Dear Reader,

The book you are holding came about in a rather different way to most others. It was funded directly by readers through a new website: Unbound. Unbound is the creation of three writers. We started the company because we believed there had to be a better deal for both writers and readers. On the Unbound website, authors share the ideas for the books they want to write directly with readers. If enough of you support the book by pledging for it in advance, we produce a beautifully bound special subscribers’ edition and distribute a regular edition and ebook wherever books are sold, in shops and online.

This new way of publishing is actually a very old idea (Samuel Johnson funded his dictionary this way). We’re just using the internet to build each writer a network of patrons. At the back of this book, you’ll find the names of all the people who made it happen.

Publishing in this way means readers are no longer just passive consumers of the books they buy, and authors are free to write the books they really want. They get a much fairer return too – half the profits their books generate, rather than a tiny percentage of the cover price.

If you’re not yet a subscriber, we hope that you’ll want to join our publishing revolution and have your name listed in one of our books in the future. To get you started, here is a £5 discount on your first pledge. Just visit, make your pledge and type elephant5 in the promo code box when you check out.

Thank you for your support,


Dan, Justin and John

Founders, Unbound

This book is dedicated in part to the amazing Royal Marsden Hospital and so, vicariously, to the NHS. On 5 July 1950, Aneurin Bevan launched the National Health Service on three core principles:

1. That it meets the needs of everyone.

2. That it be free at the point of delivery.

3. That it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

It’s a remarkable testimony to this country that, despite repeated attempts to undermine those core principles, they held strong in 1995 and they still, to some degree, do so to this day.

That’s not politics, or trumpet-blowing, that’s just something that we take for granted and need to remind ourselves of now and again. Before I was diagnosed in 1995, I certainly hadn’t really given it much thought.

To Val Shaw aka my mum

For her unwavering, unconditional, unequivocal and too often underappreciated support.

With special thanks to the Patrons who supported this book

Anna Aleff

Michael Alexander

Bill & Siân Buckhurst

Claire Cooper

Amber Evans

Phoebe Fox

Terence Frisch

Marguerite Galizia

Harry Hepple

Julie Hesmondhalgh

Sam Heughan

Anthony Horowitz

Polly Hubbard

Janey Johnson

Jack Knowles

Richard Lee

Julie Legrand

Bruce McLeod

Andrea Neumann-Claus

Debbie Oates

Kate Plantin

Charlie Russell

Gesine Schmücker-Schüßler

Mark Shaw

Henry Shields

Rich and Nia Smith

Naomi Wallace

Lucinda Westcar

Chris White


Those Who Didn’t Make It



Part One: The Diagnosis

12 June 1995

Me, My Cancer and I

Jar. Sperm. Sperm. Jar

Diagnosis Cancer

Part Two: The Treatment

Cancer New

POV Cancer

Why Me? Why Not Me?

This Too Shall Pass

Sex and Cancer, Part One – Ibetterfuckhimjustincasehedies

Cancer versus Gambling, Part One

Chemo Days

Sex and Cancer, Part Two – The Cancer Swagger

Oral Armageddon

I’m a Secret Positive Thinker

Cancer versus Gambling, Part Two

‘We’re in the Hat Business’

Embracing the Swagger

Dereliction of Duty

We All Need an OJ Trial

Cancer versus Gambling, Part Three


Wii Cancer

Emotional Roulette

Ration the Relatives

Bravery Is

Middle of the Night Emotional Tsunamis

The Edge of Heaven

Escape to Freedom

My Name’s Raz Shaw and I’m a Smellaholic

In Memoriam?

