The trouble with you Higham is that you’re bone idle.” It was in that spirit that I carried on without too much censure. As ever I did just enough to get by.
I don’t think initially I took much notice of the girl who would become my wife. After a few conversations I was to find that she came from a far less comfortable life, in terms of relative wealth. Her family were not well off and that may be one reason she could not show off as others could, even if she had wanted to, which she did not. Her nature was not to push herself forward. Her clothing was a mix of second-hand clothes and school shoes. Jeans were fashionable, but Jennie wore the kind of checked trousers worn by golfers at that time: a bit baggy. Trendy she was not.
Her entrance into Art School was in fact something of a miracle. She had few of the required GCSE exam results and was told by the principal, a pedantic and officious male who few liked, that she would not get in even if she were Michelangelo. And yet one day, there she was answering a question I had asked. I happened to be sitting on a radiator, warming my posterior while lounging aimlessly in the entrance hallway of the Art School. Someone mentioned the word rigormortis in connection with my position, and I had asked what it meant. The reply came back from Jennie. Its meaning was postmortem stiffness following death. I was later to discover that Jennie was the daughter of a former district nurse; her father not her mother. This rigormortis chat-up line has I imagine a close to a hundred percent success rate. Following this encounter we must have talked at various times, Jennie and other girls often watched while we boys played table tennis, so we occasionally spoke to one another.
Being around teenage girls caused me to consider my claims to a nascent manhood, and to ask whether my life up to then stood up to investigation. My thoughts about this were that I felt far short. I had never proved myself. Being a boy who had never done anything to put himself at risk, and therefore doubted my potentiality for manhood, I tried something dangerous. To impress anyone, particularly a girl, by occasionally descending the outside of the school building which was three stories high. The Common Room was on the top story and had drop down windows, one of which gave perilous access to a flat roof from which it seemed possible to descend all the way down to a narrow little used side street. It was risky, especially the first jump. If a foot had slipped while pushing off and jumping sideways onto the first flat roof, which was not directly below me, then the consequences would have been serious, potentially fatal. A tumble of about fourteen feet onto concrete. To accomplish this without such an outcome I had to leap a few feet sideways onto the first flat roof. This bit of skittishness impressed me but not Jennie, She never saw it happen but I told her about it, and she thought it idiotic. However, I had proved something to myself. And how I needed to know that I was not a complete coward and could face a real life threatening danger, and overcome it. Only about two of us boys ever attempted it during my time. And once I was discovered it never happened again. I was found out when my descent onto the second roof, beneath which was the school library, happened during a staff meeting. The thump of feet on ceiling caused an investigation and my little capers were never resumed.
Towards the end of one term some of us gathered at a local pub. I recall a mix up occurring, which is kind of typical of me; I asked two girls out rather than one, which I believe is the normal convention. I nearly did not turn up for either, but somehow this was cleared up without too much fuss and concluded with the agreement that Jennie rather than Madeleine would be my partner at the forthcoming Art School Christmas Party. I had a real date with someone who knew me and had said yes to the invitation. On the big day II got there first and waited with the kind of apprehension I imagine most of us have felt at some time or other regarding a first meeting of the opposite sex.
Jennie was a lovely person without a hint of pride. She looked nice, had a lovely character and was deeply into her Christian faith, as was I. We shared much conversation around these subjects. I found her faith simplistic and shorn of the traditions, doctrines and ceremonial of my Catholic faith. I knew with absolute certainty that my Faith trumped hers. The Roman Catholic religion stood proud in my mind as the One True Church, armed as it was by the promise of infallibility. She admired the way I stood up for my faith. And initially, perhaps more than any other form of desire for each other we discovered this common factor that drew us together. Yes, I had found my voice in this much freer atmosphere. I was learning to love argument, debate and discussions and was prepared to take on anyone. The hidden child was turning towards adulthood and growing in self-confidence. Still far from mature, but at least in some forms of company able to contribute and stand up for what I believed. This was a new world and a new life. The tightly packed petals of a spring flower were beginning to open. So I waited and wondered about what would happen on this first date.
THE BRIDE OF CHRIST BY CHRIS HIGHAM
I remember once asking my mother how it was you knew when you were in love. Her reply did little to enlighten me and I do not recall exactly what was said beyond the simple but surprisingly accurate: “you will just know.” I guess it is something you can only access through the experience. Jennie, the girl who had said she would come with me to the Art School Christmas Party arrived. I saw Jennie enter the room and knew I was in the process of falling in love with her. That process was shortened by the knowledge that falling should be replaced by fallen. She was lovely to behold and the outer appearance was complimented by the inner. Her character has never altered nor has her love for me faltered. There is nothing old and stale about what we share together: Marriage born as God decreed between man and woman for the purposes of reproduction and family life surrounded with children. In our case six of the very best, not because they have been without fault, gone the wrong way and messed up in various ways as we all do. But because they are ours, they are loved and they have all come through in ways that have blessed us beyond measure. But that was all in the future. I looked across the Art School common room and took in the allure of my date.
I have no recollection of a word we spoke or the conversations that passed between us. But over and above words was the knowledge that this beautiful girl had made such an effort to please me. Her mother had made a matching tabard top and skirt, her shoes were new, her brown hair just glowed with an auburn lustre which framed her cheek line and fell freely to her shoulders. Her expression was just enchanting and I was spellbound. I do not know to what degree I understood what this meant to me. But it left me with an indelible memory. This person had chosen to go to so much effort to be attractive for me, and only me. It was overwhelming, I had been chosen from among others to be her partner. She was to be mine and I was to be hers. I thank God, because she passed by for the most part unnoticed by the other male students, probably due to her normal attire, which unlike the most obviously attractive girls was far removed from the black leather, heavy makeup and overt sex appeal. This was the period of the Mods and Rockers and innocence dressed up was an unusual sight. It was the Nineteen Sixties and the world was about to go crazy round us. We however never shook off or felt the desire to shake off the world in which we had grown up. Nothing in us had the desire to uproot the society which had birthed and formed our ethics and our responsibility to one another, to family life and our faith in the Christian God and his Commandments. We noted the changes happening all around us and rejected the permissive society, the new Promised Land. One that we believe poisoned everything it touched and every area it colonised. In other ways we scarce noticed, we were in love. Life changes without those experiencing it really noticing what is happening. It is just life, the best it had to offer up to then. And apart from my faith life which slowly changed out of all recognition, nothing has even really topped those months and years that saw two people fall in love: even though the births of all our six children come very close. Holding each new born baby in your arms for the first time is an incalculable joy. As is the production line of grandchildren which will shortly total eleven. From three tall males at the top end and in descending order to a varied selection of much loved maturing children, down to one still forming, unseen as yet growing in its mother’s womb. All A good wife and mother such as Jennie is made up of more than good looks. Jennie has both looks and character, the latter formed through good parenting and her love of God. A good wife is described in this heavily truncated version from the Book of Proverbs.
