Saturday 5 August 2023

The Saturday List #413 - Ten days that changed my life

 Sliding doors moments. We all have them. Days where your life was changed. Days where you are a different person when you go to sleep to the person when you woke up. I am hellishly superstitious, this governs much of what I do. My Dad was similarly superstitious, he once said to me being lucky has nothing to do with luck. If he won a bet, he'd put some in the charity box we had in the front room. HE'd clobber us if we sung "The sun aint gonna shine anymore" by the Walker Brothers as he reckoned it would make it rain. If good luck ever came his way, he'd stay in bed for an extra ten minutes and say the rosary (Dad was a staunch Catholic). I once asked him if he enjoyed sayiong the Rosary, he said "No, that's why I do it, it is my way of showing God I appreciate the luck he's showered on me". And he was was lucky, he was in the RAF and survived being shot down over Romania, baling out of his plane with a parachute as it plummitted towards the ground after having been shot up by a German fighter. Dad told me that the experience changed his life. He said that he'd prayed that he could have his three score and ten and in return, he'd try his hardest to thank the Lord and the Virgin Mary every day. He also said that he would try and be a good person and make a difference. As he was a naturally mischievious person, that was not easy. He liked the company of rogues and employed many of Mill Hill's villains at his crash repair business at one time or another. He didn't try and reform them, but he gave them opportunities if they wanted it and gave a few a career in the motor trade that no one else would have. He told me that sometimes something happens and you see things as they really are. That changes you. I've never been shot down, but I've had a few life changing moments. I've always tried my hardest to take a positive from the experience. I thought it warranted a list.

1. November 2011 - Being diagnosed with Prostate cancer. I changed my diet and reflected on many things. Life is a journey and this has been a difficult part. At the time, I wondered what could possibly come out of the experience that was good? To my surprise, quite a lot. My blog gave me a platform to share my thoughts. It has been widely read and has inspired many people to get tested, some of whom sadly were found to have PC as well, but were caught early. The earlier it is caught, the better your options. I have had emails thanking me, friends in the pub saying the same. People have shared information and I've made new friends, who have supported me through my current challenges. When I woke up on that day, I genuinely thought they would tell me the biopsy was fine. Here I am 12 years later, facing an operation on Wednesday and battle with my health insurer. Their behaviour has given me a new fight. The procedure I am having is called Neurosafe. It gives a man a much better chance of avoiding impotence and incontinence. There is a stack of evidence, but my insurers have informed me that as it is not available on the NHS, it is not covered. Yesterday they informed me, this is a quote from their 'final letter' - This may come as a shock to many people who have paid tens of thousands over decades for cover, or like me are in work schemes "Private Medical Insurance is not designed to replace the NHS in situations when treatment is not available under the NHS." 

As you may imagine, this is something I think needs to be widely known, as if I'd put the cash I spent on the policy into a building society, I'd be able to afford the procedure and go to Australia with the change. When I have recovered, I will be off to see the financial ombudsman. This is not so much for me, but for all of the other poor mugs being taken for a ride, who actually have an option to choose a better company.

2. January 1987 -  I was woken by a  telephone call from my eldest brother at 7am. My Dad had unexpectedly died. It was a shock beyond comprehension. It took me a year to get my head around it. I changed jobs as a result, my boss had been horrible about me taking a week off to grieve and had told my co workers I was skiving, not mentioning my bereavement. In some ways it was the formal end of my childhood. I always felt Dad had my back and he was gone. But it did make me far stronger. I feel him with me.

3. February 1995 - My then girlfriend informed me she was pregnant. I realised that I had a responsibility. We decided to get married, I knew that for at least 18 years, I had to do the right thing financially, I had to get my head together and put someone else first. In many ways it was the best thing that happened to me. I will let others, especially my kids, decided whether I am a good or a lousy father. I am proud of them whateever and I doubt I'd be where I am without my good lady.