Part Three: The Results

This Moment

Cancer versus Gambling, Part Four

Dear 28


Appendix 1: Word’s a Slave by Naomi Wallace

Appendix 2: Excerpt from Gambling by Tom Holloway

About the Author





I wanted to write this book in honour of those who didn’t make it. One in three of us gets cancer. I don’t know what the survival rates are. All I know is that nothing makes me sadder than when someone dies from this evil disease. I didn’t feel as strongly as that before I entered the club. The cancer club. Those deaths didn’t seem so personal. But I joined the club – and it is a club – and in this club we should feel impacted every time we hear of someone not making it. And whether they lived through cancer for a day, a week, a year, ten years or a lifetime before they died, this book is an attempt to glory in those moments of living. I am not down with the phrase ‘cancer survivor’. It makes me feel a bit sick in my mouth. Not completely sure why. It is something to do with it unwittingly disrespecting those who didn’t survive. As if those people had failed in some fashion. Yet they, to me, are the brave ones. The rest of us are just people who are still living, for now. Not only do they not have the luxury of living, but the pain of their death goes on in the loved ones they leave behind. That’s the part that makes me saddest. And that to me has been the most important thing to remember when writing this book. I can make light of my own life and my cancer journey. Because it’s just that. My life. But I can’t make light of yours and I can’t make light of those who didn’t have the luxury of surviving. I hope they would have appreciated, understood and enjoyed this book.


I was twenty-eight years old when I was diagnosed with cancer. I am now fifty.

Spoiler Alert: I don’t die in the end. At least not in the first edition.

This isn’t a book about how to survive cancer. That would just be weird. And wrong.

This is a book about having cancer and a gambling addiction both at the same time. And coping and not coping and trying to cope. It’s not about tomorrow. It is solely about today. Trying to cope today. What happens tomorrow is for tomorrow.

If I had the opportunity to go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Despite the hideousness of chemo. Despite the endless days of exhausted inertia. Despite having a head the size of a pumpkin and a neck the size of Hulk Hogan’s thigh. Despite it taking me out of the loop of the world and making me feel a boy again. Despite the hidden loneliness. Despite being almost eaten alive by the monster that is addiction. Despite the constant soft rumble of low-level despair.

Despite. Despite. Despite. Despite. Despite. Despite. Despite.

It’s somewhat of a cliché to say that the journey through cancer treatment and gambling addiction and out the other side has made me who I am today. But it happens to be true. It has given me jewels of insight and afforded me the privilege of sometimes being someone else’s shoulder to lean or cry on. And the writing of this book has thrown up questions that I had never before thought to ask myself. The biggest and most obvious being: has that simultaneous journey through and beyond cancer and gambling addiction changed me? My outlook and personality? And the answer has to be yes. Without a doubt. I have no placebo ‘me’ to compare me to, so I have no true ability to gauge in what way and by how much. And that’s a big reason why I wanted to write this book. To find out. It’s a big reason why I wanted my twenty-eight-year-old self and my fifty-year-old self to communicate in some fashion. To find out.

The other almost impossible question to answer is how present has cancer been in my life these last twenty-two years, and how involved is it still in everything I do, say or think? That is an impossible question, but what I do know is that it’s present enough for me to want to write a book about it. It’s present enough for me to want to share some personal insights into what it felt like living with it. And it’s present enough to have given me an awareness and an insight into life and death that I would never have properly gleaned without it. And that’s the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s also important to say that this is a book that doesn’t demand that you be strong. Or that you weep oceans. When I was ill there were times I was happy to talk about it and times I wasn’t. There were moments when I was open and honest, and lots of moments when it was easier to bury my head in the sand. The cancer sand. It wasn’t always a breeze. It was often a hurricane. But being in the eye of a hurricane can be fun sometimes even if at the same time it’s somewhat life-threatening.

Part of living is the thrill of confronting death and saying: ‘Do your worst, motherfucker.

Sometimes death wins and sometimes it doesn’t, but always, always, it is better to have stood up to it and tried to find moments of joy within it than to have simply held up your hands and given in to it.

And you never stop absorbing stuff and learning stuff. And real life never ceases to surprise you. Every day.