“A good woman is hard to find, and worth far more than diamonds. Her husband trusts her without reserve, and never has reason to regret it. Never spiteful, she treats him generously all her life long…she always faces tomorrow with a smile. When she speaks she has something worthwhile to say, and she always says it kindly. Her children respect and bless her, her husband joins in with words of praise: “Many women have done wonderful things, but you’ve outclassed them all!”
Amen to that!
So how and why was this girl expelled from Epsom Art School? It was rare for Jennie and me to disagree, but one occasion we did. She wanted to go to an evening class and I didn’t want her to go. She dug her heels in and went into the Ladies to silence my complaints. I stood outside fuming. The door was in its upper section glazed with opaque glass in about six sections. One of these had obviously suffered a crack. A piece of hardboard was nailed over it. As my temper got worse and as Jennie was no longer replying to my complaints and demands I decided to take action. A few moments later my fist went through the hardboard and glass. Unfortunately for us the principal heard the commotion and appeared on the stairs and looked down at the mess of broken board and glass. He took us both aside to explain the cause of the violence and the damage to the door. The upshot of this inquiry was that Jennie, on the grounds of inciting a student to violent behaviour, was considered both unsuitable and disposable. Jennie was expelled. From today’s perspective this was a gross act of male Chauvin ism. A Principle without principle. However, it worked to the good in one way. Jennie got a well-paid job and began the process of us saving for our marriage. Yes, she was removed from Art School and forgave me. Foe what? Being little more than an innocent bystander of an act of petulant idiocy by her boyfriend. And it was scarce mentioned again. Her parents saw the positive side of it, the male was expected to be the breadwinner and my training was therefore more important if we had a future together. Dear Jennie, to me she is my second saviour, given as my partner through life by God: a gift beyond price presented to a totally undeserved recipient. And I will tell you why. She knew I had problems, drinking too much under stressful conditions being just one of them. This bad habit terminated following perhaps the worst episode of my life. Strangely enough, seen from a perspective of over fifty years ago, the most shameful and public was also the funniest.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM
The disgraceful episode which follows had an undercurrent of a reason: I could not cope with social occasions, I normally avoided them, thinking that no-one would be remotely interested in conversing with me and that my shyness and social incapacities would be horribly exposed: so I drank to excess. A safety device brought to a shuddering end through a humiliation not only for myself, but also a much worse one I inflicted on my long suffering girlfriend. I accompanied Jennie to a prestigious management and office works outing. It was in London and the centre piece of the occasion after drinks, which I accepted as and when offered, and bite sized eats at the Waldorf we arrived at the Strand Theatre to see and enjoy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Frankie Howerd: a national treasure of a comedian. In we went, sat down in our seats and there began a comic opera of a sort that should have separated Jennie from myself for longer than our marriage has flourished, at the time of writing, just fifty three years. The mix of alcohol began to make itself felt, I was extremely verbally rude to a gentleman sitting behind us. A situation made worse by the fact that he was part of our group. The play began and the great man appeared on stage in his toga and began speaking. I stood up in the filled theatre and shouted “Get on with it”. The response to this outburst passed me by, I had sunk back into my seat, passing out while resting my head first on Jennie’s shoulder and vomiting up the best that the Waldorf had to offer down her clothes and into her lap. A strong guy sitting next to me picked me up under the armpits and walked me out and down to the Gents. There I remained for a long time in a state of semi consciousness. Spewing up took longer than the time taken consuming the drinks. During this period Jennie tried to solve the problem of her shoulder to lap vomit covered attire. This included a brand new white skirt. Jennie left the auditorium and headed for the Ladies where she met an elderly attendant and explained her predicament. No hot water was available, but she took off her clothes and washed in cold water. Her sheepskin jacket, which had fortunately been left in the cloakroom, was retrieved by the attendant. The downside was it barely covered her backside. The foyer was empty apart from a stallholder called Curly who manned a vegetable stall outside the theatre. He was having a drink at the otherwise empty bar when Jennie appeared in her stricken condition. Her appearance must have caused even a man who had probably seen many odd things in his life, a mild shock. Below Jennie’s hip length sheepskin jacket were a pair of legs encased in stockings held in place by red suspenders. Curly did a very decent thing, took of his once white overall, streaked with vegetable marks and gave it to Jennie to wear.
While this was going on in the theatre foyer I, still in the gents, eventually ceased throwing up the contents of my stomach and came back to some kind of groggy life and awareness. We met up with me too far gone to even notice Jennie’s wretched condition. The two of us began the long journey back to my home, Jennie being the navigator. To this day I find getting from A to C via B, problematic. At one point while still in London Jennie recalls me propped up at a bus shelter flanked on either side by two nuns. Apparently I looked from side to side, and then shut my eyes. Perhaps it was heavenly apparition come to earth to shame me. Jennie somehow got us both back. She wore her occasionally revealing outfit, there were no buttons front or back below hip level, all the way; steering me unerringly through the streets from the theatre in London to Great Bookham in Surrey. A very reluctant bus driver agreed to take me on his vehicle, based on Jennie’s promise that I had nothing more to throw up.
I slept all the way to the destination. When I got off the bus I was suddenly stone cold sober. I looked at Jennie and asked: “What on earth are you wearing?” She replied: “Curley’s overalls because you were sick on my clothes.” I asked “Where are they?” They were wrapped up in newspaper tied up in string. I had little idea of the mayhem I had caused. Any sense of serious contrition would wait until the morning. We then began a long walk uphill towards my parents’ house. It was dark and cars were passing, their headlamps catching us in the glare, the rush of air as they did do had Jennie trying to control the flaps on the overall which were raised by the currents of air. Neither front nor back had buttons.
My parents were kind and the incident had little further coverage as far as I was concerned. Least said fastest mended was no doubt the attitude taken by them. Jennie was forgiving, which is her nature. But she made it plain that there was to be no repitition of such behaviour, and to be fair to myself there has not been any. But she would have been foolish not to have considered what a life with me might involve. She asked God this question. What she should do about committing to marriage? A vision came into her mind. In it she was asked to open her hand, and into her palm God placed a small stone. Then he closed her fingers over it, and she knew what was required. God was not asking her to manage or manipulate, just to love and hold fast. When she opened her hand she saw a precious stone. I can say nothing about that reality, I have been very difficult, that much I know. But Jennie has faithfully fulfilled the commission God gave her. I have been loved throughout our over fifty years of marriage with tenderness and compassion. She is one of those saints who would turn down the offer of a halo.
