Cancer 16: Ode to joy

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Cancer 16: Ode to joy

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good health · Friday 13 Aug 2021
Tags: Cancer
Stress is an odd experience, because you live with it, mostly not thinking about it, even when it’s colouring pretty much everything you think and do.

Most of the time you carry it, and yet there will always be moments when the stress breaks through. I’m not talking so much about the point where it becomes overwhelming, but the moment of release when you realise that at least the greater part of the intensity of that stress is now in the past, that you’ve come through, and it’s only then that you realise quite how difficult your life has been, even when you felt essentially positive and upbeat.

I understood this clearly last night, sitting in a playing field in Broadstairs, watching a frankly breathtaking set from the peerless Gigspanner Big Band, when I was shaken by tears of joy.

By coincidence I’ve praised the band in an earlier blog, so there’s an accidental completion of an arc here.

The first review
It had been a tense day, because I had an appointment in the afternoon with Mr Anwar, the colerectal surgeon, to discuss my progress and learn why I needed chemotherapy. I had been tense partly because I feared they might have found a threatening persistence of cancer cells, partly because we had been unable to plan anything in the coming months, and I feared that limbo was about to be extended through preparations for the chemo.
But it seems the chemo is only precautionary. Mr Anwar confirmed that he had successfully removed all of the tumour, and that it had been a reassuringly straightforward operation. He said that they had looked at ten lymph nodes in the surrounding tissue and detected cancerous cells in just one of them, which apparently is a good sign, while the chemo would help ensure that there was no further spread (I’ll have more precise information when I see the oncologist at the end of next week, though I have no doubt that I’ll accept the therapy). He also confirmed that we could have a couple of weeks in our house in France before the chemo starts in September.

We came out of the hospital feeling elated with relief, and drove straight up the coast to Broadstairs for the Gigspanner performance.

It’s jazz Jim, but not as we know it
I should explain that this gig was something I’d had little hope of being able to enjoy. I’d assumed that at this point, just five weeks out from my operation, I’d still be struggling to get through each day in convalescence. But my extraordinary recovery opened the prospect of greater mobility. We took a chance and booked tickets.
So Mary and I sat in our camping chairs directly in front of the stage, and here was a gig by a group of musicians who’d produced one of my favourite albums of recent years, and who I’d longed to see live but had had little hope of doing so for at least another year or so.
The spasms of relief began to run through me about three songs into the set, in a traditional song I’d known since my mid-teens. I knew Betsy Bell and Mary Grey from a fairly straight acapella version by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. I was familiar with Gigspanner’s interpretation from their recent Natural Invention album. The band sing the vocal parts in line with the version I knew, but in the instrumental passages they go to a different place. I found myself thinking of jazz, not that it sounded like jazz, but the extended interplay between the clutch of sympathetic instruments (two violins, a button accordion, a dobro, guitar and percussion) had the kind of free expressiveness and sensitivity I mostly associate with modern jazz. It honoured the traditional structure of the song, but made something new and frankly beautiful.

Abstraction and tears
Music is an extraordinary art form, in that it is both the most abstract of expressive arts, and yet the one that can move us so completely, so immediately. Perhaps it’s down to the physics of harmony, the way sounds can work on our perceptions, a physical thing, but whatever the reasons I know of few people who are insensitive to its spell. It defies preconceptions: many if not most people react (unfairly) to the notion of folk music with disdain, but I doubt anybody could have listened to what was going on last night and not realised they were witnessing something extraordinary.

Perhaps too there was an element of pandemic relief. I’ve seen a few live performances in the last couple of months, and indeed given three myself, both with Maiuko and Entertaining Mr Stone. Always those on stage have expressed a kind of wonder and happiness that they should find themselves in front of a live audience again. It’s the old adage, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone ("..they put up a parking lot"). These have been extraordinary times in so many ways, and though we might not be wholly out of the pandemic yet it feels like we’re getting there.

Particularly, predictably given how much I love the song, it was when Hannah Martin sang the opening words of Earl Brand that I was convulsed with sobs. Though I had tried not to think in terms of my imminent death, the thought had inevitably been there at various moments along the road, as something more than an abstract worry. As Hannah’s voice rose into the night I realised that here was a joy I had feared I might never experience, and yet I had come through, and however trying the chemotherapy might be, the worst of my illness was now behind me. It was the joy of the music, but the joy too simply of finding yourself still alive.

Another long term favourite piece of music, and probably my desert island choice (I know I’m not alone in this) is the third movement from Beethoven’s A minor string quartet. It carries the subtitle “on recovery from illness”, and somehow within the mysterious abstraction of the musical scale Beethoven has captured the feeling, the stumbling and eventual swelling into profound elation, rooted in the visceral lines of the cello. The feeling passes as it must, the music dying into silence, and yet it’s always there to come back to, and never fails to move me.
Music has always been a fundamental part of my life, and here to my astonishment, amid so much trouble, I seem to be having the time of my life.

Thank you to Mary for the picture in the header, and rather a lot more.

And while I’m at it, thanks to Fran Broady and Christine Adams for opening my ears to the wonder that is Peter Knight’s playing.

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