Just before my self-imposed rewriting deadline, something happened that forced me away from my self-reflection for a nanosecond to think about someone else. Someone else! Goddammit. Worse still, that someone else wasn’t just any someone else, it was THE someone else. Or should I say SHE someone else.

Everybody needs an unconditional when they are ill. Unconditionals put up with your shit. Sometimes literally. Unconditionals keep the unwanteds at bay. Unconditionals step forward or back without you having to ask. Unconditionals treat you to food that has proper taste at posh Harvey Nichols-type places to take away the psychological pain of a syringe. Unconditionals come in many forms. Mine came in three letters.


I am the youngest of three boys. That has afforded me a rollercoaster of favouritism and neglect. I always thought the hardest thing about being a parent must be NOT having favourites, but as I got older I realised that OF COURSE parents have favourites. How could they not? The secret about good parenting is not SHOWING that favouritism to those self-same kids.

I happened to have two parents in two different schools of thought on that. I had a father who had no ability or even desire to hide his feelings about his children, and, as luck wouldn’t have it, I happened to not be top of the tots. In fact, out of his three sons, I’m not sure I even made the top three.

This isn’t the right arena to go into deep analysis about the reasons why, and it’s certainly not my intention to disparage him. Publicly, at least. In fact, just the opposite. Since his death a few years ago I have managed to find some rationale for what at the time seemed unfair and upsetting. It’s about relatability. The older I got, and the more I started to discover who I was, the less my father could relate to me. A young Jewish north London boy should be interested in… I don’t know what? Not arty things anyway. I should have read the signs when twelve-year-old me was leading the choir in the school carol service. I strode proudly and purposefully down the aisle of the church, in my cassock and ruff, and belted out the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. My Jewish father shifted uncomfortably on his wooden pew, not knowing whether to be proud or ashamed. It seems to me that contradiction stayed with him, about me, for the rest of his life and he had no filter with which to hide it. In simple terms, I have grown to accept that my father loved me but didn’t like me. Such is life.

My mother, on the other hand, has always sailed the seas of fairness brilliantly. She had/has three very different sons and that in itself surely presents a challenge. It’s only natural that the personality of one of those three would appeal more to a person than the other two. Hard to resist my winning spoilt brat youngest child charm, of course, but it wouldn’t necessarily have to be me! Well, one way or the other, I can honestly say that my mother has never revealed her favouritism cards. Or at least, if she has, I was never able to detect them. And that’s a huge skill. Having said that, these days all three of us have been relegated. She has one favourite son. And his name is Andy Murray. Or Sir Andy as he’s now known. The boy can do no wrong. I mean. Andy, c’mon, you have your own mum. And she’s pretty hot is Judy. Leave mine alone!

And that leads me to the point.

The mother. My mother.

Just before settling down to write the final draft of this book, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Pretty much out of the blue. It was naturally quite a shock and it provoked within me surprising emotions. Considering the essence of this book is about emotional contradictions when dealing with a cancer diagnosis, this news took any wind I might have had out of my balding sails. Everything I have written and talked about as far as my illness is concerned has been connected with trying to break down the taboos of the C word. Or CA, as hospitals seem to call it these days, presumably to soften the cancer word. And that’s CA as in the separate letters C.A. (C&A without the ‘and’ or the eighties fashions), as opposed to CA as in car. I think the idea being that breaking it down to just the letters makes it somewhat impersonal and thus more palatable. Hmm. Not sure I agree. Anyway, the point is that dealing with my own CA was much easier than hearing about my mother’s. All the things I preach on a daily basis, ‘cancer doesn’t equal death’ etc., flew out of the window, and I found myself in deep reflection on life and what it would be like to lose my mother. I was more than surprised at how profoundly it had affected me. I don’t know why I was surprised. This was my mother, for fuck’s sake. I think maybe I had thought that dealing with my own illness and gambling addiction and coming out the other side and then preaching to others about it had given me some kind of superpower. The Grim-Sweeper-Man (he can sniff out and sweep up an emotional tragedy in the blink of his super-heroic eye). But my mother’s illness showed me that that clearly isn’t true and that I have an infinite way to go before I graduate to superhero status.