Strangely, here again I must thank cancer. I have felt through most of my life a terrible burdensome sense of failure. That I let them down in so many ways, and I know this is true, but cancer has somehow cast a benign and gentle glow to the view. I have found I am greatly loved, and it moves me to tears to think about it even while writing. They have without exception been loving and encouraging and concerned throughout. If dying results from this illness I will still with my last breath thank it for opening up the heart of the father for his children and the hearts of the children for their father. I will name them according to the order of their birth. David, Karen, Peter, Clare, Martin and Becky. Then there are their partners and the grandchildren, all eleven of them, the latest still in the womb. We have two half Japanese grandchildren and two more who are half Chinese. If you want to measure the mild eccentricity in our family then think about our eldest son David and his two half Japanese children who are named Blaize, ( after Blaize Pascal ) and Luc. Half Brit, half Japanese, so give them French names. That is David for you, thinks outside the box. He is an excellent writer, very quirky and the best of company. Like all our children he is sociable but dislikes idiots and those who do not think things through. Karen is a full blown character, funny and creative, a natural advocate, like Don Quixote, waiting for the right windmill to turn up. Peter is another funny one, sense of humour I mean. A great parent, works hard and is in every way a transformed character to that of the troubled teenage years. He is a person for whom I have huge admiration. His comment about me with relation to my cancer reaction will live with me to the grave, and send me laughing on my way. In a post he asked the rhetorical question: as if speaking to God: “What have you done with my negative and pessimistic dad?” Clare is a little treasure, very like her mum, a great parent of her two children, positive and kind and much cleverer than I realised, being well capable of taking on jobs I would have once thought well beyond her. She has constantly surprised me and filled me with joy. Martin has had a hard time, but his courage and determination have carried him through, as has his talent. And he has such strong convictions which he will argue with cogency and passion against all comers, including myself. He took to himself a Chinese bride and they had two children. It was I believe his choice to give Russian names to the two girls: Nikita and Natasha. And finally there is our surprise packet, Becky or Bex as she is more usually known. She is about to become a mum for the second time, and how she loves being a mother and a wife. Full of love and enthusiasm and commitment to her faith and her friends. As loyal as can be and as loving as her mum. She is widely admired by her many friends for the support and love she gives. All of our children have children of their own, and all of those I am proud of. Watching as they grow up and mature. I cannot even begin to anticipate what they will all do with their lives, but with parents such as they have they can only benefit a world that needs creative, thoughtful, characterful, loving, generous well educated and positive people.
I love and respect them all. Our children have suffered and made mistakes, as we all do, but they are net contributors to society for the better. They all care for others, they all have a sense of humour, each one even in their struggles have manifest great character and Jennie and I are very proud of them. As you get older you sense the change that happens, as the parents begin to fade the children begin to fill in the gaps that appear. They have all been so close and supportive to us through this, I will not call it a fight against cancer, but this challenge that has arisen through cancer. I have been touched hugely by the love that has poured out of them for us their parents. For me this love and concern for my wellbeing is hard to accept. For obvious reasons I am sure you can appreciate that receiving acceptance and love of such a kind is hard for someone with my history to assimilate.
I will say little more of our offspring because they are not directly involved in the reason this little book is being written. They know I hope how much they are admired and loved.
Here are a selection of comments they made about the cancer situation. This is in random order and selected from innumerable messages over a long period.
Dad’s very much on my mind as I am sure he is to everyone else too. Amazing to see Dad so at peace yesterday, but want him to be assured if he does have shaky times it’s OK not to be OK… that nobody will judge him for it. Know all of us want to be the best support we can to bring him through this healed.
Dad and Mum, always have a slight edge in the bonkers department, more than Mum…In saying that Mum you’ve had many a Starsky the rabbit moment, skipping into Wimborne as I remember! Singing Oh what a glorious morning. Great to see you both getting on with life, acting slightly mad. No wonder my friends at work think I’m nuts. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!!!
Having spoken to Dad I honestly don’t think I have ever heard him so positive and upbeat, and in the face of adversity and life changing news. I am truly shocked, inspired and incredibly proud of you Dad.
We all make mistakes Dad, It’s what makes us the people we are. It’s not how you start but how you finish. And you will finish loved more than you know by all your children who have the upmost respect and pride of our wonderful talented Dad. So don’t bother apologising to me. You don’t need to. X
Here is one of my replies to a question asking: how am I?
How am I? Good question. Feeling low, a bit angry, out of sorts, feel God has let me down etc. etc. Oh! Hang on a minute that was a summary of much of my first 74 years. I am now 75 and feeling fine, upbeat, love my family more than ever and trust in God completely, whatever the result of the future. Now you can say it. The silly old sod has lost his marbles again. Love to all.
To this Clare replied.
Don’t do that to me. I read the first couple of lines and nearly freaked out… and your marbles can remain lost. I love the new positive side of you.
Martin was not connected to this family group, he does not have Messenger so I have less written accounts of his love and encouragement. David has phoned me a few times from Japan. Good long wide ranging conversations which he tells me are all recorded for posterity.
He either has a way with words or let’s words have their way, either way it’s entertaining. You are MUCH loved!! This time cancer turns out to be the teacher: saying that we must treasure each other each day and never take anything for granted.
Found some comments from Martin, the first is typical of his character.
Thanks for letting me know. He will likely need a finger in the bum to check it out….I’m really pleased his time in hospital was as good as it could have been, minus the wait of course. He will be up and bugging everyone in no time….We will work it out together as a family.
All these are just a fraction of the stream of comments that went back and forth for months, and they have buoyed Jennie and me up through the entire process of going through the cancer experience. While in Torbay hospital I was opposite an elderly man who was very weak and had no visitors. We got to know each other a little, he was lonely and I tried to help him as much as I could. It taught me just how blessed I am to have the children and grandchildren, and beyond the quotes from children and the older grandchildren we have also have had support and love from the wider family and friends. We are a very blessed and very grateful couple.
ART / FAITH / AND IDEAS
A SMALL SECTION OF OIL PAINTINGS BY CHRIS HIGHAM
Equally loved and hated, this often unwanted and cursed gift of art was eventually the cause of lifting my life from its self-created pit. By now you know something of my general disposition you will be unsurprised that there were many highs and lows. My father was a professional artist for most of his life. He worked hard, with long hours and was blessed by rarely being without work. For all of my life, and as far as I can remember he worked from home. He did little to encourage me to follow in his footsteps, but he obviously noticed my early ability to draw figures out of my head and without reference. They were just there, so if I wanted to draw a bar fight in a cowboy saloon with a man being punched backwards over a table I could visualise the scene and draw it, either in pencil or with a fine brush and black ink. There was a long gap between those simple beginnings and a freelance commercial art career which came later.
