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How Wilko's touching love story simply took my breath away

By Jane Graham

Published 27/11/2015

New life: guitarist Wilko Johnson beat cancer
New life: guitarist Wilko Johnson beat cancer

It was a joy to be reminded of the extraordinary story of Wilko Johnson in this week's BBC documentary The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. For anyone still unaware of the Wilko story, Johnson, the brilliant, strutting pin-up guitarist of Seventies rock band Dr Feelgood, became the focus of media attention in 2013 when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and responded with an ambitious UK/Japan tour and a series of interviews in which he said he felt "vividly alive".

Johnson's was a staggering riposte, not simply because of its almost deranged positivity, but because the pleasure the usually grumpy old sod began to take from life was so evident on his wildly grinning face and in the manic brio of his live performances.

There are many before him who have said that a looming deadline (in his case, the estimate was around nine months) gave them a deeper appreciation of the beauty of life. But few have celebrated that feeling by travelling over the globe, getting onstage and throwing themselves around like an exuberant teenage rock star after his first number one.

Johnson gave many people real hope that a terminal cancer diagnosis need not mean an ending shrouded in fear and sadness. He became celebrated as a beacon for courage and optimism, something I imagine the naturally contrary curmudgeon found bizarre.

So, when he revealed, round about the time he had been "supposed to die", that he'd been misdiagnosed, operated on and now appeared to be free of cancer, it felt like the whole story was some kind of salutary missive from God. Having learned to appreciate the gift of life in the face of death, he had been rewarded with more time to smell the roses.

I interviewed Johnson around this time and he really did take my breath away. Not just when he told me his year of pending death was an "amazing, emotionally charged" time, enriched by waves of affection from others, during which he "started to feel alive"; I expected that, I'd done the research.

It was startling to hear him say that "there were times on stage when it was so overwhelming that I thought, you know what? It's almost worth it". But it was equally thought-provoking that "parachuting back down to the land of the living" had seen him return to his previous state of general melancholy and a fear of doctors with bad news.

It may be the great, cruel irony of humanity - we cannot escape our innate preoccupation with the tiresome minutia of the day-to-day, even if we've been right to the edge of breath.

Most of all, though, I loved Wilko for something else entirely. As with so many things, in the midst of this one-in-a-million miracle story, this parable of man, the best bit was something any of us might experience; a love story. This is how he told it:

"Me and my missus, we were together until she died 10 years ago of cancer and I ... well, man, I'm in love with her still. I still really miss her. I first saw her down Canvey Island youth club, when I was 16. I can still picture her standing there.

"A few weeks later, I got to walk her home and I kissed her outside her gate. It knocked me off my feet. I just went Blammo!

"And I remember when she died, I went to see her in the morgue. She was lying on this table. God, Jesus, man. She looked like a saint. And I kissed her. And she was cold.

"I remember that last kiss and I remember the first kiss and there were 40 years in between."


Will NI not leave the past behind?

Simon Reeve’s BBC series touring Ireland made me laugh, then drew a huge sigh of exasperation.

In the Republic, Simon, a simple, cheerful chap, met colourful locals who flew over fields in para-motors and persuaded councils to re-route roads to avoid fairy trees. It was all jolly stuff.

When he crossed into Northern Ireland, however, it became yet another worthy portrait of the legacy of the Troubles — the remaining ghettos, the murals, the cross-community projects.

How I long for the day when BBC Simons can come to the north and just hang out with daft lads and lassies, and “community” doesn’t even come up.

Dodging licence fee is shameful

It’s estimated that around half a million people get out of paying the BBC licence fee by only watching BBC shows on iPlayer, for which a licence is not required.

Bearing in mind the huge cuts the Government have made to BBC funding, the idea of anyone enjoying hours of quality, advert-free television while commending themselves for “getting round” contributing a penny towards making their favourite programmes makes my blood boil.

One-hundred-and-fifty pounds a year to support the team who produce eight superb radio stations and numerous great dramas, documentaries, news and arts shows is the best bargain in the world.

Shame on anyone who shirks it.

Belfast Telegraph

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