What is true is that back in the day my life had been going nowhere. I was a gambling addict desperately searching for help. For direction. For a purpose and focus.

On 13 June 1995, the day after my twenty-eighth birthday, I found it.

That day, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Or to be medically accurate: stage 4 sclerosing mediastinal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma of the large cell type.

AKA: cancer of the lymph glands.

And cancer saved my life.


When I started writing this book, I tried to chart a potted version of my life history up to the point of the 1995 diagnosis so as to give you some idea of who you’re dealing with here, but every time I tried to write it, it just felt too literal and linear. And as a theatre director, literal and linear are dirty, dirty words. They are one-star words.

So instead I have been searching for the connection between the four-year-old me, the eleven-year-old me, the teenage me and the twenty-something me. Apart from the fact that they were all me, of course. And then I remembered something that happened in the last rehearsal room I was in. Well, less what happened but more what someone said. To me.

I was directing a play called WIT at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It is no accident that WIT uses cancer as its central means to explore human behaviour in the face of adversity. I had wanted to direct that play for about as long as I have been thinking about writing this book. The lead character, a professor of metaphysical poetry dying of ovarian cancer, was played by the sublime (sublime actor and even more sublime human being) Julie Hesmondhalgh. We didn’t really know each other before we started rehearsals. Casting is always a crapshoot. Not just in terms of whether that actor is right for that part but, just as importantly, whether you might bring the best out of each other or not.

Turns out Julie and I had great rehearsal-room chemistry. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we always got along but that’s all part of it. The dialectic materialism of theatre (I did politics A level. Am showing off. I only got a C, though, so…). In layman’s terms, as long as you ultimately respect each other and believe in each other, then a clash of opinions can often lead to THE answer. An answer that you may never have come up with without such a clash. Julie and I revelled in these clashes. It was our creative spark.

One day, I can’t remember the context, but I must have been pushing Julie quite hard (Julie’s bravery knows no bounds) as she suddenly turned to me and in her deep Accrington burr said:

I can’t go there. I am not like you. You love feeling uncomfortable. You fucking revel in it.’



We had only known each other a couple of weeks and she had already spotted my tell. A tell I didn’t really know I had until it was pointed out to me at that moment. And she was right. I DO revel in it.

In what?

I think I revel in challenging myself to see if I can deal with a situation I have never dealt with before. Or, put more literally, I don’t really feel alive if I am not slightly churning up inside. More than that, without it I am often just plain bored. That churning is the springboard to my urgency and activity, and it’s the thing that keeps me alert and interested. In other words, it’s my fuel. My adrenaline. Anyone who knows me will say, ‘No shit, Sherlock. That’s the least shocking discovery since finding out that Barry Manilow was gay.’

But to me it was a bit of a revelation. Yes, I knew adrenaline was a long-term companion of mine but I never realised how close we’d been from a very early age. That discovery also explains how I ended up normalising it. I needed that churning-up-inside sensation to feel normal and even-keeled. So it became my petrol AND my tranquiliser all at the same time. A contradiction with which a therapist would have a field day.


It was 1971. I was four years old. I was called Darren back then; that was the name my folks misguidedly chose to give me. I was the youngest of three boys. The son of Val and Norman Shaw. Val had a lingerie boutique called Chica. I am not saying that spending my early childhood rummaging through Playtex Cross Your Heart bras and high-waisted lacy panty briefs affected me at all, but I am not saying it didn’t either. Norman was an East End tailor and fledgling property tycoon. We holidayed where most up and coming north London Jews holidayed. Torremolinos, of course! Where else!

In the Torremolinos hotel we had interconnecting rooms to the parents. I had the put-you-up bed. I always had the put-you-up bed. And the hand-me-down clothes. There are many perks to being the youngest of three, but at four years old I had yet to find them. It made me different, though, and I am certain that if I could remember what I thought back then, a bit of me quite liked that.