After art school I got my first job and a London art studio / advertising agency situated just off Charing Cross Rd in London. The famous bookshop Foyles was nearby, the studio was in a three story building down an alleyway just off the Phoenix Theatre. I was a junior earning £4.30 a week. The proper artists, two of them, one a lettering artist earned about £20 per week. At this time I was still living with my parents and travelling up to London by train. Saving anything towards the hoped for marriage with Jennie was difficult. After months of saving I had about nine pounds and felt a strong desire to give it all away to our local parish church via its priest. Jennie and I were saving up to get married. I was still a Roman Catholic, went to church every week and believed fiercely in the truth of its doctrines. Jennie was I think at that time in the process of becoming a Roman Catholic. She agreed that this hard earned money should be given away rather than spent on anything relating to our future home. I put the money in an envelope, wrote a covering note explaining the impulse to do this and posted it through the presbytery letterbox. I was never to hear a word about this gift, and that hurt, as if this Church had not hurt me enough already. Silence from the servants of God maybe meant silence from God himself. My wage increased to £6.50 over the next year or so. I finally made the decision to go freelance, this decision was helped by my fathers’ London based agents willingness to take me on. So I handed in my notice. My boss offered to double my wages, I thought about this for a moment, considered the fact that I was now valued at twice what I was being paid and took more than a little pleasure in refusing the offer. A rash decision perhaps, the life of a freelance commercial artist, one that continued for twenty years, was not easy. Especially due to the flow of children that were to follow. This was only just compensated for by the sporadic flow of income. We muddled through on a shoestring a prayer and a wife and mother who knew how to make do and mend. The wartime spirit did not die in Jennie. This situation endured for twenty years. It included a spell working alongside my dad in his smart wooden studio located in the garden. He was steady, made few if any mistakes and produced large quantities of good work. He would rarely mess up the very expensive art boards which we both used for commercial work. I however, and how it must have pained him regularly messed up my black and white comic illustrations, mostly due to my near insane refusal to draw pencil sketches before adding the permanent black ink illustrations on top of them. Once the ink drawing had dried you just used a rubber to remove the pencil under drawing. Easy, but not for me, I loved the freedom of drawing direct with ink, just as I had as a child. But now I had to to eight illustrations in comic strip boxes without making mistakes so serious I could not correct them. This I could not do all the time. When it went wrong I had no option but to start again with a new art board having only used and ruined a portion of these hot pressed smooth art boards bought from London suppliers. These I ditched in a muted rage so as not to upset my dad too much.
I came to hate art with a passion, the monotony of comic strip illustration and the uncertainty of when the next job would arise took its toll. Bit by bit I came to hate artwork. On occasion I raged around the house cursing the undeniable fact that the only gift I had was near bloody useless at making a secure living. There was the ongoing absurdity of an angry and depressed artist illustrating lovely life enhancing stories like Bab’s the Brownie. A script that I had to illustrate. A constantly happy family sitting around the breakfast or dinner or tea table, monotonously cheery. To me she rapidly degenerated to Bab’s the Bloody Brownie. I hated her happy contented life which contrasted so greatly to my own. I was a moaner, how and why people put up with me is beyond my understanding. I should have been shoved up against a wall and told a few home truths. As this did not happen I felt free to continue my complaints against the powers of the universe.
Why? The question I screamed within myself did not God give me any other gift than this accursed one. Why wasn’t I practical or sensible? Then I could have taken an office job or become a mechanic or something of the sort, but I had no skills. I was not strong, all I had done for twenty years was push around brushes weighing a few ounces. In the real world I knew I would sink like a stone. Self-pity was working overtime and I continued to curse the only major skill I could call my own. But God is good! Although I had long since ceased doing regular artwork and had been working in the Post office for fourteen years, I still felt sore about the loss of my only talent. This misery I openly shared with anyone who would listen. I was probably clinically depressed through this period.
At this time I was a member of a small Baptist Church. I was respected enough to be put up, along with a couple of others as candidates for a place on the Church diaconate: one of the leaders of the church under the pastor. So it was not even a contest. I managed not get sufficient votes to fill a vacancy for which there was no competition. The other two candidates became deacons, but I was rejected. They were of course completely correct in their judgement of me. Nevertheless I was devastated, then furious, then complained to God and poor Jennie about how unlucky I was: cursed to live in world that had no use for me. I sulked for months until one day Jennie told me a good speaker was coming to preach at an evening meeting. I needed a lot of persuading, and I went just because there was nothing better to do and to keep Jennie happy. A woman in her sixties with grey hair stood up to speak to us. I thought: oh God, an old woman who will bore me to death. She did not bore me, on the contrary, and as she spoke all my sexist and ageist thoughts fell away. She was brilliant, it was as if she was speaking directly to me. Whether by good luck or God’s grace we met up after the service had finished. It is rare to get close to a speaker like her after the end of a service, the speakers are usually overwhelmed by people wanting to talk to them. I asked her if she would pray for me. She guided me back into the now empty Church and we sat down together on a front pew. She asked, what was wrong? For some unaccountable reason I replied that I knew I would get better if I regained my love for artwork. Her reply changed my life. She had no idea whether or not I was a good or competent artist. This dear lady whom I have met since is Jennifer Rees Larcombe. Her words to me were: “you will do prophetic art for the Lord and it will be seen internationally.”
