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.

Advertisements

Can romance survive the National Wedding Show?

‘We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true’
Joni Mitchell, My Old Man, 1971

I think we can say conclusively that Joni Mitchell, when she wrote the above song at the back-end of the hippy era, had not been to the National Wedding Show. Because if she had done, her lyric, if accurately rendered, would read something more like:

We need a piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true, and we also need a fantastically expensive wedding, reception and honeymoon which will cost a small fortune, to show that we love each other.

Yes, I took a trip to the National Wedding Show at Olympia at the weekend. This is the place where that proposal, that down on one knee burbling of, ‘will you, my dear?’ turns into reality. The place where romance morphs into budgets and colour schemes and timelines. Where men realise what they have let themselves in for, and the women say, ‘don’t worry, just organise the music at the reception, and leave the rest to me.’

I wasn’t there because of any upcoming nuptials on my part. I was volunteering for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, for whom I also work. The people who organise the thing had generously given the charity a stand to promote our good cause. We spent our time chatting to the people about the various pins we had on offer which could be alternative wedding favours.

To give you some understanding of my level of innocence before attending on Sunday, I didn’t even know what a wedding favour was. For the unenlightened, they are the sugared almonds, or similar, that you get on the table when you sit down to a meal at a wedding. In the weddings I have attended, I have clearly scoffed the little blighters long before ascertaining that they are a traditional gesture of friendship from the happy couple.

The Wedding Fair was a bustling place, mostly with business-like mothers dragging their daughter and groom-to-be around, looking at dresses, places to get married, places to have receptions, caterers, the lot. It’s a place to gather ideas and start to scope out what’s out there.

Some were floating around the place, excited by the possibilities of it all. Others were utterly bewildered, finding out that, yes, even trifling things like confetti and cup cakes have got to be bought. And if you think you might struggle into the wedding dress of your dreams, there was even a Boot Camp to get you into shape.

There was some wonderfully novel sights to be seen down at the show. Opposite us was a heavy-set fellow from Scunthorpe who had a stand called Amazing Smile. This was offering a kind UV light treatment to the teeth, to whiten them, with prices starting at £89.99. I never knew such a product existed, and thought it preposterously expensive. But apparently this was very cheap and prices are usually in the hundreds of pounds. He did a roaring trade.

The Amazing Smile stand drew some interesting characters to it. Some of the ladies getting their gnashers done were in what you might call the Silvio Berlusconi class. But the biggest (in every way) customers were the Dream Boys. These are hen party specialists, appearing at various locations across the UK to do their show. Needless to say, they were all getting their teeth done, some quite possibly twice. It appears that the dream these boys were peddling was that of a group of men, quite possibly from Essex, with gym-built physiques and unnaturally whitened teeth, stripping down to the posing pouch. The show has been running for years, so it clearly works.

One of the blokes told us they support a different cancer charity each year, and have given tens of thousands to charity, including Breakthrough. So it appears that everyone is a winner.

By the end of Sunday, it had been a hard few days for many of the people working there. I saw models who had been doing the catwalk show hobbling about. Some of the stallholders were on autopilot – dreaming of being at home with their feet up.

When we tottered out of there, I wondered whether this modern obsession with highly elaborate, highly expensive weddings kills romance stone dead. I needed some sort of affirmation that people who get married aren’t just burdened by societal pressure and financial strain. On the cab back to the office, I prattled to the driver about the wedding show. He told me that it was the day of his ninth wedding anniversary, and he was out working.

Economics conquering love? Not a bit of it. He was taking his wife out for a meal the following day, he told me with a smile. A heartwarming tale to end a good, but rather unromantic day.