Anyway, to cut a long story quite short. A hotel fell on us. A Torremolinos hotel to be precise! It was quite an event. An event that could warrant almost a whole chapter, but, in the spirit of brevity, here are the highlights. In useful and easy-to-read bullet points.

ߦ North London family stay at four-star hotel in Torremolinos.

ߦ Three boys aged four, seven and nine go down to breakfast alone, leaving their parents to do whatever parents do when left alone in a hotel room without their annoying kids.

ߦ The three boys have their breakfast and then go and sit on a sofa in the lounge-type area.

ߦ The ceiling to the lounge-type area collapses due to bulldozers on the roof being used to construct a tennis court.

ߦ The sofa, with all three boys on it, falls two floors.

ߦ Val and Norman finish whatever they are doing and head down for breakfast.

ߦ Val and Norman take the stairs as the lift is out of order.

ߦ On arriving at the ground floor, Val and Norman find devastation in the annexe area equivalent to the disaster movie Earthquake. Although that film isn’t out till 1974 so it’s not a reference that would have occurred to them. Not that they would necessarily be searching for movie parallels at that particular moment.

ߦ Eight hours and three dead bodies later (this IS a real-life disaster movie), there is still no sign of the three boys.

ߦ Val and Norman fear the worst.

ߦ In desperation, Norman points out to the rescue workers (tabloid term) a place where the three boys used to sit on a sofa watching a painter paint.

ߦ The rescue workers dig there and lower themselves down twenty feet.

ߦ They shout. The boys shout back. The sofa has landed in an air pocket formed by a felled pillar, thus saving the three boys’ lives.

ߦ The rescue workers rescue the boys. Hence the term ‘rescue workers’.

ߦ The last to be carried out of the rubble-filled air pocket is four-year-old Darren Shaw. He is wearing natty swimming trunks. He has pissed all over them. He is four. Give him a break!

ߦ The crowd cheers as he is led into the ambulance.

And the crowd did cheer. And I think I remember not being totally averse to the cheering. And I do remember thinking that the whole thing was more exciting than scary. And that was my first taste of adrenaline. Apart from the underwear rummaging, of course. And my first taste of defaulting into almost flat-lining when everyone else was a bit overwhelmed.

Being somewhat underwhelmed in the midst of much drama is a curiously calm and empowering place to be. It was the first glimpse of a strange phenomenon that I am only now beginning to identify. Namely, searching for a place of high adrenaline IN ORDER to do everything I can to undermine it and undercut it. No, it doesn’t really make sense to me either. It’s like the weird beauty of swimming underwater. The big world banging on up there, but me in peace and in otherworldly calmness down here. Until the need for breath has to rear its ugly head and spoil everything!

And for a few days after that, we were fifteen-minute celebrities. All over the tabloids. We were called the Chicos de Dios. Children of God.




And all the playing up to the press cameras and stuff just seemed like loads of fun to this peculiar child. And it turns out that being the youngest DOES have some perks. I was the one chosen for all the ‘back in the arms of his mother’ shots! Result. Speak to my agent!

I have no idea whether that was the seed and the spark that led to me being a gambling addict, and/or it was the germ of a personality that oddly enjoyed the trials of dealing with stage 4 cancer; but the connection is definitely there, and reconnecting with that four-year-old brat is certainly eye-opening.


I was eleven years old.

Pee-pants-hotel-falling-on-top-of-me trauma was well behind me.

At eleven years old I made a horrific discovery. A discovery that would skew the next twenty years of my life. I loved gambling. I mean, I discovered gambling and loved it. As opposed to waking up one day and thinking, ‘You know what, I love gambling.

In 1978 my parents took my brothers and me for supper at the Wimbledon dog track. We sat and had our meal next to a window looking directly onto the track. We ate our food and the waiter would come round and take our drinks order and at the same time take our bets for that particular race. I didn’t know it then but this was posh gambling. It was never like this again!