A week or two later I resigned from the Post office and began to learn how to paint. I was useless at water colour, did not like acrylic much and began to think I had made a horrible mistake. It was then that Jennie said why not try oils. Fat chance I thought, I had experienced this medium at art school and decided they were useless to me. I found the oil dominated and left everything as a smeary, unworkable and glistening mess even after the paint had dried. Part of it shined while other parts looked matt finished. That all the greats of the past had used this medium successfully had no impact on me. To me oils were impossible and my dreams were falling apart. Then Jennie, have you counted how many times she comes to my rescue: pointed out that you do not need to add oil, the oil is already in the paint. I did not need to mix it with more linseed oil, I could use odourless thinner, which acts in the same way as water does to when mixed with watercolour paint. This was a kind of “eureka” moment that gave me hope and inspiration. I began to love oil painting. I could make mistakes, wipe them out and overpaint again and again. It was the most forgiving medium by far, and how I needed a forgiving medium. My instinct is get what is in my mind onto canvass as fast as possible. To paint from the mind and heart without much more than a vague idea of a plan. With this unplanned and unstructured method I can do very complex scenes, like the Charge of the Scots Greys cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo and adjust the composition as required. Sometimes making huge structural changes, wiping out horses and men only to replace them with a superior arrangement. Make as good a first impression as you can, see the mistakes, factor in how the component parts of a composition need rearranging and correct them as you go. This is exhilarating stuff and high energy. The paintings have an immediacy and in your face action that feels like it is happening all around you. I admire hugely the Russian painters and am so far from what they can achieve by way of lighting effects and the portrayal of action that I feel myself an infant. And yet the challenge to improve is the kick up the butt I need. At the moment of writing I am in the doldrums regarding art, but the desire will return and I will improve. There must be a high point painting still in me, and that is exciting.
And this above all causes me to wonder at the grace of God. I had cursed the gift God had given me, swearing and raging that I would have been so much better as anything else. But since that moment when I was quietly restored to my right mind through the prayer of Jennifer Rees Larcombe, I have painted a large number of biblical works from both the Old and New Testaments. A book with these illustrations was self-published by a friend. The book is called From Darkness to Light. It contains the works and thoughts of both myself and the publisher. This was my best work, and I believe the culmination of God’s plans for me as regards the gift of art. The miracle is this: God gave me back the gift I had cursed and hated and denied and walked away from. Never for a moment doubt the love and grace and forgiveness of God, or his ability and desire to restore to his children what they have lost or buried. One of the greatest moments of my life was sharing this story with a church congregation, and being given the opportunity after the service to pray with many people who had experienced this kind of loss.
CHESS & BOWLS
To say I was resentful about parts of my life would be an understatement. I was on a mission, a vendetta against those who had in my opinion brought me down and written me off as a loser. How I wanted to be a winner. The object of much of my aggression was the teaching profession. I joined a chess club. Take them on at an intellectual game and beat them at that. Prove I was not the idiot non entity I had felt myself to be. I was goodish at the game and played for my town in league matches. In the club there were at least three teachers. All of them became friends of mine and I revelled in the fact I could compete and win some games against them. This was proof I measured up; I had the capacity to take representatives of this class down in a game requiring skill, cunning and mental agility. Every year we had a club championship. One year I got into final against a very bright sixth form student. We played an extraordinary match. It had to be adjourned for reasons I cannot recall. I think we just ran out of time. Each move made is recorded so we agreed a date when the game would be renewed and parted until the day. My opponent did a forensic examination of the position. Mine was difficult because my king was more or less in the open. We sat down, the clocks were started and he made his moves, most of which he had anticipated. Later I was to discover I had played flawlessly. He told me that if I had made one false move at any point during that endgame I would have lost. I never made that false move, won the game and became Wimborne Chess Champion. Was I proud? Oh yes, puffed out chest time and an inner smirk that still lasts to this day.
Then there was Bowls! Shaking my small fist at a world I wanted to take revenge on, however pathetic and small it seems in retrospect.
That gentle game played by old gents. Oh how wrong that is, at least it was as I perceived it. It can be played very aggressively, firing shots which take out the bias altogether, sent down hard and fast, straight as an arrow into a pack of bowls around the jack. The object? Smash the head of bowls in all directions, or take out a single wood, it did not matter, I loved playing those shots. For me it was the wimp’ revenge. I recall once while at an indoors venue that a young England player was practising this kind of shot. I was standing off the rink on the raised walkway. behind me were a few piles of stacked chairs. He warned me he was about to fire at a lone jack. I stood were I was thinking myself safe. He fired his wood down, heard the crack of wood on jack,. I had crossed my hands in front of my private parts just in case. I never saw the jack in flight, but I did hear it crash into the chairs behind me. It had passed between my legs at God only knows how high the mph. I was meet this player a few years later in one of the biggest games of my time playing bowls.
I took up the game of bowls many decades ago. The first time as an adult I had risked joining any kind of club or engaging in any kind of sport. This one did not require much strength or fitness, which suited me down to the ground. To my surprise I found that I had some innate talent. I was quickly recruited into the first team, won some club titles, once becoming player of the year: gaining a spectacular four cups. Many years later, after we had moved from Dorset to Devon I had my one great year. I won the club singles championship at my club, which entitled me to enter the national Champion of Champions competition. This includes all the winners of club singles championships in the country. I entered the Devon and Cornwall section. For some reason I had a positive sense that I would do well, almost to the bizarre extent of predicting the scores of matches. It felt as if I was destined to do well. Please believe me when I say I was not in the habit of having positive thoughts. I won match after match, partly due to the fact that my club uses an outdoor, artificial all weather carpet. On my way to the national finals venue at Worthing in Sussex I encountered one the best young talents in the South West. I played perhaps the finest game of my bowls career, beating him 21-8. At the end of this fight to bring down every club champion in our region I was awarded the honour of representing my county at the National Championships. For the first time I had achieved something outside the domestic sphere. I was amazed and proud and up myself. Little me, had made a tiny splash in a modest pond.
What I have not said is how aggressive I was at this game. Furious with myself when I could not get things right all the time, and hoping everyone was watching when I did well. I loved doing what is called a firing shot, hurling the wood a full speed, overriding the bias, sending it crashing into a head of bowls, scattering them in all directions. A shot designed to save yourself when down many shots. The object to take out your opponents woods. I did it for that reason most of the time, but at others just to show off. Here was a person with the desire and skill to be hyper aggressive, thereby proving, mostly to myself that I was no pushover. The monster within was making itself felt and was enjoying every moment of every opportunity to flout my momentary superiority over the opposition. However, not all was well. I have the kind of mind that anticipates trouble, and I could see it coming in my most successful year. It is a rule of life and I was to experience it up close and personally. The higher I got the bigger the drop, and the drop was bound to come. Going to a National Championship presented a huge risk of humiliation.
And that was not the only problem in moving from a local to a national scene. Neither my bowls (woods) nor my bowls shoes were fit for purpose. Consequently a Cinderella kind of person prepared for the forthcoming ball. My woods were illegal for use at a championship. They were not date stamped as required, being out of date. I found this out far too late to make a trip to the Midlands to rectify the matter. Consequently I borrowed a friends woods. Also my bowls shoes were very shabby, so I borrowed a pair from another friend.
