Dear Stella, my dear sister, when this letter reaches you,
I fear that I may not be here to see you again;
For in my heart I know I am not long for this world,
My lungs and chest are shot with so much pain.
Do you think I’ve been a good man? Have I deserved the life I’ve had?
And when my footprints fade will there be any more to add? For my mind is on reflection, as I feel life slip away;
It’s been one hell of a journey with new adventures every day.
I was named Mustapha by the mother who bore me;
I was my proud father’s little warrior, a Berber Sheik to be;
Looking fierce in full warpaint, two years old from the sands of Sudan,
I watched the Jibbah’s magic fail as my countrymen’s blood ran.
In the shadow of the nuggar, I raised my invisible gun,
To shoot the Madhi’s enemies in the haze of the Egyptian sun;
But their magic proved far stronger than ours, for none of my bullets struck,
As their leader looked kindly down on me, as my whole body shook.
And he said, “Smile, curly-haired boy, smile;
You’re coming with us to the Banks of the Wear,
All the way from the Banks of the Nile”.
And like a whirling Dervish, my life turned inside out,
As I leapt trusting into his outstretched arms, in spite of every fear and doubt,
While he said “Smile, curly-haired boy, smile”.
I became a sergeants’ boy and it was plain to see,
That I now had many fathers to love and care for me;
They gave me milk, they fed me well, like any good father would,
And they taught me of their world and ways, like any good father should.
But they cried, “Dance, little sweet boy, dance”;
So I danced like their pet and I played the fool,
Whenever they gave me the chance.
And like a whirling Dervish, I took off in a trance,
And danced all the way to Mandalay, with never a backward glance,
As they cried, “Dance, little sweet boy, dance”.
As the years and lands rolled by, they put a bugle in my hands,
And with the blessing of the mighty Empress Queen of all their lands,
I became their first black regular, Number 6758,
And James Francis Durham, DLI Bandsman stood up straight.
As they said, “Play, lovely bugle boy, play”;
And so I played my heart out because I knew no other way.
I put every single laugh and tear I’d shed into every note I played,
As I felt the magic in the coat in which I was now arrayed,
As they said, “Play, lovely bugle boy, play”.
I came at last to England, an educated full-grown man,
Where I found love and embraced it, in the best way any young lover can;
With my clarinet and violin, I graced many a concert hall,
And I played a tune for the many paths on which Destiny’s seeds might fall.
And I thought, smile, Jimmy Durham, smile;
It’s been a long road to the Banks of the Wear,
All the way from the Banks of the Nile.
But now this cold wet weather
Has become the death of me,
Though I know my story will live on,
Through the child I’ll never see.
So farewell, my dear sister, I can no longer write,
And the world at last is fading, as I head towards the light.
Well it’s been one hell of a journey, please do not feel sad;
But do you think I’ve been a good man? Did I earn the life I’ve had?
© 2017 Whippet Records
Copyright Control MCPS/PRS
The true story of James Francis Durham. Written in October 2017, when Gary was approached and commissioned by the DLI Research and Study Centre to contribute a series of songs about the music of The Durham Infantry for 'When the Bugle Calls', a DLI Collection touring exhibition. The song was recorded as part of Gary's 'From Coalfield to Battlefield' project, which developed directly through the exhibition and was one of four songs from the project to be performed at the 'When the Bugle Calls'launch event at Bishop Auckland Town Hall on 5th December 2017.
Also as part of these respective linked projects, Gary's creative partner, artist, designer and illustrator Helen Temperley produced an illustration to accompany the song (see above image).