I’ll have a glass of cream soda and two whole pounds on trap five, please, waiter.


I wasn’t legally allowed to bet. I was eleven. But I did. Bet.

And I won.


I won fifteen pounds.

Fifteen whole pounds.


Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

I remember it vividly. An adrenaline buzz that felt unlike anything I had experienced before. An eleven-year-old with adrenaline gushing out of every pore and pimple.

A year later I was taken to Vegas. Viva, Viva Las Vegas! With last year’s trackside rush still firmly lodged in my memory Vegas was adrenaline heaven. And it swirled around me like it was designed to. This was old-school Vegas. Late seventies Vegas. Goodfellas Vegas. Big suits and glitter. Big hair and Joe Pesci. And that was just my family.

And moving walkways. And no sunlight. And an amazing soundscape.

And to a twelve-year-old who was unwittingly searching for somewhere to belong, this was it. Stark lighting, buzzers, bells and seedy sex.

It was all so wonderfully awful. So wonderfully other worldly. Awful and wonderful and weird. And so so right. Daylight was the enemy. I was twelve but I instinctively knew that every second NOT spent in the casino was a second wasted. And I wasn’t gambling. I was too young. But I was taking it all in:

ߦ The slightly rancid and musty twenty-four-hour tang in the air.

ߦ The sterile laughter-free zone.

ߦ The random yelps of the craps dealers.

ߦ The multi-toned beeps of the fruit machines.

ߦ The zero-skirted over-made-up cocktail waitresses.

ߦ The free stale sandwiches.

If I knew then how much that kernel of a feeling would grow into something beyond my control, I may have been able to cut it off at its source. But I didn’t. I just felt it. And it was horribly thrilling.

In the evenings my father and my oldest brother would go and see an adult show. Whatever that was. My mother and I would stay behind in the hotel. The Caesar’s Palace Hotel. Complete with those space-age walkways and banks of mirrors. Filled with the sound of men and women nervously shuffling their gambling chips, croupiers shouting gobbledegook and bells seeming to go off all round you followed by dull almost apologetic cheers. This was more than my twelve-year-old future addict’s heart could possibly desire.

My mum was a little bit of a gambler. That’s where I got it from. She always did have something of a predilection for a casino. And for a fruit machine in particular. Fruit machines are hypnotic. They are designed that way. Hypnosis combined with sporadic bursts of adrenaline. That way addiction lies. Some thirty years later I devised and directed a play about the adrenaline of that addiction. (See Appendix 2.) If only twelve-year-old me had been taking notes. Instead he yearned to pull the lever and press the flashing buttons.

My mum loved pulling and pressing. So to speak. Every time she did, the woman, my mother, became a girl, my mother. It was a fantastic equaliser between us. I stood with her for ages, and now and then – when the casino people weren’t looking – she let me lean into the machine and pull that magical lever. My insides lit up much like the machines themselves. Time disappeared and, in that moment, a huge part of my life was mapped out. And it’s nobody’s fault. Not my mother’s, not society’s, not mine. (Well, more mine than any of the other lot, but not completely mine!) Something triggered inside me that remained resident for almost twenty years.


It was around that time that I discovered that I saw life in a slightly less regular way than the next child. The last few years of my prep school were amazing. I was eleven/twelve/thirteen. I had discovered this personality that could be cheeky rather than naughty, that could interact with people much older than me and that could make people laugh. The low point of those years was, of course, not being cast as Queen Elizabeth I in the school play. A classic casting error. I could have brought so many more dimensions to that woman than Mark Dingemans did! Where the fuck is he now? I was truly bruised by that (that’s not hyperbole, I am ashamed to say that I actually was). I vowed to show them that they were wrong.