At Worthing all the best players in the country were gathering, my competition was just one amongst many and far distant from the most prestigious. The biggest name in my side of the draw was Simon Skelton. He had been a world champion at indoor pair’s competitions. I had seen him on televised bowls matches. To get to him I would have to win two matches at Worthing on a grass green; not my natural preference as I was primarily a carpet bowler. Above all my fears was that of playing on wet grass. I had a real problem gripping the wood in the wet and would almost certainly look a total idiot if that happened. The morning of my first match dawned and with it came the forecast of the mother and father of storms coming from the west. A phone call from my son who lived in Bournemouth said that cars were floating such was the downpour and that the weather was coming our way. This may have been an exaggeration about the cars, but the effect on me was an immediate mental meltdown. I wailed to Jennie that I was going to be humiliated, and to make matters worse, I was appearing on one of the few rinks that had a kind of makeshift stand overlooking the match. I was due to play the champion of Kent. I spoke to a passing official asking whether a match might be abandoned under torrential rain conditions. The answer was no! We play on. At this I came close to crying out loud. I was distraught, my worst fears being realised. My greatest achievement in bowls was going to lead to the biggest embarrassment of my life. With nothing better to do for a couple of hours we had a miserable time over coffee with me moaning about my bad luck and this being typical, because I was cursed. After this desultory interlude we made for the seafront. In the distance the grey menacing clouds were gathering on the horizon. Jennie looked at the flags along the seafront and pointed out they were being blown strongly in the easterly direction. And against the forecast deluge over Worthing. I looked but could not believe the facts being waved vigorously in my face. It took some while to persuade me that the flags were not sending out false information. So, I recovered some sense of calm and played my match. I got off to an uncertain, nervous start. I then recovered, found my form and defeated my opponent quite easily. The next one up was the champion of Oxfordshire. He was we later learned a possible contender, he certainly thought so himself. In this match I played really well and beat him comfortably, I forget the exact score, but I think it was something like 21–10.
End of day one and back to our hotel to prepare for Simon Skelton the next day. I slept not a wink that night. The match was scheduled for early afternoon. In the morning I was too nervous and excited to rest or eat. I think Skelton was nervous, playing a complete unknown is always difficult for the better player. I was well beaten, early on I lost my length and with it any chance to compete. I came back thankful and satisfied and with £300 prize money in my wallet. A fact unknown to Jennie who had missed the prize giving. We never had an excess of money and Jennie, knowing the costs of the Worthing trip was anxious about having a modest celebration in a Worthing coffee house. It was with some delight I pulled out the wad of cash. A lovely moment, a time to enjoy a success won on my own merit and skill and nerve. It was a rare event to feel a sense of pride, and while I scarce deserved it there was something built up in me that had never been there before. I won the club championship again that year, went out in the first round of the Champion of Champions tournament and returned to being just a club player. But even that was not to last long. It was as if God said you have had your time in the sun, it has served its purpose and will be no more. I lost all my form, my delivery of the wood fell to pieces, a kind of yips prevented me delivering the wood smoothly and I sank like a stone and after a year or so gave up the game altogether. God gives and he takes away. To this day I have no good explanation for this mini Icarus like fall. Like poor Icarus, my wings glued together with wax and which had lifted me above my place in the world melted in the heat. Crash landings are not fun and leave you winded and broken. Far from lifting me up I felt downcast. Typical I thought, thank you so much God, give me something, a small taste of a better life, a bit of respect, and then snatch it away.
Down into the same old pit I sank, a place to lick wounds that would never heal; at least not I the way I was trying. It would be untrue to say that there was not a better side to me, many people would testify to that. I think I am generally well liked. But the deep hole in me had never been filled. God had somehow remained a person who came sometimes close, but never for long. God was not a permanent guest in my heart and mind, and my insecurities would rise and fall in accordance with how life treated me, or as I perceived it, which normally was of the negative type. It was this person who was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.
THE POST OFFICE YEARS
A job filled with love and goodwill like the above illustration? Well, yes in parts. Overall my memories of this period are of good times. However in some ways this fourteen years of learning about life in the raw was like growing in an alien environment. One that gradually changed me for the better. In fact this is a bit of a theme: stories of a forced and unwanted change that produce growth spurts. Not in height or breadth, but in character. The reason I was forced into this type of work? My commercial art venture was not providing sufficient regular income. There were consequences to this lifestyle which did not prepare me for life in a busy and at times seemingly overcrowded chaotic and roudy office. I had been sedentary, exercise was not on my lifestyle curriculum, so I was slim but unfit. Being self-employed permitted me to only associate with people I understood and liked. So while I was socially competent in these areas outside that safety net I did not function so well. I was interviewed for the job as a postman by the man who would be my boss for most of my years as an employee. To my surprise I got the job. I began at Poole in Dorset, and it was there i immediately began breaking the rules. I hated the idea of using pedal bikes to take out the heaped bags of mail so I dumped them in my car and drove around the mail delivery routes. No one complained, I was not reported by colleagues or by members of the public. After a few months of this I was relocated to my home town of Wimborne. This was different, I was in by 4 am doing general sorting of mail, followed by a period of what was called throwing up the mail for your own delivery. This time I had no option but to do the deliveries by bike. Later I would do van deliveries as well. It was on these that stories I still tell to this day occurred. My capacity to get confused and fall into errors in my opinion deserved a television series. On my very first outing I stopped by what I thought was a water filled puddle by the side of a country road. The puddle disguised a ditch which I could not get of. It took a while but eventually a kindly farmer with a tractor arrived to pull me out. I think I had not yet delivered a single letter on that route. But more of this and much funnier later.
Everything about this kind of office life alarmed me. Joking and leg pulling and the forensic examination of any peculiarity or weakness was rife. I kept my head down as much as possible at first, but some of these people were of a type I had never before encountered. The office was filled with every kind of person, from bright and cheerful to dour and aggressive, from thoughtful and interesting to those whom seemed little concerned with anything beyond what was going on in their own lives. It was impossible to hide, shyness could not survive long in this tiny world of gently clashing personalities. Real blow ups were rare, the more I got used to it the more enjoyable it became. Nevertheless nerves and apprehension got to me and for while I developed a mild stutter. They soon found out I was a Christian, and had views that I was quite prepared to defend. Even while sitting sorting mail. Discussions and put downs were the common currency and as time passed I grew to hugely enjoy it all. for instance I might come in, collect my mail, sit down at my bench and find myself involved in a multidimensional debate about Noah’s Ark and how he got so many animals on it. Or had an article from the press shoved in front of me about a vicar who had done a bunk and a few other things with his secretary, or whomever. I began to just soak in this atmosphere as if it were a perfectly warmed bath. It did me the world of good and during what began as an ordeal and turned into a fairground ride I learned how to give and take jokes and barbs with good grace. I grew up into a proper adult, rather than a being one for whom over sensitivity and unnecessary hurts formed who I was. I became free to find and be myself: warts and all. Now to those stories I promised at the beginning of this section.
