2020: Cancer, Covid, Kids, and Community
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
I’m generally not a fan of the smug bulk-send festive newsletter. I don’t much care where you went snowboarding this season, or how well your kids excelled in music classes.
But it’s been a year like no other. I’ve got a lot to unpack, and finally some time to reflect.
So I thought I’d start typing and see where it goes.
2020 was the year that (in chronological order):
I left the BBC after 17 years, and started my podcast and audio consultancy Bespoken Media (January)
a global pandemic shut down much of UK life (March)
my wife Amy was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer; a lymphoma that spanned most of one lung with a secondary tumour further down her torso (May)
like almost everyone else in Britain, we got a puppy (November, picture further down)
It’s been… intense. In many ways, it’s been a shit-show. Just sitting here, looking at the list in print, is giving me palpitations.
But there have been bright spots. Reasons to have stayed cheerful. These are the things I want to reflect on here.
Firstly, (and lastly, and everything inbetween), there is my wife. My beautiful, strong, courageous Amy.
She has taken everything this year has thrown at her with courage, humour and resilience. She will always be my role model.
Abiding memories will be:
cutting her hair at the start of chemo to donate to the Little Princess Trust charity
getting a positive Coronavirus diagnosis and being delighted at the news (it was far better than our assumption; that her symptoms were the tumour in her lung cavity making a roaring comeback)
a slot on BBC Reporting Scotland, reflecting on having cancer in the year of Covid, while the kids scuffed leaves and showed off their trampoline skills
Our kids have taken everything the year has thrown at them admirably - and now have a more nuanced understanding of immune systems, lymph nodes, and radiation therapy than any 8-year-olds have a right to.
We also owe a lot to Amy’s brother Mark, who came to stay at the start of lockdown and took on the combined role of home tutor / children's entertainer-in-chief.
When she was allowed, Amy’s mum came to stay, to do what she could to help prop us up.
That takes us on to the fourth ‘C’ (yes, yes, one was a ‘K’ - but who’s kounting?).
We’ve been completely blown away by the kindness (cindness?) of people around us this year. Name-checking people runs the risk of leaving out someone important, so I won’t - but…
We’ve had local friends and neighbours who have dropped round gifts, food parcels, toys for the kids - and even a full-on military-style coordinated community rota of hot meal provision.
More parcels and kind gifts came from further afield - people doing what they could to help entertain small boys in lockdown. There were texts, calls, emails, cards, plants and bulbs for the garden, a circus skills set (!); people regularly checking in with Amy and me to make sure we were holding up; people arranging for their kids to play or chat online with our kids (worries about screen time went out the window chez Howard in 2020).
Virtually, remotely, cumulatively - piece by piece, letter by text message by parcel, it amounted to a solid wall of support. Support that we definitely needed this year. Support that I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to re-pay.
So. If that was you, thank you. Thank you from all of us.
I need to say a bit about the business. Bespoken Media. My business (which still feels an odd thing to say).
This post badly blurs the boundaries between work and home life - but then, didn't 2020?
Thanks to some late nights, and some squeezing of work in around the edges of other responsibilities (quite a few podcasts got edited in the car park at the Edinburgh Western hospital while Amy was receiving chemotherapy), Bespoken has more than lived up to my ambitions in 2020.
I need to say a big thank you to some brilliant people we’ve worked with and for, and who have helped us along the way:
Jac, Leeanne, Carys and Joel, all excellent audio producers, who weighed in when we needed extra help or their specialist skills.
Our trusty accountant Laura, who provided peace of mind throughout.
Visual designers Rhona and Carolyn, who delivered inspired visual and branding work on different projects.
Thanks so much all, and happy Christmas!
Steve and Marina at Bengo Media, a brilliant podcast production team in Cardiff who were happy to show me the ropes and very generous with their time and advice.
At Bauer, podcast editor Maria Williams has been a brilliant person to work with; part-client, part-mentor. Our daily ‘Love In The Time of Corona’ podcast with Kate and Matt Dyson cast me as both producer and marriage guidance counsellor (their words, not mine!), made Spotify's best podcasts of the year, and got a seal of approval from none other than Phil and Holly on ITV's This Morning!
Rhiannon from the Grazia Life Advice podcast is an effortless interviewer, always asking the right questions, and always recording the perfect duration for an edited half hour programme. Chats with Clara Amfo and Poppy Delevingne, among others, definitely brought glamour to lockdown-slash-chemo life.
Toby Field at BBC Radio 4 is an old friend and a super producer, so I was chuffed when he asked me to interview rugby legend Doddie Weir for Radio 4’s On Your Farm.
There are more Radio 4 projects in the 2021 pipeline, which is very exciting.
We’ve book-ended the year with projects for the Union, one of Scotland's biggest and most creative advertising agencies. Lyndsay and Cristina from the Union have been brilliant people to collaborate with.
When researchers from Strathclyde University's Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship came looking for help to develop their idea for a climate change podcast, I nearly turned down the offer; it was two-thirds of the way through Amy’s chemotherapy, the kids were still off school, and I felt I had pretty much maxed out my coping capacity.
I’m so glad I took the job. It’s been a real pleasure helping Rebecca, Matt and Fraser turn into expert podcasters and interviewers.
Their show Local Zero is packed with intelligent insight, and will go from strength to strength in 2021 as the COP26 global climate-change conference lands in Glasgow.
We’ve had the pleasure of making occasional podcasts exploring the art world with Oxford’s Sarah Wiseman art gallery. Episode 1 took us inside the Edinburgh Printmakers for an intimate chat with fabulous artist and illustrator Catherine Rayner.
But the work I’ve been most proud of in 2020 has been with the team at Scene and Herd rural PR and marketing. The OnFARM podcast, which we launched together, has become a ‘must listen’ magazine show for rural Scotland and farming communities UK-wide.
We’ve published over 40 episodes, and regularly reach the top ten of Apple’s Food and Drink podcasts chart, ranking alongside the likes of Delia, Jamie and Heston. We've partnered with prestigious organisations like the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland and SAOS, the umbrella organisation for Scottish farm co-ops. Past episodes have featured everyone from the Scottish government's Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy Fergus Ewing to ‘stand-up farmer’ Jim Smith.
It’s been a complete pleasure working with OnFARM presenters Anna and Monty, and helping them grow from complete novices to a confident and assured presenter team.
We’ve got exciting plans to make OnFARM even bigger and better in 2021; if you’ve enjoyed it so far, watch this space!
I’m excited to see what happens with the Scotland Audio Network in 2021. Bespoken set this up to bring together Scotland’s disparate independent audio talent.
We hold monthly Zoom Q&As with some of the most talented and successful people in radio to help build the Scottish audio scene. We do this because we believe 'a rising tide lifts all boats'. If this sounds like something that would interest you, please get in touch - it’s completely free to join.
If you’ve made it this far, well done! It’s all been a bit self-indulgent. But thanks for your interest in, and support for, Bespoken Media.
And thanks again, from the bottom of all our hearts, to everyone who has helped us Howards get through a tough 2020.
In lieu of sending many Christmas cards, we’re making donations to our local food bank and the MyName5Doddie Foundation (and I've realised my New Year's Resolution should be to update this blog more regularly).
I’m signing off now, and shutting my laptop lid, for a quiet family Christmas (no bad thing for us, even if Covid-enforced).
Take care, and see you on the other side.
Amy next has a scan to see if she is in remission in March - so hopefully there will be very little news on that front until then.
And who knows, if you're lucky, you might even be the first to get handed one of these business cards I got printed months ago...