Manchester City win the FA Cup this year
4. March 27th, 1967. For this day, and this day alone, I was a Manchester United fan. I was four years old. My elder brother Frank is a Manchester United fan. He was back from University. He was 20. He asked me which football team I supported. I didn't have one. He told me I should support Manchester United. He told me that they were playing City that day. He told me that when United won, they would probably become champions, as they'd be ahead of City. He told me that they had the best player in the World, George Best and the Captain of England Bobby Charlton. What's not to love. I liked my big brother, I trusted his judgement. He went out with his mates. I got put to bed. I woke up at 6am and I was excited. I woke him up and, knowing little about football, I excitedly woke him. I exclaimed "did we win, are we champions". He was grumpy and hungover and told me to bugger off. When he finally got up, I asked again. He said "No, city won". I felt mislead and betrayed, He'd tried to make me a red, but it was clear that City were better. I insisted on watching the Big Match. I realised I was born to be blue. When I was born, I had the rhesus factor. I was a blue baby! Thank God for Bell, Heslop and Lee!

Despite the many ups and downs, I always felt far more comfortable at City. I prefer the humour, I prefer the ground. I prefer the players. I met Joe Mercer, the manager in 1969 at the football hall of fame. He is my all time favourite manager, although Pep is a close second. Tomorrow I will watch them at the Charity Shield final. They should really have played the City first team vs the CIty B Team as they won the treble. Arsenal are simply rent a mugs for the occasion!

5. 13th December 1980 - Until this point, my band The False Dots had not performed a gig. I started trying to put the band together with a mate, Pete Conway since 1977. First we had to get instruments, then learn to play. Our first rehearsal was 14th Feb 1979. There were numerous line up changes, we did a demo at Alan Warner of the Foundations studio. We were supposed to do a gig in August 1979, supporting the UK Subs in Derby. our drummer was thrown through a shop window and severed a tendon. The band split up, reformed, changed line ups several times, then I decided we simply had to gig, so I hired the Harwood Hall in Mill Hill. I hand made 150 tickets. We put 4 bands on. It was a sell out. But.....  Pete Conway who I set the band up with and was meant to be singing with us didn't show up. I have never felt so betrayed. We had the choice, go out and do it or walk away like mugs. We did it. I've never felt more proud of the band. If we hadn't done that, then it would have been the end of it. No False Dots, no Mill Hill Music Complex. God knows what I'd be doing now. Despite being rubbish, I really enjoyed it.

6. August 1978. I opened up a letter and it contained my O Level results. I had left FCHS. I had got a job as a trainee gas pipeline engineer with the Gas Board. It involved a two year diploma course in gas engineering at Salford college and a three year degree course at Uni, all the while being paid a wage. It meant I could go and watch City every week. I'd been slung out of FCHS and I felt I'd landed on my feet. I opened up the envelope and I'd failed my maths O'Level. I'd passed four. I needed 5 including maths to do the course / job. My dreams and plans disappeared. I was bereft.  I didn't know what to do. I was fifteen, I'd been desperate to leave home. Manchester also had an amazing music scene. I thought I'd move up, get in a band and that would be that. I spent two weeks moping around. My Dad took me to one side and said "Why don't you go back and redo your Maths O'level, you will never get a decent job without it". I replied that I'd been slung out of FCHS, they'd given me a dispensation to go back to do the O levels, but I wasn't welcomed back and the idea appalled me. He then said "why don't you try Orange Hill School. Caroline went there and did well, if you buckle down and work, get the O Level, then the Gas board will have you next year". Then he added "they've got girls at Orange Hill". In that instant, I thought "why not, even if I hate it, I'm not doing anything else". I went there, loved it, made a bunch of new mates, found that there was a brilliant music scene. I took five O levels, including Maths and passed all of them. I went back to the gas board and they rejected me. I did another 2 years at Orange Hill, got 2 A levels and then moved to Sweden for six months, booking a tour for our band. It was amazing. The best bit of bad luck I ever had was failing Maths O Level.

