Climb Every Mountain!

Well I think it’s safe to say that – even by my standards – it’s been quite a week, or should that be month?  I think Danny Wallace would be proud of me as I’ve said yes to just about everything offered to me over a sustained period and the potential and promise of hesitantly made commitments is turning into the reality of doing – well – a bit of everything – up to and including absolutely nothing.

It’s strange how opportunities seem to have conspired to come along like buses and sometimes even get in each other’s way.  It’s hard to tell if all this has come about through me putting myself forward as I’ve recently regained confidence and happen to have the ability, availability and willingness to put in the necessary work.  I wonder what has come about purely because I’m dying and might not get the chance later on, so people are more likely to offer me stuff now – ready or not.  Perhaps I’m overthinking this and it isn’t necessary to worry too much about whether I deserve the good stuff that’s happening and coming soon.  With a three month block of chemo as little as six weeks away (depending on scans) I’ll pay back the joys of living a full life through plenty of suffering soon enough.  For now – I live, and hopefully my churning brain will allow for some unencumbered enjoyment.  Anyway, I’ve had to scan back through my diary to recall everything I’ve done recently and rather than chronologically, I’m going to try recounting this whirlwind of (in)activity thematically.

The music side has included a load of rehearsals and concerts with all manner of ensembles from a solo jazz gig at St Ants gig to big bands, wind bands, traditional and modern brass bands and orchestras.  This is set to continue as I’ll be playing with a ska punk band this weekend at one of about 4 festivals lined up over the summer.  There would be another one too if I weren’t going to the first two days of the Oval test.  The ska band is particularly welcome as it brings me back to the MySpace era student days when I’d regularly make the journey from Birmingham to Wolverhampton to play in what were some great venues in great company and sometimes make the last train back!  The new style brass band is also really exciting as it’s a genre I’ve been getting into over the past few years and for ages I’ve wished I were in one.  I’ve even tried to make the youth jazz band sound like Youngblood or Hot 8.  Well for this summer, I get to do that with a load of adults and not have to worry about whether the beginner trombones get the right harmonic.

And Speaking of the youth jazz band, this was a real lifeline when I could occasionally drag myself there earlier this year and as I’ve gradually recovered, I’ve been more useful and able to give something back to them as the sound of the group has gotten better and better.  We’ve been busy gigging this term and have played all over the local area including at a huge parade along the Southbank.  But we were also (to our collective surprise) invited to the Music for Youth National Festival in Birmingham.  I can’t bring myself to care about the band being a late addition, probably due to someone else dropping out.  In addition to two other ensembles from the music service, we had the chance to perform on the big stage at Birmingham Town Hall.

Given that these kids from disadvantaged Newham were in the big band section with students about 4 years older on average, I thought they performed really well. They clearly had better instruments and general airs of entitlement so I wasn’t hopeful that we’d be well received.  In this event, privilege provided some pretty good outcomes and I would have gladly bought a ticket to see some of these expensively educated sixth formers in concert.  Plus our band doesn’t consist of traditional forces, with flutes and french horns making up for a lack of lead trumpets and tenor saxes.  I even had to fill in the double bass line on trombone.

But in fact we were well received and as well as sounding just about as tight and together as everyone else, our students performed with passion and spirit.  Sure it was a bit rough around the edges and you couldn’t say we had a ‘mature’ sound but our performance was anything but boring.  Who knows if the organisation wants us in their Albert Hall gig but for me, that’s immaterial – our kids gave it everything and no one could ask for more.  At one point on the long coach journey back to London, I wondered who, if any of those in my musical sphere of influence would go on to become professional musicians.  On a couple of occasions, I’ve proudly received the news that former students have gone on to do very well – I even saw a couple on Glastonbury’s TV coverage once.  Then it occurred to me that I won’t be alive to find out.  I suppose that’s pretty sad but rather than making me question the point of continuing to work with the young musicians of the future, my limited longevity adds an extra sense of importance to doing what I can for them.   I can’t be the only teacher who values and feeds off the excitable optimism of working with teenagers who are starting to really find joy in making music.  There’s no energy like potential energy and it’s still an absolute pleasure to be part of it.

And then there’s the day job – my main gig teaching in a primary school.  What with the overwhelming ofsted anxiety, stifling accountability measures, unsustainable workload, ever dwindling real-terms pay and all in the face of crippling budget cuts, dropping birth rates and exponentially increasing SEND challenges, it’s been with a little trepidation that I’ve put myself forward to go back to it all.  Although always supportive, most colleagues have reacted to my desire to come back with bemusement bordering on horror.  Everyone tells me how the pressures are growing and the tasks are increasingly thankless.  Let me be clear – this isn’t just at the one school – Teachers haven’t been striking simply over pay.

But I’ve invested in some pristine designer rose tinted glasses and a couple of visits to school concerts (including one particular project I’d initiated, then lumbered everyone with!) reminded me that it’s always been worth wading through the rubbish in order to, for example, see a choir full of 8-9 year olds sing their hearts out.  And that’s worth even more when you’ve taken them on a journey of growth to get there.