1 The lost postman.
One day I was asked to drive a P.O. van needing repair from the Wimborne office where I worked to the Blandford P.O. which took care of crocked vans. Once there I was to return with a repaired van. Simple enough task you might think. A twenty minute drive to a neighbouring office, with luck just an hour or so doing very little. So there I was approaching Blandford in a P.O. van and in a P.O. uniform when it occurred to me I had no idea where the Blandford Sorting Office was located. What to do? I was in an idiot situation with no easy solution other than to stop Blandford pedestrians and ask where the Blandford office was. Just picture the scene as I did; a man in a P.O van and wearing a P.O. uniform stopping and starting until I found a local who directed me to my location. To say I got a few bemused reactions is to minimise the effects it had on my self esteem.
2 Hiding from the Doctor
This is a bit of a saga. On one of my bike deliveries I encountered a situation which thank God was never repeated. It was a semi rural delivery done by bike. I was at the end of a longish road which had houses and bungalows up the left hand side and fields on the other, partly obscured by a verge sporting trees and bushes. I had arrived and leaned my bike against the wall of the last house. The only other delivery on that road was up a track leading to a large detached doctor’s house. I attended the surgery where he along with others worked. At this precise time I had an overwhelming desire to go to the toilet, little problem if it had just been a pee but I needed to dispatch a more solid load. I looked around, all as quiet, my only source of cover was the few trees and thinnish bushes which lined the lane opposite the houses. There was nothing to be done other than to hide behind this cover, pull down my trousers, squat into position and proceed according to the unwritten manual. I was fully engaged when I heard the sound of a car approaching down the hill from the lane. The car slowed to a halt within a few feet of my exposed position. Worse, sitting in the passengers seat not much further than touching distance was the doctor’s daughter. I had by now tugged my trousers into place. But what to do, wait it out I thought. Then I realised why he was sitting waiting. He had seen my bike parked alongside the wall of the house opposite. His mail would be in it, the next and last drop off. I waited he waited, his daughters face had not yet turned to her left. Had she done so she would have seen a face peering at her from the undergrowth. A minute or two passed, an eternity to me. The doc was not for moving. He knew that if the bike was there so must the postman. In the end I had no choice. I burst through my cover walked behind his car, crossed the road, collected his mail from my bag and returned to hand him his mail. Not a word was spoken and the incident passed. I imagine it was told and retold with some mirth to colleagues and others. Even I eventually saw the funny side.
3 General Incompetence.
What could be simpler than pushing post through the correct letter box.? For me it was a problem. Partly because unless my full attention is engaged I make mistakes. I however was not random in this vice. I seemed to pick on some addresses to misdeliver to on a regular basis, as if I was a persecutor. I could not understand it myself, the more I worried about the more obsessively I repeated my errors. This habit was made worse during the year or so I was writing my novel. It was a medieval based story about a young woman escaping persecution over a long period. This filled my brain for the year or so it was being written. But on my postal round I was able to think about this obsessively which added further complications to my innate ability to muddle the mail. I came to the conclusion I was not fit for repetitive mundane work such as that which paid my undeserved wages.
4 It Took Three Attempts!
On my rounds I was required to drive up many approaches to houses. On one occasion I had a letter on the seat next to me ready for delivery. I drove up the house, backed up and returned down the lane. The letter was still on the seat. Idiot I thought, turned around the van and proceeded to do exactly the same again. On the third attempt I had worked out that I needed to pick up the letter, open the car door, get out and walk to the door and push the letter through. If the person whose house it was had observed this I wonder what they would have thought.
5 The Hanging Baskets
There was a small pleasant semi circular close to which I delivered mail. It had about half a dozen bungalows, some of which had heavy hanging baskets beautifying their front gardens. It is a postman’s instinct to g for short cuts wherever possible. The gardens in this close provided that opportunity. Going from one front door across the frontage to hop across low fences was a temptation to good to miss. Day one, over I went and while heading for the door I headed a heavy hanging basket. Whack! the basket rocked and my head and I knew the reason why. “Idiot or a some such word would have passed my lips. And did so again and again as on the next two succeeding days I hit the same hanging basket. It occurred to me that the neighbours may have gathered together on a morning waiting, hoping, perhaps even filming this idiot postman go through his daily ritual.
6 On a Roll
Back to van driving on rural deliveries. I turned into a driveway and drove to its end, then backed into the area provided and moved the van forwards towards the edge of the lawn ready for a quick getaway. Out I jumped, walked around the path to front door of a very nice detached country house, posted the mail through the box, turned back to where the van was parked, and thought where the heck was it? It was not where I had left it. Not for the first time I had forgotten to apply the handbrake. So, while my back was turned it had rolled itself across the lawn and was now parked in front of the front door. There was no sign of life inside so I tiptoed across the grass, clambered inside, started the engine and gingerly back off the lawn, turned and headed quietly out between the gates.
And so it went on, I drove like a maniac everywhere, parked anywhere, legal or not didn’t matter to me. I pranged vans, had near fatal accidents, its was just full speed ahead at any cost. The most bizarre of my accomplishments vis a vis the car was on a freezing morning when I decided to drive rather than walk to the Sorting office. There was a public car park almost next door to the Post office. It was not a large car park and three forty-five in the morning it was unsurprisingly empty. This rather confused me, the sheer numbers of choices so I circled it unsure of my decision. The next thing I knew I had hit the only object in the car park. A mature tree. How did I miss seeing it? Ask me another. What was the result? A very noticeable deep V shaped dent in the front bumper.
Was it a death wish? I really do not know. One company on a rural road got so sick of me driving like this past their business that they phoned the office and threatened to leave a lorry across the road if I continued to break any and every speed limit. But nevertheless I loved my time in the Post office. I joined in, got involved, made friends, played sports with them, Pool in the Recreation Room and even cricket. I was not much good although I was keen. I recall one match when with slow bowling and attempted spin I earned myself a hat trick. A marvel indeed. I had always wanted to be a fast bowler like the Surrey player Peter Loader I think he was. Came racing in to the wicket. leapt high in the air and thundered down the ball. I could run and jump but the ball only went at a pace often described in commentaries as military medium. A tragedy, all the aggression was there, but not much else. And so passed fourteen trans-formative years. Post Office, I thank you!
