Who Are You Now?


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I'd have a few drinks before and sometimes during gigs to calm my nerves. If a gig went well I would feel exhilarated, happy. But when there were no gigs in the next week or two I used to get depressed. It wouldn't be a long period of time but it would seem like an age.

1 Post-it notes

What happened? This is where we're going to have a problem actually. I'll tell you as much as I can.

As far as I know I was found collapsed in the street, unconscious, somewhere in Hackney. I have a vague memory of setting out en route to my then-girlfriend's flat, never actually getting there and waking up in hospital confused.

I've been in confusion ever since.

I have post-it notes pinned up everywhere in my new place. Like wallpaper. I write things down constantly so I don't forget. I have post-it notes telling me where other post-it notes are, directing me to other post-it notes. Go there! Look to your right!

My life now bears very very… scant… relation to the life I had before.


2 The Vision

I grew up in the Wirral, opposite Liverpool. It's a really calm peaceful place, a lovely part of the world. But it was natural I would sooner or later move to London. London in the 1980s was the centre of the music industry and I wanted to be a musician. That was my ambition.

I made my first guitar. My friend Johnny Mercer was an electronics boffin so he made the pickups and wiring - volume, tone control, circuitry - whilst I did the rest. We used the metal and carpentry workshops at school. All I could get hold of was chipboard. No, not even chipboard - it was blockboard: blocks of wood sandwiched together between 2 layers of plywood. It's incredibly heavy. They normally build doors out of it. Blockboard body, an oak neck, and a maple fretboard. The electronics were brass. It looked fantastic but you couldn't stand up to play, and when you sat down, it wore a groove in your thigh! Seriously, a two inch groove. It's a wonder I didn't get deep vein thrombosis. It was the heaviest guitar that's ever been made!

Am I boring you? Am I boring the machine?

When my dad was out at work I would sit down with his 1962 tape recorder and make concept albums. My first was called The Vision. I did my own cover with 'spray paint': I couldn't buy the kind of spray I wanted, so I got a toothbrush and mixed up watercolour and flicked it to make a spray. It was brown. 1977, when everyone else was getting into punk I was doing a concept album in Birkenhead. Not trendy. Not cool.

3 The Bicycle Thieves

At University I studied Modern Languages: French and Spanish. But I had already got the bug for music. I played in bands and made some solo recordings, then towards the end of my degree a London-based company gave me a record deal.

I'll try not to be an ego-maniac now - at the same time enjoying every minute of it!

I don't know at what point I decided to be a musician. It's the sort of thing that just creeps up on you... like a chocolate addiction. You love doing something, then at some point you think, 'I might try and make a living out of this'. So I moved to London - Crouch End - straight from college with my then-girlfriend.

Initially it was very exciting. I was part of the live scene – doing gigs in small to medium size venues. Nothing huge you know – never played the Albert Hall… Not yet! But as a musician you don't get a weekly wage, so I had several jobs: washing dishes, being a waiter. I worked at IBM computers, answering the telephone and for a while taught Spanish, French and English as a foreign language.

At its largest there were eight of us in my band. We called ourselves The Bicycle Thieves – after the Italian film. Another band adopted the same name the next year which caused major confusion! People thought they were going to see them, then they'd turn up and see us and be wildly disappointed.

My stage name was Sam Cole. Nobody knew me as Stuart except family in Liverpool. Everyone called me Sam for years and years and years. I'd forget to tell people my real name, so friends still call me Sam, even now, which makes things very confusing! People phone up and ask for Sam and no one knows who he is.

I'm shivering. I'm sorry - this happens a lot these days. It's embarrassing. I don't know why it's suddenly come over me.

As a singer-songwriter you're very aware that you have an audience to entertain. Everyone's attention is on you: one bloke on his own with a guitar around his neck singing, hopefully in tune. There's not much to look at; I'm not a great dancer and I'm an introvert. Quite shy, very reserved. I couldn't walk into a crowded room. I was terrified. Always frightened of things like that. I'd have a few drinks before and sometimes during gigs to calm my nerves.

As Sam Cole I could be someone else. Stuart might not do that but Sam would. Sam could handle an audience. He was much more extrovert. On stage, as Sam, I'd dance – I'm not a great dancer but I'd dance as best I could, do my James Brown impersonation.

If a gig went well I would feel exhilarated, happy. Egomania basically! But when there were no gigs in the next week or two I used to get a little depressed. It wouldn't be a long period of time but it would seem like an age. You get on a roll, then you have to come down, back to normality, which in my case was probably washing dishes or you know… hopefully writing a bunch of songs.

One of the bands I was in, Strange Fruit, playing an early morning gig to celebrate May Day in Oxford (I'm on the left).

4 The Other

I stopped performing publicly in 1991. I'd moved to Pembury Estate, which was a bit of a shock. A lot of transformation...transition…I hadn't come from a posh background or anything but Hackney was a tough area at that time. A lot of violent things were happening. A lot of terrifying people I'd meet.

I'm going to tell you the truth. There's no point otherwise.