7. December 2000. I had a doctors appointment for a torn groin. As I returned home, I noticed an ambulance was parked outside my mothers flat. I assumed it was her neighbour who had been unwell. I went up anyway. What I found, horrified me. She had a major stroke, she couldn't move or speak. Her boyfriend was in pieces, an ambulance had been called. I had to call the family. It was awful, she'd aged 30 years in 30 seconds. She was never the same again. She was 75. She lasted anotehr 8 years, there were some good moments, but that was the end of an  era for me. It was the moment I realised my parents were no longer there at all. Now she was reliant on us. Most people drift into the situation, with small tell tale signs of dementia. We had a mother who one day looked ten years younger than her age, was going on four holidays a year and the next was twenty years older than her age and completely reliant on us. When it happened, I am ashamed to say I had wished it had taken her. Over the remaing years of her life, I actually learned how precious life is. My mother fought to be as independent as possible. She lived on her own, albeit with a lot of support. Never give up

8. 3nd July 1976. My Sister Valerie had a birthday party on this day. She was a nurse at the Charing Cross Hospital. She had her own flat and it had a big garden. She asked all of her friends and family. It was a proper Tichborne party, booze, music and shenanigans. I was 13 at the time. I was being treated for anxiety. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic. I felt like I was an alien from another planet, who somehow had ended up in some sort of strange body in a world I didn't understand, at a school I hated. But I loved a party. It seemed like the whole world was there. I was the youngest person though, I had no peers. Val was nine years older than me. Mum and Dad were there, doctors, nurses, brothers and sisters. As was the way in 1976, a big bowl of punch was made. I had a couple of big glasses, probably more. Suddenly a very strange thing happened. I felt what I imagined it felt like to be completely normal. I didn't feel shy. In fact I felt like the Holy Spirit had come down on me and given me the gift of speech. I felt confident and happy. I had the best night of my life. I did my best to chat up a few of my sisters mates, failing miserably as they were much older. But I was shocked that I could. The whole place was buzzing. A couple of days later, my sister came around, shame faced. She sat my parents down and apologised profusely. One of her medical student mates had spiked the punch with a large amount of Amphetamine Sulphate AKA Speed. If you want to know what this does, google a few videos of the Wigan Casino. To my sisters incredulity, my Dad said "Yeah, I guessed, we used to do that all the time when I was in the RAF, it kept us alert on bombing missions". My mother was horrified. She spent years telling everyone that someone had spiked the punch with LSD (which has a completely different effect). Dad thought it was hilarious. The effect it had on me was that I realised that if I took drugs, I could feel normal. I found that I could focus and I had confidence. I took quite a lot of them, until I went to Sweden. I didn't want to carry them through customs and when I got out there, I found my girlfriend there was very anti drugs, as were all her friends. They didn't really like alcohol either. I realised that I didn't actually need them. When I got back, I started to realise that people who were doing a lot of drugs didn't do much else. They'd stopped going to gigs and preferred listening to Pink Floyd albums whilst stoned out of their minds. I developed a big aversion to post Syd Barratt Pink Floyd.  But it also taught me why "Just say no" doesn't work. There are lots of kids who have no confidence who need a crutch. That is why I think drug policies that criminalise people going through bad times are immoral.

