Monthly Archives: July 2011

Blog post: TedxYork. Stories Matter. Cancer, West Berlin, pianos and ideas above your station.

Stories matter.

10 and a half years ago I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. It’s a form of cancer. Lymph glands.


The first course of treatment didn’t work and so I underwent a stem cell transplant.

This in very simple terms is a short, fast blast of chemotherapy that destroys your bone marrow; the immune system that protects you from the little bugs and infections that are everywhere. Once the bone marrow, your ability to protect yourself from your own skin has completely been destroyed a transplant of new marrow is introduced, new stem cells, in the hope that they will grow back.

Anyway the point is when they give you the chemo they have to put you into a room in isolation. No one is allowed in, you are not allowed out. Because anyone coming into the room could be bringing in the infection that might kill you.


 And it’s a small room. But they’ve made one of the walls a window- one of the 4 walls is made of glass- so people can keep an eye on you. So it’s not really a room- it’s a fish bowl. And you’ve got nothing really to do but watch bad daytime TV but that’s okay because you’re not going to have the ability to do anything. Nothing at all. You don’t have the energy to move your head half the time, let alone read a book. I swear to God most times you’re not going to be able to lift your head off the pillow. You’re going to lie in your bed in a room about 10 foot square. And you’re going to stare up at the ceiling.

And you’re going to have to engage with the thought that statistically, odds-wise there is less than 50% chance that it’s going to work. You’re going to lie in your bed, in your 10 foot square room that no one is allowed into, with it’s 4th wall made of glass and you are going to think about the fact that you had no option but to let these brilliant, dedicated and wonderful doctors and nurses destroy your ability to fight off the simplest of everyday infections even though there is a good chance that ability wont come back again because if you hadn’t then the cancer would definitely have seen you off before Christmas.

 And you are going to do all of this for at least 9 weeks. 9 weeks in that room. 63 days. with your head on the pillow. 63 days with those thoughts. And that wall made of glass.


And you know this much for sure. You’ve seen guys go in to the same thing with a good spirit and you’ve seen them go in with a bad spirit. And you know that you have to have a good spirit.

Which is a big ask of your spirit. It’s a big ask of your thinking.

And the doctors- brilliant, dedicated and wonderful doctors, know this. They know it’s a massive ask. So they give you a therapist. One that specialises in working with people who have to engage with their own mortality. which is a brilliant, dedicated and wonderful thing to specialise in.

I don’t remember the name of my guy. Which is a shame because he certainly- along with a load of other brilliant, dedicated and wonderful people- saved my life and he said a thing that is probably the single reason why I’m a 32 year old making theatre today and not anything else.


Before you go in you start to prepare your mind but there’s no order to it, it’s too big a thing for a 22 year old mind. You need order. You can’t start to order your thoughts to engage with the reality which is this could be the last room you ever go in to and the only thing you can do to make any difference to that not being the case is to stay mentally strong, positive, hunkered down and clear. It’s like trying not to think about something- the stronger you try the more you fail. You need an understanding.

And this therapist he gave me one.

He said to me- the seconds are going to tick by like torture. It’s going to seem unbearable. It’s going to seem like it will never end. But one day all this is going to be one story, a single tale, a solitary narrative that you can tell to someone in less than 5 minutes. And that’s how you know you’ll get through it. Imagine the moment you are telling this to a room full of people just like this one and work back from there.


Stories matter. They aren’t how we hide f
rom things, they are how we understand things. Stories give us our understanding so we can think about the big things, the things that seem too big to fathom.

I was born in West Berlin. My father was in the Royal Air Force. Signals. I grew up on a military base called RAF Gatow. Which is basically a walled village- complete with it’s own shop, it’s own churches, schools the whole kit and caboodle. And surrounded by a large military fence.

I know some of you are going to know this already but I swear for some people now this is like ancient history- so for those who don’t know West Berlin is obviously one half of Berlin. And Berlin sits in East Germany. Now the whole of East Germany is behind the Iron Curtain. The Iron Curtain seems a quaint idea now but at the time- 1978- these things were taken seriously. There were two competing ideas about how the world should be run; there was Communism and there was American Capitalism. In other parts of the world there were points where these two ideas butted up against each other as points of friction, like teutonic plates smashing against each other.

And in Europe that place was Berlin.

West Berlin was a shop window to Europe under communism- look! this is what happens under our system- look! how fabulous we are.

It was a completely created environment. Created and maintained to make clear statements to all who wanted to look about the military, economic and spiritual might of the Western Democracies. All cities are political of course. But West Berlin wasn’t just political, it was a specific solitary political statement. Imagine that- a city making a statement to the world for 40 years.



