The direction of my musical life was dramatically changed in 1977, still in my late twenties, when I was admitted to Charing Cross hospital in London having contracted a rare virus, Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Within a week I was totally paralysed and spent over four months in the intensive care unit, mostly unconscious but brought to awakening as procedures necessitated.
The prominent memory is the intensity and nature of the hallucinations which resulted from regular injections of morphine to ease the pain. These felt like they lasted for days, and on ending could often repeat exactly. They were vivid, intense, and often frightening. In one, I was trapped under the slime of a dead elephant looking for pockets of air. In another, I was left in a wheelchair in a remote area of South Africa. In a third (I imagine around the time that my parents were called in due to my heart giving up), Frank Sinatra came close to killing me. Two hallucinations are referred to in Tales From The 15th Floor.
All communication, when I was awoken, was by my blinking at the correct letter in a spoken alphabet, and I was surprised at how little dramas built around me to form some sense of normality. Unfortunately at some point I had come to consciousness to find that I could only see a tiny amount, and as this had been caused by pressure on the brain and optic nerve, I was operated on to insert a tube/shunt to drain excess fluid into my heart. I still have that today. I remember being wheeled to the operation with a nurse squeezing a rubber ball to push air into my lungs. At one point she met a friend and they started chatting; I hoped she didn’t forget to keep squeezing.
Eventually I came out of intensive care and one day, around five months after the illness began, I found that I could move my shoulder slightly. Guillain-Barré attacks the myelin sheath of the nerves and so as they re-activated gradually, a week or two later I could just lift my hand. Occupational therapy began, then physiotherapy, and I recall that one day they decided to splint my legs and get me upright for the first time. This was done and I was hauled up, much to the amusement of all as it coincided with the playing of the national anthem. Virginia Wade had just won Wimbledon. I fainted a few seconds later.
I eventually went to a rehabilitation centre at Hammersmith Broadway to continue work on the movement I had. By this time I was in a wheelchair. I was now registered blind and had to face living with little eyesight, and on one momentous day when I saw a social worker, she said, ‘here’s your white stick, do you think you would prefer to become a telephone operator or piano tuner?’. I wheeled myself to the hospital chapel which had an old piano - by now I could press a note. I decided that I would give things a year and decide whether life was for me. Gradually I learnt to walk with Zimmer frame, crutches, and then alone, and I remember being spoilt and allowed to go out to the pub on Brook Green after all the other patients had been put to bed.
While all this may sound a horrific and terrifying series of events, I should say that much of it was not, and I emerged with an incredible sense of peace (I wish I had it now). To have something that you mostly recover from, compared with the horrible situations of others in a hospital, you realise how fortunate you have been, and this left me with a positivity that I could build on. A year and a half after the illness began, I went to see a leading hand specialist and started to learn to play the classical guitar again. I was accepted on the advanced course at the Royal Academy of Music three years later. However, after this I realised that higher levels of playing simply would not be possible and I made the change to writing. My thesis at the Institute of Education a year later had three large words in felt tip pen on each page which was then typed up. With the advent of computers, and particularly speech programmes, there followed a series of writing and editing projects over some 15 years, but by this time I had truly lost that inner emotional feeling that playing a musical instrument gives. Composition has more than made up for this.
On occasion it has been suggested that I should write about my hospital experience, but instead I wrote a piece of music which had the events as its background. Scored for cello and piano, Tales From The 15th Floor is a three-movement work which was toured in Italy in 2006. It was recorded in January 2023 and is supplemented on this CD by two earlier recorded works, The Balancing of Opposites, for flute and piano, and a solo piano work, Variations on Papaver Rhoeas.