Remembering Bernie Nolan

Promoting Breakthrough Breast Cancer ... Bernie Nolan in action
Promoting Breakthrough Breast Cancer … Bernie Nolan in action

Working in the PR team for Breakthrough Breast Cancer at many times gave me cause to ask myself: “What is happening to my life?”

Or more specifically:

“Why am I surrounded by women who are eating cake at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning?”
“Why am I able to hold a relatively competent conversation about the contents of Heat magazine?”
“Why am I escorting ex-wag Lizzie Cundy to a champagne reception?”

None of these questions has a clear answer. The only answer that stuck was that Breakthrough Breast Cancer is a woman’s world. They do things differently there.

Bernie Nolan, the singer in the Nolan Sisters who has died of breast cancer aged 52, was a big part of that world. After she was diagnosed with the disease in 2010 she became a powerful advocate for the cause.

Needless to say, I was the only person in the team who didn’t know who she was. When I found out, I was mystified as to why she could be considered a celebrity. When I hear the Nolan Sisters’ biggest hit, “I’m in the Mood for Dancing” my usual reaction is, “Well… I was.”

But then, over the course of Breast Cancer Awareness Month through October 2010 I saw her impact. How she went on Daybreak to hammer home the message about the need for women to be breast aware. Her audacity in plugging the work of our charity live on TV, even to the highly ‘proactive’ Breakthrough PR team, was a revelation. She knew what the rules of live TV were, and blithely ignored them. Because she was a Nolan. Or something.

Then, in 2011, she told ITV that she would be visiting the Breakthrough Research Centre on the Fulham Road, and they would film her. As research was my beat, it was my duty to accompany her. I was somewhat apprehensive, wondering what small talk we would have in the inevitable lag periods between filming.

I needn’t have worried. When I greeted her at the research centre she immediately put me at ease and showed a lack of ego and charm rarely present in famous people.

However, there were still troubles ahead. She was due to interview Professor Jorge Reis-Filho, a frighteningly intelligent pathologist with a love for media-friendly phrases such as ‘molecular subtypes’, ‘tumour stratification’, and many more. I, not unreasonably, thought that the contrasting worlds of daytime telly and a pathologist’s laboratory might be insurmountable.

They went in for their filmed conversation and I waited outside. And waited. And waited. They must have been talking for the better part of an hour when Bernie finally emerged from the lab. Not wanting to sound anxious, I asked her if the interview had gone well.

Bernie said: “I didn’t understand everything he said.” Which was understandable, considering there are leading cancer researchers who can’t keep up with Jorge. “But he told me things my doctor wouldn’t tell me. He told me the truth.”

I didn’t know exactly what she meant by that, and wasn’t going to pry. But I did know that Jorge, for all of his geeky verbosity, had a complete inability not to speak his mind. As did Bernie. And so, while they were talking two different languages they connected as one honest person speaking to another. He the scientist; she the patient. Gossiping over the garden fence, about cancer.

She then interviewed a woman living with secondary breast cancer, the incurable version of the disease. As a person who prefers to live only within a world of cynicism and irony, I found Bernie’s empathy during that interview to be mind-blowing.

Throughout the day, I found out a lot about Bernie. How she liked a drink. How proud she was of her daughter (very proud, if you were wondering). How she would do anything, use every ounce of her celebrity, to help our charity. It was that openness, that warmth, that irrepressible energy, which made her so likeable.

The truth is, Bernie wasn’t the most extraordinary person I have ever met. I have met many women who had great personalities, and the same determination to raise money and awareness for Breakthrough Breast Cancer as Bernie did. However, she was the only one who could ring up Lorraine Kelly and invite herself on her show. She knew that those other women would do that if they could. So she did.

When I meet up with my former colleagues tomorrow evening, I’ll be back in Breakthrough mode. Chatting about cake, Heat magazine, and Bernie. And quite possibly I will be in the mood for dancing. To Prince, Funkadelic, Nelly, Madonna, Michael Jackson… and, if I’m up to the eyeballs with tequila, even the Nolan Sisters.

Peace to Bernie.

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Len Shelley RIP

Len Shelley and his wife, Ang, have both died of cancer. He has had an obituary published in the Guardian which speaks of him in very factual terms. Hopefully, I can add some colour to the picture of this wonderful man.

I lived with Len from 2002-2005 in his big old house on Undercliffe Terrace, just off the St Leonards seafront.

In late 2001, I was working at the Hastings Observer as a reporter, earning peanuts, living in a bedsit in Bexhill. It was an attic room, and I had to pay pound coins into the heater. I was miserable and lonely.

One day, a South African woman called Hazel arrived at the Observer offices to promote a gig – some sort of world music thing called the Baghdaddies. I ran the ents pages and promised to put her gig in. We got talking and I explained I needed a place to live. She said I could live in her boyfriend’s house. She drove me down there after work in her retro-style car, looking sexy in a fake fur coat.

She let herself in to the house and I saw a big man with long hair, wearing a waistcoat, billowing shirt and green jeans, mopping water in the kitchen. The place was freezing. She introduced me to Len and he started apologising for everything: the leak in the kitchen, the lack of heating, the chaos.