The high point of that time was my friendship/adoration/slight non-sexual obsession with my English/PE teacher Mr Bates (leave it). When I look back at it now, he was the first adult to truly treat me as an individual. He was the first adult who really listened to me and who seemed to care about what came out of my mouth. He was the first adult who made me feel unique. He made me feel like a young man who didn’t warrant being talked down to or patronised or undermined. I am not saying I was a special boy. Just the opposite. His genius as a teacher was that he had identified something that, for whatever reason, was lacking in me, and he made it his mission to try to find different ways to fuel that half-empty childish soul. He would talk to me at length about life and about philosophical things. He would allow me licence to express myself in a way nobody had ever done before and not many have since.

It used to upset me and anger me that other pupils and some teachers used to find our friendship a bit suspect. His ‘guardianship’ was totally unconditional, completely devoid of any subtext and absolutely on the level. He was the first person who recognised that I might be seeing life from a slightly different angle to others. He continually encouraged me to express rather than suppress that side of my personality. The unconventional side. That was huge for me. To this day I don’t think I have ever been as creative or articulate as at that time. And it was all down to that one person teaching me the power of saying yes rather than no.

And that has lived with me ever since. It played a huge part in my cancer journey. It helped me accept things even though they were often incredibly difficult, demanding and depressing. It helped me see today as the point. Not yesterday or tomorrow.


I realise now that everything Mr Bates was trying to teach me was about trying to accept who you are today. What you have to offer today. What you want today. Accept it, confront it and say yes to it. He did it just by talking to me and seeming to take me seriously. This acceptance from an adult that I idolised felt good. And for a brief moment I think I experienced happy. I think? Yes.


Yes is something I too easily forget to put into practice in my now life, sometimes only remembering its power when it’s too late.

It was something that I absolutely instinctively armed myself with when I was diagnosed. The power of the Yes was a simple gateway to the slightly less tangible concept of positivity. I guess that’s why I am covering my early years in this book. Those were days when my window to all the grace in the world was still fairly wide open, and so anything I was given then has pretty much stayed with me till now.

And Yes is a powerful tool to be given.

Yes? Yes? Yes!


Mr Bates was both an English teacher and a sports teacher so he ticked both my boxes of interest. He was also a little bit naughty. Which I liked. I have always been attracted to naughty people. He was having a ‘scandalous’ affair with the mother of one of my friends. I loved him even more for that. He had a Kevin Keegan perm. I loved him so much for that, that I got a perm to match. On top of my Jew-fro! At the age of twelve! And to top it all, on a school skiing trip to Italy he managed to schmooze the hotel chef into letting us into his kitchen to watch Arsenal v Valencia in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final on the only telly in the hotel (this was 1980). We lost on penalties. My other hero of that time, Liam Brady, missed a penalty. Losing was disappointing but I was so overcome by the exhilaration and adrenaline of the whole exceptional event that I hardly noticed the result. In fact, I remember skipping to the disco where my classmates had been while Mr Bates and I were watching the match. Me? Skipping? Those must have been happy days. And that euphoria must have translated into twelve-year-old sex appeal because just two hours later I was having my first kiss at the bottom of the hotel steps with a girl older and taller than me! This was adrenaline plus! Could life get any better than this?

Well, no actually. Those remain the happiest two years of my life.


And it was indeed all downhill from there.

The first time I felt my soul die a little was at the age of thirteen when I was sitting my mock Common Entrance exams. Common Entrance, to those who don’t know, is the gateway from posh junior school to posh senior school. I think the first exam I took was geography. For me geography was an extremely dreary middling subject. I could do English. Or at least I had an interest in it. I had zero interest in the sciences. None. Not even biology! Geography seemed to me to be the love child of English and science. I should have been able to get at least somewhere with it. It was when I read the first question that it hit me. Right in the gut. It wasn’t that the question didn’t make sense or even that I couldn’t have had some reasonable stab at it; it was just that it was the first time I realised that I wasn’t equipped with enough academic clarity to get to the heart of that question.