West Berlin was a piece of story telling. A brilliant piece of story telling. Not just city wide but city deep, city broad. The story about the success and glory of capitalism.

I was teaching some students recently and talked briefly about West Berlin- about this storied city. At the end of it one of the students said, “Yeah but it’s not like anything was at stake- no one seriously thought that there was an alternative, right?”

That’s the thing about that story- like all great stories when the conclusion came along it felt like it couldn’t have ended in any other way- like there was no alternative. But that’s how well that specific story was told- we’ve forgotten that there was ever anything else.

Stories matter. 


In RAF Gatow it was the case that children who wanted to learn to play the piano could have the loan of one of the instruments held in a central store on the base. I figure this was a practical issue of having all those families moving around the world each lugging a piano after them- easier to do it this way. In any case, this was a service that was offered- some compensation to living with a Soviet Tank Division within walking distance I would think.

And so my mother goes to the piano office and asks “can I have a piano for my son please” and she gets the answer. Well no, they are for the children of Officers.

Now the RAF- like the Army and the Navy- are split into ranks obviously- it’s the armed forces. There are officers who command people to do things. And then there are non-officers who actually do things. My father was a non-officer. He was- at that point- a Corporal. We’ve all seen films, we know what corporal means, right?

And the pianos were for the sons and daughters of Officers.

I’m actually okay with that. Let me tell you why. The Armed Forces have to do incredibly difficult things- there needs must be rules to maintain some sort of structure. I mean we were living in West Berlin- city scale story telling- smiles out front, live your life happy in the glow of capitalism, but we were also living behind the Iron Curtain, city of regular nuclear threat drills, checking under your car with a mirror before going to the shops for bombs- so I can appreciate that some parts of the world need to have a structure- a tighter framework for our understanding. Rules are rules I suppose.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t see if the system has a bit of a give in it. So my mother she says to the piano man, “Okay sure they are normally for Officer families sure but we could make an exception, he’s a precocious kid, he’s really in to the piano, come on!”

And this guy- I don’t know his name- lets call him Jeremy say- yes Jeremy-well Jeremy looks at my mother and he says, “Look- don’t be getting your son’s hopes up. Don’t be giving him ideas above his station. It’s not like a kid like that will be able to make a living out of it.” Ideas above his station. Jeremy actually said that. He said that phrase. He said ‘don’t be getting his hopes up’. That’s what Jeremy said. Don’t be giving him ideas above his station.

When we lived in Berlin my mother was a nurse in the Military Hospital’s Casualty department. And about 4 or 5 months after this incident she was on duty when a man came in with a dog bite needing a jab. Despite years of medical training for some reason my mother misjudged the depth of the jab she gave the man and knocked that needle square into the bone, repeatedly. If that’s never happened to you let me assure that it is a strange, bewildering pain.

Of course you and I know that the man who needed the jab was our old friend Jeremy because sometimes life is even better than a story.

Stories matter. They are
how we understand things, they help us tackle the difficult things that have to be tackled. They remind us of why we do things.

I think many of the changes the Government are making to our society are to do with the belief that many of us have ideas above our station. I think that just as West Berlin was the proclaiming of a solitary political statement so the remodelling of our society is the attempt to create a place where everybody’s knows theirs. But we’re not in the armed forces- we’ve not signed up for a tighter structure on what our places might be.

Predictably my battle ground is the arts. It’s what I do after all.

The money- the financial cuts from arts funding- was yesterday’s and today’s battle and problem. But tomorrow’s is the ideology. Is the belief that some stories don’t matter- your story doesn’t matter, my story doesn’t matter. Jeremy doesn’t think you should get your hopes up. Jeremy wants you to know your place.

To stop Jeremy we will have to create a passion, an amazement in the public.

A certainty in the people that stories matter, that the arts matter- not as peripheral to the central parts of their life but as a component of the very marrow of their being.

We must become in their minds vital.

You don’t win someone’s love and support by begging for it- that’s like crying at the doorway as your lover leaves for the last time.

We will get the ferocious support of the public by seducing it from them. By telling them stories, by dancing them stories and singing them and building them and playing them.

The tools for building this new certainty are not the strategies, conferences or arguments of intrinsic and instrumental value. The way we will convince the public that we are a central, brilliant, inspiring, sexy part of their lives is by being just that. By amazing them with our skill, astounding them with our daring, the boldness of our ambition.

By telling stories of such beauty, such power, such profound emotion and glory that the simple truth of the statement “stories matter” is utterly undeniable.

They are how we gain an understanding, they are what help us navigate the world and they are absolutely meant to get our hopes up.

Stories matter. Thank you for listening to mine.


TedxYork 07 July 2011