9. November 1984. I'd been through a very messy relationship break up, I had an infected polyp in my left ear that was causing my dizziness and required an operation. I was as miserable as I've ever been. I decided to take a holiday after the polyp was removed. I decided to take a few weeks off and walk around the cornish coast. I hitch hiked down to Cornwall. On the second night, the sun was setting and I was in a village near Fowey. I knocked on a farm door and asked the farmer if there was anywhere I could camp. He looked at me like a lunatic. He said "Look, if you help me for an hour with the cows, you can stay in our spare room and have dinner with us". I replied "I know nothing about cows". He said "Don't worry, they'll teach you". So it was agreed we'd get the cows in and I'd then help again in the morning before I set off. We had dinner, which was lovely, then he asked if I fancied going to the pub with him and his wife. There was a quiz and they were down a player. We went, won the quiz and I had a fantastic time. I got up in the morning, helped with the cows, had a hearty breakfast and then set off on my way. As I made my way to the next place, I realised that I'd had a brilliant evening. I was in a place I never even knew existed with complete strangers, yet I felt like a family member for those few ours. I realised that life is so much better when we embrace change, open ourselves up to strangers and have trust. I have always tried to follow their example. I doubt they would have remembered me a week after the visit, but their warmth and hospitality, something rare in London, was a life lesson. 

Our group
10. August 2000.  One Sunday in mid August 2000, I was at mass. Our then Parish priest Fr Perry Gildea mentioned that he'd just returned from a week in Lourdes, France,  with a charity called HCPT and group of adult people with disabilities. He explained what the week had been like. They needed strong male helpers, who could drive, play a musical instrument, who were not worried about getting their hands dirty (and I mean that literally, as anyone who has ever cared for someone without use of their hands will know). I had been many times to Lourdes as a child, I fancied going back and I could do those things. I felt it was an itch I needed to scratch. So I signed up as a volunteer. I am not a Holy Joe type. Unlike my Dad I don't say the Rosary every day, if ever. I see the problems with the Roman Catholic church, but I also see the good things. I went thinking I'd "do my bit" and then move on. As mentioned above, my mother had a stroke a few months after I made this decision. When I went in July 2001, mum was still semi paralysed, unable to communicate and just out of hospital. I was angry about the whole thing. After about two days with HCPT, I was thinking "Why on earth did I do this, I don't know any of these people and none are like me". The only person I initially clicked with was Margaret, a mother of 10, who had been a folk singer in the 60's with The Spinners. She was an  elderly scouser with a wicked sense of humor and amazing musical skills. She was a natural mother and I think realised I was a bit lost. As the week progressed, I realised that I was getting more comfortable. The people I'd initially been cautious of were lovely. The people we were helping got huge benefits from having us around. By the end of the week, I realised it had been a transformative experience. I have been with the group 15 times in the 22 years since. I am a deputy group leader. I've roped many of my mates into going, as well as my kids and their mates. I went originally with many preconceptions. These were wrong. When I first went, I didn't really understand the issues people living with disabilities face. In truth, I didn't see their value in society. But when you get over the package the personality comes in, you realise that we are all the same, we all want the same things, especially love and friendship. They have the same fears, the same prejudices, the same dreams. For many though, society simply does not enable them to realise any of this. I am just back from our latest trip. One of our group, a new member, suffers from muscular distrophy. He was diagnosed at age 21. He had been a talented musician as a teenager. Now he only has limited movement in his arms. He can operate a computer and a wheelchair, but everything else needs.  He is in his 50's. Such things could happen to any of us at any time. He works and is a really bright guy. He makes the most of it and gets on with it. In truth, his example gives more to me than my efforts have given to anyone who I've had to assist. 

Life is a journey. Until it ends, there are always new challenges. For me, the big fear I have is that Wednesday may be the eleventh day. That is the day that I have a radical prostatectamy. I may be fine after. I may be impotent and incontinent. I never needed to be around my group as much as I did this last week. Seeing the challenges that some have had, since birth, makes me realise that whatever happens on Wednesday, I've been lucky, maybe too lucky. I hope and pray that my operation is successful and the side effects minimal. If it all goes wrong, then I will just have to learn how to cope. People have worse things to deal with. 

That's all, have a great weekend. I am off to Hadley FC this afternoon to watch some football in the rain. I may drive, I may get the bus, I may drink tea, I may have a beer. I may have a curry later. Life is full of choices for most of us. Be grateful for that. 

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