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One Saturday morning in March 2018, I learnt that my good friend the composer, author and educator Paul Harris had been rushed to our local hospital emergency department overnight.
Paul had for several months been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a virulent cancer that had already seemed to take so much from him.
He was receiving excellent treatment at The Churchill Hospital in Oxford, but having taken a turn for the worse the previous night, Paul had been instructed to come straight to Milton Keynes, his nearest A&E.
Friendship and Snacks
Paul is known the world over as one of the leading music educators and writers of our time; to me he is known as a dear personal friend.
Paul and I regularly enjoy going out for meals together and catching up; on this occasion I realised as I drove to see him that the hospital food he would “enjoy” wasn’t likely to conform to our normal standards.
Heading to a supermarket en route, I arrived at his bedside clutching some pre-approved healthy snacks, and we spent the next few hours attempting our usual convivial chat while poor Paul endured medical care that wasn’t quite meeting The Churchill’s high standards.
It’s one of the many touching and often amusing anecdotes that Paul includes in his new book, catchily titled Cancer & Positivity: A musician’s journey through illness, teaching and learning.
Who is this Harris fellow anyway?
At the launch of the book, an intimate, celebratory event held earlier this week in a function room at publisher Faber Music’s Bloomsbury offices, Paul (on clarinet) was joined by two friends performing the finale of Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio and some gorgeous music by Max Bruch. Emblematic of the triumph of music over adversity, the consummate performance also served as an important reminder that Paul is, above all, a very fine musician.
Perhaps you’ve been inspired by his brilliant talks at training events, enjoyed playing one or more of his superb compositions, benefitted from his many pedagogic volumes (there’s literally hundreds of them!) or heard him perform.
It’s probably no overstatement to insist that Paul Harris’s unique contribution to musical life and education has touched literally millions around the world.
Okay, but who is he?
Cancer & Positivity introduces you to the real Paul, the vulnerable human being who is so much more than the sum of these brilliant parts. And as such, it’s perhaps a jarring, intense and often uncomfortable read, the more so given the level of personal detail and physical description he shares.
Encouraged by his friend Richard Crozier to keep a journal throughout his treatment, Paul now shares it “warts and all” with his readers in an 80-page book, which has been beautifully designed by Faber and is published by Queen’s Temple Publications.
The pithy text and narrative won’t let you put the book down, while black-and-white photography adds texture, bringing Paul’s account even more to life.
“As you might know, 2018 was a year I spent dealing mostly with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A cancer of the lymph system. Happily all seems well – the doctors and staff of the Lymphoma unit at The Churchill Hospital were superb.
“During the whole process I kept a journal – I had a lot of time to sit and think! Being a cancer of the immune system, I was not allowed out much and public places were out of bounds for fear of picking up potentially serious infections. This book is the result. It considers how I dealt with illness and allowed me to develop many thoughts and insights on how this can help us in teaching and learning.”
Filled by turn with both humour and pathos, from forensic medical detail to profound philosophical insight, Paul spares no blushes and leaves no stone unturned as he allows us to walk at his side through the months of pain and treatment, sharing with us a succession of personal reflections that are as educative as they are humane.
Replete with Paul’s trademark intellectual curiosity and thought-provoking insight at every turn, Cancer and Positivity is ultimately a warm and hugely inspiring account of one man’s triumph over adversity.
It may not seem the obvious book choice for the coming festive season, but it’s truly life-affirming and you really must read it!
All proceeds from this book will be donated to Lymphoma Action and The Lymphoma Unit at The Churchill Hospital, life-giving organisations which could really use your support.