Comedian John Ryan describes how to talk to loved ones who have cancer and what it was like growing up with Irish parents who feared death
It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads Episodes regularly that my upbringing didn’t give me the emotional skills needed to deal with death. I got a reminder of this when I interviewed Lisa Stickley last week and she began talking about her mother dying from cancer. I immediately felt a physical pain in my stomach—similar to a gut punch—but I knew that I could learn a lot from her raw honesty, because that’s the only way to deal with loss, pain and trauma. What I liked the most was how the children’s illustrator wasn’t afraid to discuss how the twin miseries of cancer and Covid stripped her of physical contact with her dying mother when they both needed it most. I still find myself envying Lisa’s articulacy when it comes to cancer.
So how do I, how do we, speak to someone who is dying? Luckily shortly after I interviewed Lisa I found that an old friend of mine, standup John Ryan, had written a poem for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. John, like Lisa, is a really good role model for how to challenge taboos and in this short monologue he sets up a familiar scenario where a cancer diagnosis leads to cliched conversations and a painful awkwardness. The video is a great tool for showing how to stop sidelining those with illness and how to become a supportive presence: in fact John shows that it can be easy by just being the mate you were before cancer was identified. My parents aren’t the only ones who wouldn’t react this way to illness and, yes, it’s a difficult scenario but it’s one we all need to work on.
John’s background is very similar to mine which shows how admirable it is for him to try and change familiar patterns when it comes to painful subjects. In fact, one of the reasons I feel so at ease with John—apart from him being one of the nicest people you can meet—is that he’s from an immigrant family who struggled to adapt to living in this country. Growing up the only non-brown friends I had were Irish or from Irish ancestry (even now some of my closest pals are Irish or from Irish ancestry and I’ll even include Neil, who I wrote of here, with his newly gained Irish passport) and I think the reason for this should be obvious. Irish people suffer huge amounts of racism but they are seen to be white when it suits British people and ‘othered’ when it doesn’t. It’s in our shared cultural DNA that we inhabit a country that in living memory had signs that would say ‘No blacks, no Irish’ and most of the struggles people of colour have in this country—anti-Irish racist attacks spiked post-Brexit—are shared with Irish people.
As this week’s Episode will show, John’s struggle is my struggle and as his beautiful poem says: ‘Here’s how we go. Follow my lead’.
“I had a sister who died when I was very young,” says John. “That affected my parents throughout their lives as we never were allowed to talk about it. For example, I remember when I was about 13, coming home, the house was in gloom and my mum and aunt were there.
“They said ‘Rover’s dead’. And I was really upset because it was my first dog. My aunt said ‘you can always talk to me about anything’. So I said ‘can we talk about my dead sister?’ And she said ‘no’. So I realised there was a kind of hierarchy of death in the family.”
John’s two-year-old sister had died from pneumonia when he was aged about six or seven. But this wasn’t an isolated incident in his devout Catholic family where numerous relatives died prematurely. Cancer was something they lived with but rarely talked about. Instead the Church became a focal point with his mother visiting every day even though religion was synonymous with death.
“Easter was a nightmare,” John, who was an altar server in his youth, says. “There were big masses every single day of the week we had to go to. What I never understood is that even though Catholicism was all about the afterlife they weren’t in a hurry to get there. I could never understand why funerals weren’t more of a celebration than they were.
“Everyone in my family seemed to die from cancer-lifestyle-related diseases. I remember [aged 11] going to a funeral with my mum once when we were burying another 40-something Irish relative and saying ‘does anyone in this family ever die from something other than smoking, or drinking? For a cause or something they believe in?’. She replied: ‘They all believe in drinking and smoking being OK.’”
John’s Dad would smoke 80 cigarettes a day; his mother would smoke 70; his sisters would smoke from 40 to 60 a day. “Part of the reason that I’m different and I went to university, and stuff like that, was I always kept out of the house because of the [tobacco] smell.”
It sounds like rural Ireland but John grew up in Hackney, north-east London, in the 1980s. His first friends were of Jamaican and Gujarati origin quickly becoming obsessed with their food, clothes, languages and he loved that their houses did not have clouds of smoke inside them.
John then admits he didn’t have a white English friend until he was at university. One of the reasons for this was his parents struggled to integrate their family into the wider local community because they struggled to want to integrate.
“I tell people that I was brought up in Ireland in the 1950s,” John says. “We were living in a frozen slice of time. When Irish friends or relatives came over they’d complain that we were still listening to The Chieftains and The Wolfe Tones—because Ireland had moved on. But the expat community didn’t.
“They brought me up to have a distrust of white English people.”
For all standup comedians, the pandemic was brutal. Pubs, bars and clubs closing meant that live performance was an impossibility and they had to rely on other sources of income to survive, especially because comedy is not well paid outside of TV.
Some did great work online, like Matt Green, who lampooned the government’s reaction to Covid in a cerebral, polished way. Others found adapting more difficult: I know of acts who really struggled financially and with the various psychological problems associated with isolation during a global pandemic.
Pivoting, fortunately, is something John does easily and he already had set up a business that dovetailed nicely with his impressive comedy career. At night he would headline the top clubs around the country but in the day he would give presentations to companies on mental health issues with his wife, Natasha. This allowed him to give training sessions to various companies challenging people’s perceptions of how they should view others. To do this he made himself the example: someone who on first sight appears as a typical English ‘geezer’ but is actually the opposite.