They showed me round the house. All the rooms were big, with exposed floorboards, old rugs, OS maps of Sussex running up the wall next to the stairs. Everything was peeling, falling apart, damp walls, strange art lying around the place. I remembered a Dylan Thomas story about him moving to London and finding himself in a house full of furniture and thinking it the best place he had ever been. I felt the same about Len’s place. I moved in.

Len was mostly away, living with Hazel. We went on occasional cinema trips down to Bexhill or for Harvey’s in the Horse and Groom pub. He was both very warm yet clearly uncomfortable with other humans. He wouldn’t look you in the eye and nervously fiddled with blu-tac.

We always talked about music – it was the way in which we could safely connect with each other. We liked the same freaky shit: Parliament, Beefheart, King Tubby, etc. He introduced me to shit like Fela Kuti, Gang of Four, Can. He only had cassette tapes and vinyl. He loved cassettes, the way they rolled from one side to the other. He also liked that he could pick them up from second hand shops – the only places he ever bought anything.

After a year, he and Hazel split up and he moved back in. He brought his two cats with him. I am allergic to cats, but I didn’t want to leave the house. I wanted to live with Len, so I spent my time enjoying life, but not breathing very well.

Len was in quite poor condition at that time. He was coming off anti-depressants. He wasn’t doing his art – these strange, glass fronted cases with still animated scenes made from found objects. He spoke very little. It was a big house and we gave each other a lot of space.

He loved to read the Hastings Observer and liked to hear about what was going on. We had very polite conversations in the kitchen, chatting about the cassettes he was playing or my work or my drinking, which was going well at that time. He made a big pot of tea in the morning and got about his day before I went to work. He would potter in his garden, digging with no great purpose.

Slowly, his life began again. Word got about Hastings that he was single and he had a number of suitors. He was an incredibly attractive man. Dark skin, brooding eyes, a genuine artist among all of the much more loud and much less talented artists with which Hastings is filled. He got together with Angie, a painter. She was a warm and more gently encouraging presence than Hazel. She got him to get the basement turned into a studio and generally able to see the future in less bleak terms. The depressive cloud lifted somewhat.

I, meanwhile, was drinking with my friends in Hastings. We’d use the house as a late night hangout, getting up on the roof if Len was out, drinking Lynx lager, looking out to sea. I developed an obsession with the Libertines, which sent me into a manic state of hyperactivity which channelled my energy and frustrated creativity.

Len was invited to be part of an art show in Romney churches. He loved the Romney coast, both for its bleakness, and for the opportunities it offered to pick up flotsam and jetsam, which formed his art. The work he displayed in one of the Romney churches showed all of his mordant humour, surreal imagination, and respect for his surroundings, yet his desire to subvert them. Drinking wine at the opening, he still seemed uncomfortable, but he was back. He was pleased with the show. (See Len’s work at www.lenshelley.co.uk.)

Living with Len was both beautiful and remarkable in many ways. He grew rhubarb in his garden, only to let it sit there and die. He said he liked the shape of the leaves. I would often come home from my office in shirt and tie, to the sound of loud African music in the basement, and the sound of banging; the artist at work.

One day, I came home to find a large, strange object on the dining table. I couldn’t work out what it was at first. I walked round it, to discover it was a horse’s head. It would form part of a show in Tunbridge Wells. I loved that.

When his relationship with Ang became serious he started taking an interest in making the house more civilised. He got the house damp-proofed. He painted walls. He wanted her to move in. I had finally managed to get a girlfriend and so I made my excuses. It had been three years and it was time to move on.

I still saw Len on occasion in more recent years. He was working, he was doing well. He and Ang were in love. Ang was keeping bees and writing poems about them.

When I started on the road I am now on – writing performance poetry – the first piece I wrote was about him. It took the structure from My Old Man, by Ian Dury, who we both loved. It might not be on the level of his art, but it’s all true, a poem from me to him.

Len was a mentor for me in those years when I had no direction and was struggling to know what to do with my life. His love, support and friendship – and that of Ang’s – meant everything to me. He was a true bohemian, a true artist, and a true friend.

RIP Len and Ang.

My landlord

I saw the house in the winter
Boiler’d broke, it was cold
There was a flood in the kitchen
Wasn’t normal I was told
Rugs and sofa were all ancient
Maps of Sussex on the wall
Maps of Sussex on the wall
My landlord

My landlord he was an artist
Only worked with things he’d found
Brung in seagulls, foxes, badgers
Dreamt of ships run aground
Created strange dioramas
Gothic visions for the home
Gothic visions for the home
My landlord

My landlord, the women knew him
He weren’t like other blokes
Had himself romantic notions
Always wore an old waistcoat
In the summer, he had a boater
See him cycle down the coast
See him cycle down the coast
My landlord

Ol’ Len he never done much talking
Always showed a great reserve
He liked digging in his garden
Think it helped him with his nerves
Played me all his vinyl records
‘Tribal beats, son, have you heard’
‘Tribal beats, son, have you heard’
My landlord

Three years in he met a painter
She was blonde and had two sons
He became quite dynamic
Got the damp and the pointing done
In the end we hid our feelings
Shook hands and I moved on
Shook hands and I was gone
My landlord
My landlord