Is this really happening?! Part 2: What a day!

When compared to the start of the week, Wednesday was relatively unremarkable, but given the months of almost unrelenting suffering, easily made the top five of the year to date.

Having forgotten what it was to have something worthwhile to do even a day in advance, I was well motivated to spend the day working on a PowerPoint presentation (more on this later). When finished, I took advantage of a lift from Steve to play with the Spanner Big Band. This is a delightful musical anomaly that is a pleasure to play with. Because every time the band meets is for a proper gig and there are no rehearsals. This format relies on a core of extremely competent musicians to turn up regularly and for any deps (i.e. me) to really focus. Ok – no sight reading effort is perfect, but it occurred to me that I was relatively on the ball, despite this being about the third time I’d picked up a trombone this year. I reflected on this and it occurred to me that I wasn’t drinking (liver cancer and all!) when previously I would definitely have taken advantage of the band’s bar tab! As the trombone community has long since abandoned me as a comrade due to being a literal and metaphorical lightweight, I don’t mind admitting to being a sober brass player!

But Wednesday’s gig was just the prelude to Thursday’s main event. Not just of the week, but month, year, decade and possibly my entire life. Why? Because right at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the respect of one’s peers and, just above it, the self actualisation of realising one’s full potential. Well – as discussed in previous blog posts, it’s fair to say I’ve reached all the potential my short life is going to allow and on this blessed Thursday, I fully realised it not once, but twice. Moreover, until very recently, I’d resigned myself to not being able to turn up at all.

Dressed in full black tie, I made my way to the Business Design Centre in Angel for the Music and Drama Education Expo. Upon arrival, I wasn’t just given a pass and pointed in the direction of some trade stands – I was escorted to the ‘green room’ as I was due to speak in the Keynote Theatre, presenting on classroom/youth band improvisation. I don’t think I’m ever going to learn my lesson and resist the free coffee, so got wired as another speaker excitedly recounted her talk, having just come off stage. When the time came for me to set up, I was caffeinated to the gills and ready for action – half an hour early. I know – this isn’t usual for jazz musicians, but I guess the audience here is a load of teachers so it’s a good idea to be prompt. The production team seemed happy that everything was ready early and I was left with about 15 minutes in which I took in a bit more coffee and observed that Evelyn Glennie was running over and that right next door, a practical session involving a room full of West African drums was about to start.

Given the stiff competition, I thought I had a pretty good turnout and the presence of last night’s bandleader added enough pressure for me to really focus on the trombone solo demonstrations of ‘what a good one sounds like!’ I received a few positive comments afterwards, so thought it went pretty well but it’s hard to tell. About a week later, I learned it couldn’t have gone too badly as a music service in Berkshire has asked me to deliver this teacher training session again. This will be something to look forward to whenever I’m able to return to work!

Still wired and full of that post-gig adrenaline, I did eventually wander round a few trade stands to take absolutely nothing in, then made my way to a very nice hotel in Mayfair for dinner. Yes – Mayfair and yes – this would be my second such swanky dinner since November. And I deserved to be here. Because, as described in ‘A long long way to fall’ my fantastic primary school music department was nominated for ‘Outstanding Music Department’ at the Music and Drama Education Awards. I wasn’t nervous or anything – it felt pretty unlikely we would win as all the other schools in the running were elite and selective secondaries serving highly privileged communities.

I remained pretty relaxed until host Aled Jones started the spiel for our award and I began to sit up straight and shake a bit (I was still full of coffee and couldn’t drink alcohol to achieve balance!). When the ‘highly commended’ school was announced, I resigned myself to seeing another school take the (fairly long) walk from tables to stage. But when Mr ‘Walking in the Air’ announced the name of Nelson Primary School, the world stood still. And I found myself standing up. And so I brought up the rear as my head and deputy lead the way to the stage. This spontaneous victory parade took a circuitous route as we weaved past the circular tables – if we’d been closer together it would have looked like some kind of meandering conga line. Well there was no waving of feet but I was pictured punching the air and herd audibly gasping ‘Is this really happening?!’

Yes it was happening and, as I’ve explained in two written pieces and two podcasts so far, that primary school deserves every single plaudit going. And personally Speaking, the relentless ambition is still on pause and I’m still revelling in the achievement because, given the circumstances, nothing like this will happen to me again. I find it hard to write or utter these words, but here goes: I deserved to bask in that giddy hour of celebration as I proceeded to not take in any more of the award ceremony and just exist in a state of elated disbelief. Afterwards, we posed for photo after photo with that trophy. I even took the opportunity of making the biggest ‘humble brag/first world problem’ I could think of – my poor weakened arms were getting awfully tired holding that big weighty award – poor me!

The boss let me take the trophy back with me that night and on Friday I treated myself to some very expensive Mayfair pancakes before going back to the expo to show off the award under the guise of thanking some of the organisations that had helped us along the way. I made a brief appearance at a colleague’s leaving do before collapsing into bed and caught up on the sleep I’d missed on awards night – not just due to the caffeine but the giddy high of success.

