Day 80: Valhalla

In case anyone is wondering, I didn’t write Valhalla about John Stahl, who starred in a music video filmed by Laura only a week before he died. It is a song about facing death – something I’ve written about quite a bit in recent years – but when I wrote the lyrics in early 2021 I didn’t even know John had cancer, and neither did he.

It’s strange how things work out. By the time I asked John to star in the film, in January 2022, it was certainly clear that he might not be with us a lot longer. But honestly that’s not really why I asked him. I asked him because he was a brilliant actor and I thought he’d make a brilliant Viking. I did think the song might resonate with him given what he was going through, but we never explicitly discussed this and I would have asked him anyway. I’d grab any excuse to work with John, it was always a joy.

And then, between asking John to do the video (end of January) and actually shooting it (end of February), everything changed. 

In January we’d done a rehearsed reading with John – his last ever ensemble acting role, as it turned out – of an old John McGrath play called Random Happenings in the Hebrides. He was very fired up about it afterwards, talking about developing a full production of Random Happenings or revisiting other old Scottish plays in a similar way. This was typical of him. He lived for his work, and keeping busy gave him something to focus on once he was ill. In all honesty, it was the main reason we’d organised the event. The fact that it was the 20th anniversary of John McGrath’s death was a convenient excuse.

Buoyed by his enthusiasm, I pitched him the Viking film. I’d imagined a video in which an old Viking warrior turns up at Wee Studio in Stornoway, looms terrifyingly over everyone, and demands that they record him telling his life story. John and his wife Jane both loved this idea, and Jane found a fantastic Viking tattoo that she was going to put on John’s head. We set a date for filming, Wednesday 2 March. Enough time for John to grow his beard back for the role. The video was going to close with the Viking standing on a beach, looking out to sea, contemplating his life and his journey to the next world.

And then John’s health deteriorated further, even more rapidly than we’d feared. It quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to get John into town, or even out of the house. We almost dropped the idea entirely, but ultimately agreed with Jane that Laura and I would just visit him at home in Uig while we still could, bring cameras (and cake), and we’d see what happened. By this time John was so exhausted he could barely walk or talk and had to be helped out of bed (not an easy task – he was a big guy) and yet… when the camera started rolling he came to life. It was a remarkable thing to watch. He knew exactly what to do.

John died the following week, in the early hours of Wednesday 2 March. Laura had finished a first cut of the film on the Tuesday and Jane showed it to him later that day. How much of it he took in it’s difficult to say – Jane says he heard it more than watched it – but at least he got to experience it in some form. Just a few hours later he was gone.

Sometimes in this diary I go into a lot of self-indulgent detail about what my songs are about. But actually once they’re out in the world it doesn’t matter. Your intentions are irrelevant and the meaning belongs to whoever’s listening to it. That feels particularly true in this case, so I’m not going to say more about what I was trying to express with Valhalla because it belongs to John now, and also to Jane. In the end we didn’t make a music video for one of my songs at all. Instead the song became a soundtrack to a poignant short film about a man at the end of his life somehow still managing to do the thing he’s devoted most of that life to doing, supported by someone who loves him dearly. Even in his fragile state, you can still see the magnetism that brought to life characters as diverse as Rickard Karstark from Game of Thrones and Inverdarroch from High Road. A lot of people seem to be finding comfort and hope in that, which is a beautiful thing to see.

There are lots of moments in Laura’s film that I love. The subtle, symbolic addition of colour throughout. The small moments of intimacy between John and Jane. The opening shot which shows the outside and the inside of the house simultaneously, the interior world and the outside world. The way the waves glide over the rocks just as Scott C Park’s guitar glides through the chorus. But most of all I love the moment when John shakes his fist, in triumphant defiance. Still acting. Still alive. 

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