MY GREATEST DREAD EXPOSED
‘Take up your cross and follow me.’ The words of Jesus which are unsurprisingly very profound. Taking up your cross is a hard and deliberate choice that you know will lead to pain and almost certainly conflict. Running away from problems, which had become something akin to a life’s work for me did not work. It took me near seventy years to work this out. To do so I had to face what I had spent a life time running away from. If we take up our cross and walk in faith the path set before us, then I think miracles will happen. For me miracles have happened.
I have spoken about my school life and subsequent problems. The worst of all for me, being skinny and not a natural team player was to avoid the physical demands made on school children. PE, swimming, sport and changing and shower rooms where your weaknesses are exposed to sight and potential ridicule. All of these became things to be avoided at all costs. And I was good at avoidance. I seemed to have the knack of disappearing without being noticed. For me it became an art form. Deceit was to be the way out of things that caused me trauma, a new and necessary skill. The price of avoidance? Misery! Success at this deceit breeds an even deeper need not to be seen, especially in a place where your body can be compared to those of others.
So where is God when life hurts? Or when he does not heal you, or come to your rescue in a way that makes sense to a scared and cowardly individual. Better people than me have asked these questions. The prophets in the Old Testament often cried out, asking the same question I have asked, time and time again without anything I recognised as a response. It has taken me about 70 years to hear and understand the lessons that God teaches if we listen. Jesus was stripped naked and nailed to a cross. He hung there in full sight of all the gathered onlookers: those who loved him, those who were indifferent and those that hated him.
Listen to the words of a prophet king writing a thousand years before Jesus lived. Quoted sections from Psalm 22.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.[b]
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.[c]
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce[e] my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
Over almost 70 years my fear of being seen or examined in a state of near nakedness was taken away. The initial examination and being fitted for a catheter in A&E was the first victory of this new age. Something I thought would humiliate me beyond the point of endurance became a matter of rejoicing. In fact I kind of flew through or above the procedure in an almost euphoric state. Before going through all this I had prayed for a physical healing, asked my Pastor Dave for it also. But no, nothing like that happened. What did happen was that a 70 year old burden was lifted off me instead: shame, embarrassment and self-loathing! An illustration of how far I was moved is that last Easter Sunday (2019) I was asked by my pastor to go up front in church and speak, in the middle of his sermon, about this experience. I did so before a congregation which included all the youth and many visitors. If anything was guaranteed to traumatise the old Chris Higham, this was it! In fact I got a round of applause at the end. It occurred to me that this might be unique in church history. I mean, how often could the word “catheter” have been used at a service and on Easter Sunday? Was that the answer to prayer I thought had been ignored? And if that was true how many other answers had I missed or misinterpreted?
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIFE ENDING AND LIFE CHANGING
So what now? When your life and its expectations and everything connecting to these hopes are thrown in the air. Prostate Cancer was diagnosed on the 13th of May 2019. The prostate operation took place on the same day I was told by the specialist and surgeon that the cancer was advanced and in the bone. This happened on the afternoon of May 24th. Between that diagnosis of advanced cancer and waiting for the operation that followed a few hours later I messaged Jennie with the short piece which begins the story. It is repeat, but for Jennie and myself it is one we believe is worth repetition. I wrote:
Let us resolve to be witnesses to our faith. This could be the answer to prayer. A way to reach family and friends at a level that would otherwise be impossible. This could be our greatest opportunity to use our lives, spend them, empty them for our God and Saviour. The highest calling we could ever be given. You and I, together witnesses to our faith. The calling of all callings if we can rise to the occasion. It is as if Jesus had spoken to us like he did to the apostles, come follow me. The most exciting time of our life, perhaps even better than being healed.
I’m always with you: determined to honour God with you and be a witness to God’s love and care and his plan for the future; one of life and love and eternity.
We have so much life lived together to be thankful for.
We will live day at a time, celebrating the whole of it!
Out of the bright calm seas beyond the headland and into unknown waters. But we are not alone.
And as you say, calling out to our children to follow.
I Love You.
Everything has changed since I sent that message. Who am I now? I have discovered it is best not to ask such a question. It tends towards introspection, and we are I have discovered poor judges of ourselves. Nevertheless just try to be yourself, improve your character, welcome the exposure fault lines, think well of others and forgive them their mistakes as God forgives mine when I repent. There can be no real or lasting change without sincere repentance. And repentance is a response to the realisation that we need to change, from the inside out. And that involves exposure. And none of us like that, since it is usually accompanied by shame. A cancer diagnosis should have hit all the wrong buttons in me. Alarm bells should have clanged throughout my mind and body, but I felt the effects of none of them. Here is a reminder of the expected emotional hits, from Macmillan Cancer Support web page.
‘It is natural to have many different thoughts and feelings after a cancer diagnosis. Some people feel upset, shocked or anxious, while others feel angry, guilty or alone. There is no right way for you to feel.
Emotions can be difficult for you, and people close to you, to deal with. You may find that some feelings pass with time, while others last longer. Try to find a way of coping that suits you.
It is impossible to know how you will react to a diagnosis of cancer. Common feelings include:
- shock and denial
- fear and anxiety
- sadness and depression
You may also have different feelings if your doctor has told you your cancer is advanced.’
The ability to not just cope but view the situation from a different perspective was so markedly outside my experience that all I can do and say is praise God and thank him for all he had done in my life. My normal feelings were never seen or felt. That to me is a miracle. Where were all those trigger reactions that had dominated my life? I can feel no personal pride since I do not believe it is in me to do this alone. People have spoken of my courage, this also is way off the point. I have needed none, there has been no fight or effort on my part. There is no positive thinking programme going on. Throughout this small book I have spoken of Jennie as my bulwark, my helper and encourager, but here it was not her, and it certainly was not me which leaves only one other.
The witness of faith is that a life devoted to Jesus and his Word will end in perfect peace and in the grace of God’s care and love, and following death comes resurrection into a new body that will never fade or rot. Then we enter the place God has prepared for those who love him, the everlasting paradise we know as heaven. I pray that anyone who reads this story of mine may also find this same God, who is no differently disposed to you as he is to me. He loves his creation to the point of emptying his body of blood on a cross, a fact accepted as true by all biblical scholars, including the many who are not Christians and have nothing to do with the Christian faith. If you have discarded this faith because of my bad witness made during days when I was utterly lost, I hope and pray that you may think again. This is no mirage, no myth, it is a faith rooted and grounded in history, and those that brought the gospel to you during the first generation, with the exception of one, paid for doing so with their lives. This is not a cheap shot in the dark, it is a certainty based on generations of witnesses who never deviated from their faith in the scriptures or their God and Saviour Jesus Christ.