One of the most successful of these sessions was with the NHS where he was in a room with 95% people of colour. Natasha would point at him and ask the audience what they thought when they saw him and they would say ‘football hooligan’ then as the day progressed they would be asked again and then give a more accurate impression by saying ‘nice guy’. At the end of the day, John would then reveal he feels more comfortable around black and Asian people and this would leave them confused. But John is keen to point out the one main difference between being Irish and other ethnic minorities.
“It’s not comparable to what Asian and black people go through,” he says. “Because we’re not a visible minority. If our skin was green we would stand out. But we are overrepresented in prisons, poor housing, every negative social indicator that affects black and brown people.
“It’s always interesting when the football is on: I don’t support England because I can’t engage with them. They’re always one bad tackle away from calling someone a black bastard or singing ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ or one of those stupid songs that remind me that this flag and football team doesn’t represent me.”
John is also not afraid to call out the waste he witnesses when he visits these companies. Particularly when it comes to skills.
“You go into companies,” he says. “And the chief executive speaks English and the cleaner speaks 12 languages. Why isn’t this guy in charge? If you can learn another language then I’m sure you can learn HR or computer code.”
John at times is a bit of a philosopher and I miss working with him. The last time we performed on the same night was at the King’s Head in Crouch End, north London about seven years ago. It had a comedy-literate audience and performing there was an absolute joy. Even though it’s a relatively small venue it’s what I wanted comedy to be; a place to try out new ideas in a forgiving environment lovingly curated by the promoter Peter. It’s a warm memory and one that is shared with John who performs there four times a year for about £30 a night.
“I once got off a plane from doing a corporate [gig] in Singapore,” he says. “And went to the King’s Head for £30 because I just love it. I just love that enthusiasm. That rawness. But when you do the Glees [weekend comedy chains], those kind of places, it’s really cut-throat: it’s not the venues. It’s the acts.”
The list of comedy ambitions John had were to perform at nights like the King’s Head, do gigs abroad and on cruise ships. He even has a scientific study published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology on how comedy can boost mental wellbeing. But one ambition was fulfilled only recently with the Follow My Lead campaign.
“I always wanted to write a poem, perform it and get paid for it.”
John’s dad was an Irish traveller who worked on building sites and his mother was a school cleaner. Both died of cancer.
“Of course they didn’t want to talk about it,” he says. “They were in denial. They would call it the ‘big C’ or ‘the thing’. You can’t say cancer. It’s not done.”
John may have had parents who didn’t want to face up to the reality of their situations but he did have Natasha who knew exactly what to do. She had a full hysterectomy at 34 years old and her numerous cancer operations had given her some insight into how little doctors would tell patients about the side effects of treatments. Using this knowledge she placed swimming-style caps on John’s mother’s head so that she could massage shampoo into her scalp giving her relief from the treatment which leaves people’s heads feeling heavy and she oiled her aching feet.
“When we first got together my mum wasn’t overly keen as Tash is proudly English. But she was an absolute godsend.”
John admits when it comes to dealing with cancer or mental health illness he can only offer practical solutions and says he’ll listen if someone needs him to but would then offer practical help. It’s the amalgamation of empathy and tough love but with a rejection of what he calls ‘touchy-feely’ superficiality.
“Most people don’t know how to listen,” he says. “But people don’t listen twice as much as they talk. If you’ve lost your job, I’ll listen and then try to find you another job rather than dealing with your trauma of losing the job. I’ve always found it difficult to put myself in someone else’s shoes.”
I ask John if he’s ever had counselling as his childhood feels very traumatic and maybe it’s a bit concerning that he can’t imagine being in ‘someone else’s shoes’. He simply replies that performing on stage is his way of comforting himself about his past and when you’re an act like John you’re always in control as a standup.
“But I’ve got a strong support network,” he adds. “So I’m quite happy to be positive when I’m at a gig because it’s not the be all and end all. I never wanted to do Live at the Apollo or 8 out of 10 Cats. I wanted to get my name known and then use comedy to talk about proper things like health, diversity or homophobia.”
The Follow My Lead video shows that John is excellent when talking openly about health and it isn’t a huge departure from his stage act which tackles similar taboo issues, such as prejudice to sexuality head on. It may not seem radical to challenge the notion of homosexualtiy being unnatural but often in the kind of weekend clubs John will perform people will still hold bigoted views. (I even wrote a bit about the abuse comics endure for the Guardian here).
And whether it is during a corporate gig in Asia, a NHS conference or a stag do, John will directly challenge prejudice and stereotypes. Which shows that you can break taboos while having fun: you just have to follow John’s lead.
The headline is from John’s Follow My Lead poem. I asked him to recommend something to watch or read which reflects an Irishness he finds authentic. Apart from the Pogues he was a bit stumped until I suggested the Barrytown series by Roddy Doyle. The Van is John’s favorite and it cleverly tapped into a revival of Irish coolness spurred on by the country’s involvement in football World Cups (the book came out after the Italia 90 and the film after USA 94).
I’m on holiday for a bit and have back-to-school childcare duties in September so will be back in a month. Stay safe.