The drinking had kind of crept up on me. I was spending a lot of time sitting on park benches attracting all kinds of unwanted attention, which led me to all kinds of difficult situations. Frightening situations. Violent people. Threats to my life. Theft. Muggings. You name it.

I had a studio at home - I'd built it up over the years and I still spent time recording and writing. I wasn't doing any live stuff, just recording; resurrecting my career you know. Sometimes I worked but I confess, I was signing on a lot. And drinking too much. More and more and more.

Do you mind me telling you this? The life of an alcoholic! OK!

I used to spend a lot of time in Clapton Square, around the corner from where I lived. I spent a lot of time in that square, on one particular bench. My favourite bench. With my rucksack. I didn't want to be offensive: I just wanted the alcohol inside me. I'd sit on the bench and I'd have the can in my bag and I'd try and sip discreetly. Sometimes I'd take a notepad and pen and write lyrics to songs or anything that came into my head: try and use the time constructively. I'd make the occasional phone call on my mobile. Like an office. I actually considered moving to the park because there were problems with the place I was living in and I was spending most of my life there anyway. There are some nice trees in the Square and I thought perhaps I could pitch a tent or hang a hammock up. I think I made vague enquiries. Might have even asked a policeman if it was possible to live in the Square and I think he said "No Sir, we wouldn't recommend that."

I had a constant desire for booze you know: Where's the next drink coming from? Have I got the money? No? Well I'll have to pawn another piece of equipment. Half my life spent on the bus going to Islington and back to the pawn shop. I developed a very close relationship with them!

Sorry - I'm not depressing you, am I?

Drinking affects everything. It affects it all. My mum, my stepmother, would always phone me at 9 o'clock on Tuesday night (I was so broke I couldn't pay my phone bills). I'd try not to drink before that phone call. But try as I might I'd end up sitting by the washing machine, phone in one hand, can in the other, trying to disguise the fact I was getting more and more pissed as I spoke to her. She used to call it "The Other". She'd say, "How are things going with The Other?" She'd never call it booze, or alcohol or drink. The other part of your life. The big part of your life.

5 Glimpses of things people tell me

I remember waking up. There was a plaster cast in the corner of the room propped against the wall. I didn't know why it was there or whose it was. There were doctors and nurses, the whole paraphernalia, the whole day-to-day routine of a hospital going on around me, but I didn't know where I was.

And then I remember thinking I had to get somewhere – to pay a bill or something. Getting in a mad panic about having to get somewhere really fast and begging people to let me out to get to the bank or post office to pay this bill and somebody sitting me down and saying 'this is what's happened to you'.

Basically I was found in the street, picked up and taken to Homerton hospital. That's all I know. I don't remember a thing about it.

Homerton Hospital

Regional Neurological Rehabilitation Unit

This 48 year old gentleman has a history of heavy smoking, relapsing alcohol abuse since 1995, and recurrent falls and head injuries. Past injuries include a fractured humerus [1] and traumatic neural hearing loss in the left ear in 2004 [2], and broken nose in 2005. He also has a history of depression and anxiety treated with Citalopram.

He is estranged from his stepmother and sister, which he attributes to his alcoholism. He is single and an unemployed musician and language teacher.

In April 2009 he developed an extensive deep vein thrombosis [3] in the left superficial femoral vein which extended below the knee and was prescribed Warfarin [4]. On September 20th, he was found unconscious in the street near Homerton. He underwent a CT brain scan which showed a massive right frontal intraparenchymal haematoma [5] with significant mass effect [6] and midline shift [7]. He was intubated, ventilated and transferred to the Royal London Hospital where he underwent burr hole drainage [8] of the haematoma. He was transferred to ICU but required a mini-craniotomy [9] and evacuation 3 days later following a second bleed.

Apparently I couldn't walk at all to start with. I had to use sticks. I think I might have broken both my legs. I certainly broke one of them. But I don't know how. I can still remember, vaguely, being in a wheelchair and thinking – oh that's it: mobility's gone. There were sticks involved, a wheelchair and a walking frame. What stages they followed each other I don't know.

Somewhere along the line there was a brain haemorrhage. I had a bandage around my head for a long time. Which must have been either from the injury or the operation.

Sorry. I'm really trying to be clear here. I'm trying not to be vague but I really don't remember a thing about it.

I couldn't get a clear… I kept asking 'what happened, what happened, what happened?' To the point I must have annoyed a lot of people, which I'm ashamed of now and embarrassed. I must have been asking people twenty-four/seven – 'what happened?'

I still do it now. I think, "What happened? Did I…" And my sister, bless her heart, has left a note pinned on my notice board saying, "Feel your forehead. You've got a molehill, a dent in your head. That's where you were operated on. That's what happened to you". But that opens up another load of questions: "Why was I operated on?"

For a long time I thought something violent had happened to me. I'd been beaten up or… someone had hit me over the head, or I'd fallen down a manhole or been in a car accident, or something. I think the mind suggests, fills in the blanks. There's a word for it… I think it begins with C.

