My song today is, ‘If Not for You’. This was a song by Bob Dylan who recorded for his 1970 album ‘New Morning’. Dylan recorded the album version in August 1970, having first recorded the song in a session with George Harrison on May 1 of that year. In addition to appearing on the album in October 1970, the August recording was released as a single in Europe; the May recording remained unreleased until its inclusion on ‘The Bootleg Series: Volumes1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) in 1991.
In November 1970, a month after Dylan's original had appeared, George Harrison released a version of the song on his triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’. Another well-known cover of the song was recorded by Olivia Newton-John, who had the only US charting version of the song in 1971.
How many experiences we all have had in our lives where we thought afterwards, “If not for you,...”. There will be a great number of individuals in our lives who have had a significant impact on it (for either good or bad). There will be individuals who have shaped our behaviour, influenced our pattern of response; there will be individuals who have helped form our character and the person we are today, and there will be individuals who have focused our perspective on life, and even help to strengthen our belief system and moderate our value structure.
In my case, I am pleased to say that I cannot think of one person who had a long-term bad influence on my life. That is not to say that there was never a person who hurt me, or who angered me, and who wanted to take from me that which I did not want to give. However, there was never one such person whose negative actions towards me were ever allowed to determine my destiny or influence my future emotions and thoughts. To have allowed such would have been to have another person decide on my behalf and to control my future behaviour and response. That was never on my agenda!
All the people whom I can positively apply this sentiment to were good, truthful kind,, and gentlefolk. They were people who engendered confidence and a belief in my capacity to do well in all that I undertook.
My first “If not for you…. “accolade must go to my dear mother. I would not have had the solid grounding as a child, had it not been for her patience, compassion, wisdom, and love. It was she who shaped me into the adult I was to become. It was she who imbibed within me a love of life; my love of music and song, my love of mischief and fun, my romantic inclinations, my respect for all women, and my positive and optimistic attitude. My mother strengthened my belief that all the goodness of mankind comes initially from God’s own hand and is passed on to our fellow being through our love. Finally, my mother instilled in me a belief that faith can make dreams come true.
The next person to whom the “If not for you….” accolade belongs to was my sports teacher at ‘St Patrick’s Catholic School’ in Heckmondwike, Paddy McNamara. First, he spotted the talent I had to play football, and at the age of 11 years, he put me alongside older 14-year-old boys in the school football team. As a young man, my father had played soccer for County Kilkenny in Ireland, before going on to play for the Irish National soccer squad for a few years before migrating to England with his family (my mum and sisters Mary, Eileen and me). I also dreamed of playing football for the Irish Republic as my father had, but my dream was never to be, and I never would find out if I had been good enough as an adult soccer player.
Before my twelfth birthday, a serious road accident led to me being run over by a wagon. For almost two months I was knocking at death’s door, having incurred massive life-threatening and life-altering injuries; the most serious included an injury to my spine that stopped me walking for the following three years.
Into my life stepped the next person which I can say, “If not for you…” I know not his name. He was the West Indian surgeon at ‘Batley Hospital’ who saved my life through two operations during my first month of hospitalisation. After knocking me down in the road and running over me, my body had been wrapped around the main drive shaft of the wagon; leaving me with a lung puncture, a damaged spine, a chest with only two of twenty-four ribs left unbroken, and badly mangled legs which had been broken on the knees and in a number of other places. Both arms were also badly broken.
My next ‘If not for you….’ accolade goes to Gwenn. While I was a patient in ‘Batley Hospital’ for nine months, there was a cleaning orderly called Gwen. She was a jolly, overweight woman with one of the largest hearts I have ever known. Gwen would clean our ward daily and would always chat with me. Occasionally, she would bring me a little present to cheer me up, as I was the only boy in an adult ward (because of the extent of my injuries).
The morning that the doctor told me and my parents that because of my damaged spine, I would never walk again, Gwenn was nearby and heard the medical prognostication. She could see that I was scared and heard me cry with the pessimistic news. My parents were in the side waiting room; having been given the bad news earlier than I, and were in the process of taking it in. After the doctor had left my bedside, Gwenn came up to me, cuddled me, and said, “What do they know? Only God knows what will be!” Having heard the doctor’s diagnosis, I chose to believe what Gwenn had said rather than the medics who had offered little positive outcome.
When western medicine offers one little hope, it was more natural for me to look elsewhere, so I turned my eyes and attention to the east. Over the next decade, I became a child/young man disciple of eastern meditative disciplines and philosophy.
