Cancer. Thirteen. I get ‘shielded from the pain’ and don’t get to say goodbye to my Mum. My Gran, who lives next door, dies of cancer too, three years later. At sixteen I reject the well-meaning ‘shielding’ and make sure she and I talk about everything. The London Blitz, the Royal Family visiting the East End where she lived. How everyone sang in the underground shelters, acting relaxed, so the children would feel safe. How she feels about dying. How much she loves The Queen who she nearly met that day.
Forty years later the Teenage Cancer Trust invite me to run some backstage drumming workshops for young people with cancer. They have a week of fund-raising concerts scheduled. Bands like Oasis, Coldplay and The Who at The Albert Hall. I spend a week with thirty different kids a day, drumming and singing with them before they go out to watch their favourite bands in the evening. They have their own row of seats, reserved for them near the front. On the first night they’re invited to stand and the audience applauds them.
This gives me an idea. Why don’t they open the show tomorrow, actually onstage, drumming and singing, all thirty of them? It takes a bit of ‘raised eyebrow’ negotiating but for the rest of the week that’s what we do.
For a performer like myself it’s a tense moment with a ‘call-and-response’ invitation to an audience who really aren’t expecting to sing. So I don’t do the call myself, I coach the teenagers to do it. Thirty kids calling, “Ole-o!” to four thousand Madness fans, do you think they respond?
“OLE-OHHHH!” comes the response and we’re off. People are out of their seats dancing in the aisles to the rhythms we play for the next five minutes. Yes, it’s short and sweet but the applause is as enthusiastic for them as it is for Suggs and the gang later. And, yes, word gets about and the stars start coming backstage to meet them at the workshops, wishing them good luck and thanking them for opening the show.
Josie, the mother of a boy in a wheelchair, comes over as they leave at 11pm. “He’s dying” she whispers. “Our boy is dying. He has every Madness poster on his bedroom wall. To see him up there, being applauded, and seeing that smile on his face. I can’t tell you what it means”.
The Queen’s equerry comes to talk to me backstage. It’s a couple of months later and we’ve been invited to play for a Royal Party as part of a follow-up event at The Albert Hall. “She’ll only come over if you look relaxed” he says, conspiratorially. I immediately put a hand in my pocket, adopting the contrapposto pose and encouraging the TCT teenagers to do the same.
“Who taught you to do that?” one of them asks later, amazed that he’s just had a conversation with The Queen. “My Gran taught me”, I say, “with a bit of help from my Mum”.