6 Confabulation

My memories seem pretty jumbled up. You see, I've got no litmus paper to judge them against, nothing to say 'this is what happened'. I'm judging them in a vacuum. My memories are half confused and half clear. They veer between one and the other. There's this whole short-term, long-term thing. I'm not sure quite which one I've got. I can remember things more clearly from years ago than I can the last twenty minutes.

7 Two different people in two different worlds

I had to learn everything again. How to hold a knife and fork, shave, eat, wash. It affected my speech for a while. I couldn't talk properly. Much to the relief of everybody – 'Oh thank God he's shut up finally!'

I couldn't play guitar at all. I thought I'd lost the whole technique. I couldn't remember chords and my hands weren't well coordinated. I was just fumbling around. Luckily that seems to have passed. Through practice and perseverance and tolerance of other people who had to listen to me! I don't think I'm at the same level as before but I'm not too far away.

Somewhere along the line I remembered that I used to be able to speak French and Spanish. I've been on my own practicing, learning to speak little bits. My stepmother, who's Spanish, has been incredibly supportive. She's always very complimentary. She says, 'no, your Spanish is good.'

Sorry. Am I rambling?

I'm losing things constantly. Everyday things. Where did I leave the toothbrush? Is it next to the toothpaste? Is the toothpaste next to the toothbrush? I wear my coat constantly in all weathers so that I have everything I need to hand. If I have pockets - good. If not - panic.

I'm living in a sheltered unit now. They tell me when to put clean clothes on, when I need a shave, when I have to shower. I'm basically institutionalised. That brings many challenges with it. You have to fit in.

This is my desk at the place I live in now. Post-it notes all over the place.

Physically things are pretty stable now but emotionally not so much. I'm more anxious than I ever was before. I'm frightened all the time. I'm frightened of this place I'm living in. I'm constantly asking myself: Who are these people? Why are they here? It's very hard for me to know who to trust, which feeds the paranoia. I think: is this me? Is this my fear? Or is this mistrust legitimate?

The anxiety is constant. I smoke too many cigarettes, drink too many cups of tea, wander around the place aimlessly, and write notes, endless notes, and lists.

I'm still working on asking the right person, the right questions at the right time. I have to constantly try to remember who I was and how I should go about doing things. It's hard for me to compare the person I was then. It's hard to put that person in the situation I'm in now because I only know the situation from the perspective of the person I am now: two different people in two different worlds.

From my window, I can see my old flat. The kitchen that I painted. It's heartbreaking to think half a mile away I could be back in my home. But I've lost it.

My 50th birthday. My sister Ana made the cake.
with Mum
With my stepmum in Hackney, where I live.

8 The Thames, down the South Bank, round Soho

I used to love being by the river, probably because I grew up by the Mersey.

When I first moved to London I didn't know anybody at all. I thought I'd better find out more about it, go out and explore. When I wasn't working I'd go for these long long walks. I'd walk from Crouch End all the way down to the river, along the Thames, down the South Bank, round Soho. I'd spend the whole day walking. Looking around, going into second bookshops and junk shops, picking up second-hand books. Anything I could afford, which wasn't much. If you don't know a place walking is the best way to find out.

I always ended up at the river at some point. And of course I discovered, I started discovering alcohol at that point, and there were certain riverside pubs that I would call in at. Probably much too often. I'd sit there, and have a pint, maybe talk to a passer-by. And write notes or even write lyrics to songs I'd been working on – bad poetry!

I'd like to be able to do those walks again really. Go out for the day with a rucksack on my back. Nothing much in it but - you know.

9 One Fine Day

I wrote this song in 1985 when I was 24 years old. I wanted to write a song about apartheid but I didn't want to be all Mr Know-it-all so I disguised it as a love song. This year (2015) I was back in the studio for the first time in years to record an acoustic version. It was exciting - a bit like old times again. Happy memories of the past.

One Fine Day © Stuart (2015), recorded and mixed by Alex McGowan at Space Eko East studio

  • [1]. Humerus: the bone of the upper arm Return to text
  • [2]. Neural hearing loss is caused by damage to the auditory cranial nerve Return to text
  • [3]. Deep vein thrombosis: a blood clot that typically forms in a 'deep' vein at some distance from the heart, such as in the leg Return to text
  • [4]. Warfarin: a medication prescribed to thin blood and prevent clotting Return to text
  • [5]. Intraparenchymal haematoma: a bleed within the tissue of the brain, as opposed to one that occurs in one of the spaces around the brain or its internal ventricles Return to text
  • [6]. A 'mass effect' is the effect of a growing volume of material inside the body - a 'space occupying lesion - that causes damage by displacing surrounding tissue Return to text
  • [7]. Mid-line shift: the brain being pushed abnormally to one side by the presence of blood or other space occupying lesion within the cranium Return to text
  • [8]. Burr hole drainage: a surgical procedure in which holes are drilled in the skull to allow drainage of blood Return to text
  • [9]. Mini-craniotomy: temporary removal of a small part of the skull Return to text