Physically and mentally, I’ve been ready for a while.  But unfortunately the same can’t be said of the private medical company that was meant to carry out an occupational health assessment over a month ago.  So it’s taken a while for the official paperwork etc. to come through and all the required processes to be put in place.  And when it came, the ‘return to work’ arrangement took me completely by surprise.  It would start with half a day a week until the Summer holidays, then building the half days to full time over about six weeks come the Autumn.  This is hardly a strident statement of continuing to live a full and worthwhile life in the face of cancer that I was looking for.  Half a day a week?  Surely I can do half a day a day – I’m at the point of completing runs and playing gigs that are longer than the time I’d be required to be in school!  This hardly feels like reporting for duty, back to normal.  Hardly an inspiring feel-good cancer comeback story, is it?!

But then again, this is return to work has been laid out by two medical professionals and is apparently fairly standard.  There’s nothing I could do about it anyway – it’s doubtless there are legal/insurance considerations at play here and although I wouldn’t sue anyone, my family might in my ‘absence’.  This is the plan and I guess I’ll just have to make the most of those precious half days whilst I’m healthy enough to be good for them.

The big day coincided with the last day of a multi-orchestra music service project, so I ended up accompanying the school orchestra to a local secondary school for the final concert.  Some were wary of my first day back being a trip as these tend to be tiring, but I was delighted it worked out like this.  I’d built up to this day so much that I hadn’t really slept and made my way in about 3 hours before I needed to be there.  If nothing else comes of being back at work, I’ll never forget the waved ‘welcome back’ hellos and hugs from so many colleagues and about four small children who attached themselves to my leg at playtime as small children tend to do when they spy a familiar adult they haven’t seen in a while.  I became adept at deflecting children’s questions about why I’d been gone for so long – thankfully no one was overly inquisitive.  It’s strange what you end up missing.  Be it the battles with the photocopier, slow computers or how unbelievably long it takes children to listen and follow instructions, it is amazing to be back.  Previously and, say, after an intense morning of teaching, I’d have done nothing else but retreat to the staff room, but it did my heart good to just be there as the children played and ran off their lunch – sublimely living in the moment, all worries carelessly discarded.

The afternoon of actual work was very much in my comfort zone with rehearsals and tuning instruments and such.  I’d ended up being the conductor for the massed piece and it felt great to have an orchestra of over 150 at my behest, even if most of them were only just about getting used to reading music and following parts.  The panoramic splendour of Hans Zimmer’s Earth was at times really well achieved and it resulted in some breathtaking moments.  I could have done with these moments appearing in the rehearsal too, but it’s a musical truism that the final performance always seems to come together when it counts and this occasion was no exception.

The next day, I had to grudgingly admit that the medical professionals may have had a point and I didn’t really do anything but rest – physically, mentally and emotionally, I was pretty much wiped out. I’ve had a few such days recently – sometimes due to the accumulation of too many consecutive days of being out and about.  But more recently, I’ve had a pretty clear cut reason to be tired and need to rest – the running has really stepped up.  I’m up above 100k a week and the standard long run has gotten close to marathon distance.  On Sunday, I took the train to Sussex to take on a 40k stretch along the South Downs Way as I figure I’ve probably worn out the local forest by this point and needed a change of scenery.  Ok – a year ago, this wouldn’t have been remarkable but I’m now a good deal slower and fatigue sets in far sooner than it used to.  Recovery seems to be taking longer too, hence the need for more rest.  But onwards and upwards – literally!  In between work, gigs, social calls and festivals, I’ll soon embark on a running related European tour with two trips to Yorkshire, A brief expedition to Northern Spain and a solid week in the Alps running up and down as many mountains as I can find.

Why?  Well – I do quite like running up mountains.  But more significantly, there is one race opportunity that has come up and I’ve brazenly asked for special consideration because it really is likely to be my first, last and only chance of starting, let alone finishing:


Anyone into ultra-running will know all about it.  A 170km race around the edge of Mont Blanc through three countries and with 10,000m of elevation gain.  It’s been described as the ‘superbowl’ of trail running and is a huge event hosting around 2,000 entrants.  At least five times that number complete a number of qualifying races that give them ‘running stones’ which are essentially lottery tickets that might, with a little good fortune, result in a place within a few years.

But I’ve gotten myself in on the grounds that I’m unlikely to live long enough to see out the usual process, let alone be fit enough to reach the start line.  This is a big deal and I can think of no better stage than this on which to complete the full circle of 100 miles to cancer and right back again. The rehearsals haven’t been going amazingly but I’m hopeful the gig will come off ok – I’m pretty good at rising to the occasion and given how well supported this race is, I might get a standing ovation at the end, even if I make a load of mistakes!

This endeavour, and all the others, combine to paint a picture, tell a story, write a narrative, provide an inspirational example – take your pick.  If I can, I will.  I’m not ready to fade into the background and retire into an armchair. Just because I have life ending cancer, that doesn’t mean it has to define me.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m under no illusions.  There will be a time when living with cancer will be be all consuming and just getting through chemo a full time job.  Eventually it will kill me, no matter how full of life I feel right now.  But in addition to my newfound crusade of doing what I can in the hope that others avoid ending up like me, I’m nothing but determined to show that if they do, quality of life doesn’t have to suddenly case at the moment of diagnosis.

I’ve already yelled this from the top of one mountain but I continue to do so in everything I do.  Mental note – this includes actively choosing to rest – that’s ok too!

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