Will Carling looks me in the eye. “Do you cry?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say cautiously, unwilling to look like a wet blanket in front of a former England rugby captain. “Every now and then.”
“Because I do,” says 55-year-old Carling matter-of-factly, making me wonder why I was so reluctant to say the same thing. There aren’t many people he’d cry in front of, he explains, but it happens “all the time”. England rugby captains have tear ducts too, you know.
Carling and I are discussing tears on the back of his recalling the only time he saw his father cry. It was in 2002, when Carling’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer for a third time. Will and his father, Lt Col Bill Carling, had gone to see Will’s mother, Pam, in hospital in Wimbledon. They left her side when she was taken into the operating theatre. They stepped into a lift, neither of them knowing what to say. “And that’s when my dad cried.”
Carling tried to comfort him, saying that his mother was tough and would come through it. But he was struck by how out of character it seemed. “I don’t know why it took him crying for me to realise the amount of emotion that was going around inside him, and it’s one of the only times that he’s shown it.”
Pam had first been diagnosed with cancer when Carling was five. “It would have been in the late Sixties,” Carling says, “and if you got cancer, it was almost like that was it. She was tough, but she was lucky and she got great treatment.”
Pam had a successful mastectomy, only to be diagnosed with cancer in her other breast several years later, when Carling was in his early 20s and in the first years of his playing career. Another mastectomy followed and Pam was once again restored to health, though neither his parents nor elder brother, Marcus, ever discussed death. “I don’t know whether it’s just British, or Western, or [typical across] the world.”
The third cancer was initially a melanoma. Pam died at the age of 65, within a year of the diagnosis. Her last three or four months, says Carling, were spent in hospital. “And that was the most depressing bit… People are wandering past doing their jobs and it’s not the sort of place where you can have great conversations. There are other people in the waiting room, or in beds next to her, and that’s the bit where conversation is very limited. If there were things you wanted to say, it just wasn’t the environment.”
Hence Carling’s support for Maggie’s, the charity that provides support for people with cancer, as well as their families and friends, in purpose-built centres on the grounds of hospitals. People who visit those centres find in them quietly uplifting spaces in which to talk and reflect. Sitting at Carling’s kitchen table, looking out onto Berkshire parkland, I consider how much easier it is to talk here than on a strip-lit ward.
Visitors to the centres will also find counsellors trained to help families with the difficult conversations that arise as a result of a cancer diagnosis. That kind of help, says Carling, is one of the most important things offered by a Maggie’s: “Being able to talk to people about how to say certain things. I think that would have been useful. I think there was probably from, say, my dad’s point of view, or my brother’s, lots of things that might have been unsaid.”
Carling counts himself lucky to have been able to have had the conversations he wanted to with his mother. She had sent him to boarding school when he was six, like his brother Marcus before him, and “that doesn’t really lead to a close [relationship], or it didn’t for me, anyway”. Fundamentally, he says: “I didn’t understand a lot of her and she probably didn’t understand a lot of me [but] we did try to talk through those bits.”
And although Bill, now 82, has the ex-military instinct of “just getting on with it”, Carling thinks he might have benefited from sharing his grief with someone. “Maggie’s offers an invaluable service for people to just go and talk with other people in the same situation as them. And I think you can get a bit of strength, you get a bit of solace. Some people can help you see that although your world feels like it’s ended now, you will get through it. They’ll tell you how, and they’ll give you tips. You can look after each other.”
Bereavement, and the prospect of it, are among the most stressful experiences an individual is likely to face. A small mercy of Carling’s was that his rugby career, in which he captained England in what was then a world-record of 59 matches and reached a World Cup final, gave him tools to cope with stress. “On matchdays, I used to wake up and get this huge surge of adrenaline. Then I used to take a deep breath and just go: ‘Look, there’s pressure, but you’re not going to die.’ So everything else was a bonus. Whatever happens, happens. It was my way of defusing things. The whole thing really wasn’t that important. Although it sort of was…” he says wryly, clarifying: “It wasn’t that important.
“I just think, s—, you’ve got to enjoy it. These last two years have been an example of that. You don’t know what’s round the corner, and if you’re still here, and breathing, you’re bloody lucky.”
This isn’t the kind of conversation Carling often had with his teammates. “There was an unspoken undercurrent that you’d look after each other, but you’d never go ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I’m nervous’. You didn’t share bits in the build-up to games. You’d just lie there afterwards in the changing rooms, and sometimes you’d look at each other and go” – Carling mimes exhaling as if having just endured a tough game – “and you’d smile, and that would be it.”
By contrast, the current generation of England players, to which Carling is a leadership mentor, is “a lot more open to talking about [emotion]. Which is quite interesting”. They are not “soft”, he points out. “It’s just different. There are different ways of expressing things. Is that woke? Is it not woke? It’s expression, it’s understanding, it’s a little more openness.”
Carling’s children are of the same generation. He and his wife, Lisa, have two girls and three boys, ranging from Mimi, 18, to Tom, 33. He was relieved to find, following testing, that he does not have the genes that predisposed his mother to cancer, which means that he won’t have passed them onto his children either.
Nevertheless, he is “going to die of something” he says with striking calmness. “Who knows what it’ll be? I want my family to think that whatever I died of, I certainly lived.”
Maggie’s is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Alzheimer’s Society, Dogs Trust and The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. To donate, visit telegraph.co.uk/2021appeal or call 0151 284 1927