On Saturday, I groaned as I checked my emails because I took in the details of the evening’s Wind Band concert would mean spending my third consecutive day in black tie! But hey – I hadn’t gotten any of the posh dinner on it, so you could say I got my money’s worth. Utterly exhausted by this point, I gratefully accepted a lift home from Hazel, who patiently listened me going on about the award win.

Oh – by the way – did I mention? We won an award.


  1. Hi I’ve read your telegraph story and am sorry this has happened to you. Have you been tested for tumor markers for immunotherapy as the young lady in the below article has?

    Best and Godspeed.

    • Not for me I’m afraid – the KRAS mutation rules this out.

  2. Saw your story and pics on Yahoo! and made my way to your site via the link.

    I live in the Blue Zone SoCal where ultramarathoners are admired, plus I’m around your age, so it was almost automatic relating. Also, I had been a healer and been with many through their dying days—just one last month in fact. I hope it doesn’t sound callous to say, it’s not that scary actually going through the end stages when it is not optional, even though the grieving of tragedy is genuine.

    I wish news aggregators like Yahoo didn’t sensationalize your story on its news page with a headline and all. The world is full of stories of people losing it all. At the end of the day, though, I think people click because we want to connect and we do feel disconnected—same reason why we click on Cyclone Freddy in Malawi—-and your voice brings sharp contrast because it is so personal and relatable. I guess that’s why I’m writing! Because maybe spectator clicking would feel less wasteful if I actually became a real-ish human connection through doing it. And maybe we all do spend our lives being passive spectators for an embarrassing amount of wasted time until we can’t anymore.

    Anyway there is an inorganic chemistry book on my desk that I haven’t cracked open for a year, yet sort of wanted to. Maybe you as a teacher can be my motivation! Who knows what lurking health symptoms are in my blood while I write this, but there’s something to be said about growing oneself to the last moment.

    • Thank you! Well I can’t think of an alternative to just keeping going until the last moment, so that makes sense.

  3. God bless you Nathaniel! I will be praying for you. Congratulations on winning an award!

    • Thank you!

  4. Good morning from Tennessee, Nathaniel,

    Your story just popped up in my news feed this morning. I’m sure you will hear from many of us, as as there are too many of us, unfortunately, but I just wanted to offer you my support in your journey.

    I too have stage IV colon cancer and just turned 42 years old. I was ignored by my doctor for 8 months as I felt like I was dying. Turns out, I was right!

    One year and multiple surgeries later, 7 rounds of chemo, 3 AM cries, and contemplating how it will all end – I have an ear for you if you ever need to commiserate with someone who shares your path.

    I don’t know how the medical system works in the UK, but here’s some more unsolicited advice, as we are so prone to get these days: please seek a second opinion. My first oncology group gave me the “five years at best to live” talk. My second oncologist told me we could do better than that with liver surgery, and that’s what we did.

    To keep a long comment short, please feel free to reach out if you ever need someone to talk to. This does truly suck, but just know, you are not alone! Take care of yourself.

    • Thank you!

  5. Hooray! Well done! Congratulations!

    Came to your blog from the Telegraph story. You are amazing, you are strong, you are an inspiration—but you already know all that. Thank you for sharing your journey and letting us—me—in on all that is on your heart and mind as day follows after day.

    I was diagnosed in 2010 with breast cancer. A mastectomy and reconstruction later, I also started a blog, which turned into a book, which has reached a number of women and family members of breast cancer patients. So I just want to encourage you to keep writing as much and as long as you can because you WILL help more people than you know.

    I pray you will live long and prosper and find the joy in the big things—like this award—and the tiny.

    • Thank you for the encouragement – I wrote today about imagining this turning into a book – who knows!

  6. Nathaniel – I found your article yesterday to be extraordinary. Brave, beautifully written and important.
    I am a registered Nutritional Therapist. I would like to pass on two organisations which you may find supportive and useful in your journey. As a nutritional therapist, both of these organisations would be my own first port of call should I ever receive a cancer diagnosis:
    Canceractive – Chris Woollams. A massive amount of info – please go through the website. Chris will build you a personal programme should you wish.
    Yes to Life – Packed with info and cancer specialists (such as Dr Penny Kechagioglou a Senior NHS Clinical Oncologist now working with Integrative Oncolgy, and many other experts) who support people through their treatments to minimise side effects and boost efficacy.
    If you’re not already aware of these organisations, I would like to encourage you to take a deep dive and explore what they have to offer. They may be very helpful indeed for you.
    Good luck Nathaniel. I would like to wish you all the best!

    • Thank you! Well once my guts can tolerate high residue, nutrient rich food, that might be a good idea.

  7. I wish you strength to cope with all the treatment you are enduring.

    • Thank you!


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