So many of us go through life aiming to commit our life stories to print, yet so few manage to get past the hurdles involved before publication.
Yet that changed somewhat with the advent of the e-book and recent strides in self-publishing, and one of those who made the most of that open door was an old friend who died at the end of September after a long battle against cancer.
I knew John Blackburn through his love of Chorley FC, a club he invested so many hours in and whom I reported on for several years while working on local papers in Lancashire.
It was no surprise manager Garry Flitcroft, chairman Ken Wright, and a large number of Magpies fans were there to pay tribute at John’s memorial services, the sheer numbers of mourners suggesting the high esteem for the 64-year-old, also a keen cricket fan. And the weight of messages on fans’ website Magpies in Space told its own story.
‘JB’ was clearly respected by all those who came into contact with him, not just at his clubs, but also after 43 years as a librarian in Lancashire, for an ordinary guy who battled so hard to ensure returns to the terraces and boundary rope after diagnosis of an incurable cancer in late 2008.
Fans observed a minute’s silence in his honour ahead of a recent FA Trophy clash at Chorley, where John had in recent years – while confined to a wheelchair – handed the Jack Kirkland Trophy to the winning captain at a pre-season game with Preston North End.
During his recuperation he contributed to club programmes and his local daily and weekly papers. But he also published an account of his illness as a charity fund-raiser in the book Keeping your Sense of Tumour!
That title summed him up well, as JB always loved a good pun (and plenty of bad ones!), as anyone who met him at a match or read his football reports knew.
But Keeping your Sense of Tumour was much more, serving as an inspirational tale aimed at those undergoing similar woes, John stressing that being diagnosed with cancer – even an incurable form – ‘isn’t necessarily the end of the world’.
He proved that in a four-year battle with multiple myeloma – a cancer of the bone marrow – including an operation to remove a tumour from his spine, radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment, pneumonia, toxic shock and even the ‘shingle tingle’, as he dubbed the after-effects of all that.
That covered his brave journey from the twinges in his back he felt in late 2008, just as he was set to retire – the pain gradually worsening and John’s leg seizing up, with medical investigations revealing he had a tumour on his spine, leading to his diagnosis.
The resultant book charts his up and down progress from hospital to nursing home and a return to his own home in those first three years of illness, showing how a positive attitude and the right support helped him cope and enjoy life again despite trying circumstances.
It was also written as a thank you to wife Su, his main carer in later times, and family, close friends and health workers of all grades who helped him. And the subject matter followed his journey from first signs and diagnosis onwards, told with plenty of light-hearted moments and above all extremely positive.
Along the way, John talks about his being ‘a hypochondriac by profession, but a devout coward by religion’, and many more almost tragi-comic JB-esque nuggets.
One fine example reads, ‘It had become my oft-repeated claim while in hospital that I hadn’t had a ‘drink’ since Christmas but had been legless since New Year.’
He adds of one doctor: ‘He made me walk up and down the ward, then stuck his finger up my bum and sent me home. Well, I think he was a doctor, he was wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard, but sometimes when I think about it I wonder.’
It wasn’t John’s only publication, having also written Ave Maria – the first few steps on the way to becoming a Latin lover – maybe as an e-book, a light-hearted introduction to the Latin language. And who knows how many more books he might have produced in his retirement years if not for his illness.
John was always a pleasure to deal with. He’d often appear near the press box or wherever I sat with my pen and pad and grilled me on my last report for missing a key incident or my personal spin on an incident. He also gave me the odd précis of early drama if I showed up late, and I always knew to trust his version of the action.
With that in mind, I could almost hear that trademark JB chuckle the day before his funeral, having showed up at his crematorium send-off a day too soon. He’d have been impressed by that – not only showing up in good time, but 24 hours in advance.
John always treated me with respect and kindness (and a little gentle ribbing), and often asked about my family too. And that interest in others summed him up. He was a true gent, a good man, and a proper friend.
He’ll be sadly missed, and my thoughts remain with his family and close friends. But the rest of us have a permanent reminder of him too through his book, with Keeping your Sense of Tumour! available direct from firstname.lastname@example.org and Ave Maria via Amazon.
A version of this Malcolm Wyatt tribute was first published on the http://www.sportnw.co.uk website on October 5th, 2012.