After my accident, I was to miss over two years schooling. I had always been a clever boy who had come either first or second in most class subjects. Just before my accident at the age of 11 years, I took and passed my 11-plus exam for the Grammar School. Coming from a poor family and then having an inverse form of social snobbery (I considering all the grammar school pupils as being ‘toffee-nosed’), I refused to be grammar-school educated. In those days (1953), it was more difficult for most working-class children to get into Grammar School than now. Usually, only the brightest of pupils went. Being the only person in my class to pass my Grammar School examination that year was a ‘feather-in-the-cap’ of the Headmaster, Mr. Armitage. He tried to persuade me to go, but I adamantly refused.
In those days, because it was possible to be taught in the class of one’s ability (irrespective of one’s age), the Headmaster cleverly punished me without inviting any criticism back on himself. In response to my decision not to attend the Grammar School, which he deeply resented, he made his decision to move me away from all my class-year friends by putting me in the top class of the school with all the 14-year-olds.
Whilst in ‘Batley Hospital’ my sport’s teacher (who knew how disappointed I was never to play football again) visited me regularly. Another teacher called Mrs. Brennan had told him how clever she thought I was for my age, and the result was that Paddy McNamara arranged for me to submit a Mensa test. The result was twofold. I came out with a score well above average, and for the first time in my life, I believed that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. Paddy McNamara also gave me the first book that I ever owned. It was an adventure story called ‘Death in the Quicksand’, and extensive reading throughout the remainder of my life was to become one of my greatest pleasures. Thank you, Paddy, ‘If not for you……’ I may never have become an author in later life.
When I was 15, I would steal anything which was not fastened down at any opportunity I got. On one occasion, I stole some fruit from the boxes outside the greengrocer’s shop on the estate. The shop owner, (Mr. Northrop), witnessed my theft and yelled after me, “I’ve seen you, Billy Forde! Just wait until I see your parents.” For the following week I was on tenterhooks as I knew that once my parents found out about another theft of mine, my father would give me a good hiding which I would not forget in a hurry. Parental physical chastisement was not only allowed in those days; it was positively advocated by society at large!
About three days later, I started to sweat when I saw Mr. Northrop approach our house and walk down the garden path. I really started to worry as my mum was mot in to restrain dad once he found out about my theft. My dad welcomed Mr. Northrop into the house as I waited anxiously. The greengrocer said to my dad, “Can you tell Mrs. Forde that your Billy can have a Saturday morning job in my shop if he wants one? He’ll be weighing bags of potatoes to sell in the back of the shop and I’ll pay him 3 shillings and sixpence for his morning’s work; that is if he wants the job?”
Unknown to either my father or myself, my mother had seemingly asked the greengrocer for a job to keep me out of trouble, a few days after I’d stolen from Mr. Northrop, and the greengrocer had said not one word about my earlier theft from his shop. Before I could decline the job, my father replied, “Of course he wants it, Mr. Northrop. He’ll be there next Saturday!” I worked with the kindly greengrocer for a couple of years on a Saturday morning, and I put it down to the fact that it was his investment of trust in me which influenced me to become a Probation Officer in later life. ‘If not for you, Mr. Northrop’, this poacher might never have turned gamekeeper, and who knows which side of the Probation Officer’s desk I would have been sitting in later years?
My final accolade of ‘If not for you, …’ must go to my beautiful wife, Sheila. Sheila (who is 14 years younger than me, and marginally better looking) was a widow who met me in my late sixties and married me on my 70th birthday in 2012. Shortly after our marriage, I was to be diagnosed with terminal blood cancer. The greatest side effect of my blood cancer was that it would render me without an effective immune system for the rest of my life, and it would also produce cancer growth in other body organs until one of the cancers finally kills me.
I presently have three body to deal with and since early 2013, (also had one lymphoma), I have had nine cancer operations, two nine-month courses of chemotherapy, three years of monthly blood transfusions, and forty sessions of radiotherapy. My absence of any effective immune system means that I have played Russian Roulette with my life each time I shake hands with, kiss, or am within the same air space as any person with a bug or infection. For instance, if I have contact with someone who has a cold, I get instant pneumonia (I have had three such pneumonia episodes). Between 2013-2017, I spent nine months of each year inside either hospital, confined to my bed, or inside my house. It is as if I had been preparing in advance for the experience of the country’s lockdown position! And strange though it may seem, any respite during the past 18 months has witnessed me having six cancer operations and forty sessions of radiotherapy.
And yet, the past ten years since I first met Sheila in Haworth, fell in love with her and married her have been the happiest ten years in my life. ‘If not for you’, Sheila, I would not be alive today, and ‘if not for all of my family and friends’ praying for me daily over the past decade, God would not have granted me extended life to continue loving you all and receiving your abundance of love in return.
Thank you all. ‘If not for you…’ love and peace Bill xxx