Clarity is absolutely the key to academic intelligence. Without that clarity I didn’t have the tools or the insight to scribe a reasoned and articulate argument that would ultimately warrant top marks. At that moment I realised that it takes both measured clarity and a methodical but sponge-like brain to be conventionally intelligent. At that moment I realised that that could never and would never be me. At that moment I discovered sad for the first time. Sad because I knew this exam and the rest of my school life were going to be a bigger academic struggle than I ever thought they would be. And deeper sad as I knew that I was never going to ‘sparkle’ with intellectual notoriety. A notoriety that I had secretly craved.

And that sadness, buried deep in my soul, has been my constant companion ever since. That sadness has been my creative driving force, too. It has forced me to be always searching for something that I can do as well, if not better, than others. Something that I can completely own. Something I can hold on to that might make me feel uniquely me. And, one chilly April afternoon in 1982, I found it.

I was fifteen. A boy in chaos. Trying and failing to find his own identity. His USP, if you like. Being threatened with an enforced school move as it was evident he was in full drift mode. Of course it didn’t help that I had two brothers with big personalities who preceded me at the same school. It was the first time I found that I didn’t like being compared to anyone else. Still don’t. I was just another of the Shaws. ‘Oh no, not another bloody Shaw’ was the recurring schoolmaster refrain. So I fought and fought and fought against it. I wasn’t aware that I was fighting. I just knew I didn’t fit. Anywhere.

Then the epiphany happened.

I walked into Dyne House auditorium. The school theatre. I sat on the back row and watched a rehearsal taking place. It wasn’t immediate. It wasn’t a metaphorical bolt of lightning. It was just a slow melding into belonging. I can’t remember what the rehearsal was or even why I was there but I can remember the odd but beautiful feeling of discovery that I had found my club. My world. And to this day, every time I find myself in a darkened, almost empty theatre, normally about to start a tech, I catch myself and recollect that feeling and am reminded of the lost fifteen-year-old uncovering his very own Neverland. A place where being different was an asset not an oddity. And uniqueness was encouraged as it was at the heart of creativity.

At the centre of my new life-changing world was English teacher and theatre director Philip Swan. He was one of those brilliant teachers who loved what he did, loved discovering the individual in the boy and loved coaxing and sometimes bullying the talent out of you. He helped me bring out the me in me again. He introduced me to a world that made sense and a world that I knew I would call home for the rest of my life. And within that environment I thrived. Not academically. That was always a bit of a chore. But I thrived as a person and the man that I instinctively knew I eventually wanted to be began to emerge.

I say ‘began’ because it took a hiatus of fourteen years, a university course I despised, some jobs that made me feel more than ill, a raging gambling addiction and a cancer journey, before the man in me started to find his feet in the real world.

It is, oddly, both a blessing and a curse to discover at the age of fifteen what you should be doing for the rest of your life. While it takes the lid off the pressure of the search, at the same time it means that when you are NOT doing that thing, the pain is immediate and profound and lasts for as long as you are not doing it.

And that pain did run deep. Sometimes still does.

At sixteen, I was even more sure that I had discovered what I had been put on this earth to do. Problem was that I was doubly certain that the paternal battle against me doing it would be full on and seemingly never ending. I wish now that I had had more of a stomach for that particular fight. When you are sure that academia and university are not your thing and yet you find yourself at university and not drama school, you just know it’s not going to end well.

But at the time it seemed easier and less emotionally painful than the alternative. The alternative being having to listen to one irrational and insensitive reason after another from my father as to why I should ignore my heart and listen to his head. The twisted, knotted-up agony of not being listened to by him was too much for me to deal with back then. Much easier to convince myself that going to university would be a good idea and wouldn’t be a TOTAL waste of my time!

So studying Business Organisation at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh rather than being at drama school in London was where I could be found in the winter of 1986. Miles away – geographically, emotionally and literally – from what I knew I should be doing.