Hit Me With Your Walking Stick – (A personal romp through 5 decades of disability)

02:40.am

I couldn’t sleep see, so I’d put the TV back on, flicked around, found a film just starting and thought, maybe I can watch that for a while then drift off..Then my heart had sunk. Because, as the opening credits ended and the opening scene began, she appeared. The Deaf Signer. Quite a large one. In a bright red top.

Now it’s a while since I watched a signed TV programme, so maybe it’s the HD and larger screens that make them appear more distracting, because I’m sure they used to be a little more discreet. I’m not being funny, but this is supposed to be a service for the deaf, not the blind, right?  I mean, she looks more like an extra who’s ruining each scene by staring at the camera whilst having some sort of epileptic hand fit! In a bright red top!

 (The following day I did run this by a friend and they agreed, saying, ‘I tried watching one of the Jaws sequels one night. Not that great with someone STANDING IN FRONT OF THE FUCKING SHARK!  Indeed, those Jaws sequels are dodgy enough without that..)Am I being mean spirited, I ask myself? Probably. I can only put my curmudgeonliness down to knowing that by not getting enough sleep, I will likely suffer all the more tomorrow. I have CFS/ME and lack of sleep can be lethal. It would probably mean that tomorrow, i’ll be so dizzy I might need to use the fold away walking stick I now keep in my bag for occasional use. Not that it helps much.

Thinking of the stick  suddnely reminds me of something Ian Dury said to me years ago. Which then sets off a whole other train of thought about disability and where it’s made a lasting impression on me. I flash on another memory, a deaf signer who I once met and saw signing the filthiest language you ever heard!Then another recollection, an amazing guy I saw at the Barcelona Paralympics, joins my one man nostalgia party, and before I know it, I’ve forgotten the TV and am lost in thoughts of all things disabled. So I’ll tell you what Ian Dury said to me, what I saw the deaf signer sign and what I witnessed at the Paralympics. But first..

Mid 1960’s

My first awareness of disability would have been my dad and his old war pals who’d lost limbs and digits courtesy of German shrapnel, but they were people I knew and saw every day, so it was normal to me. But my first introduction to the traditional idea of disability would have been, the plastic children with slots in their heads.As as kid, I would go to the shops with my mum and there in the entrance of the butcher’s or the grocer’s  would often be standing a little plastic figure of what were then termed, ‘handicapped kids’. They were charity boxes. There were several different ones. ( probably now collecter’s items). One was a boy in callipers, who had polio, there was a kid in a wheelchair one and another one with a guide dog.

They made me feel sad and I would sometimes ask my mum for a penny to put in the slot.. But the slots were often bunged up with dried chewing gum. I would then lay in bed at night and feel sorry for these kids. They had terrible things wrong with them. I mean imagine being born with a slot in your head..

Another early consciousness raiser was the kid’s TV programme,Vision On. Anyone of a certain age will remember this delightful show presented by Pat Keysell and Tony Hart, tailored specifically for a deaf audience with signing, lots of visuals and little speech, but which seemed to appeal to everyone.

It was, in essence, a studio based arts and crafts affair but with an array of brilliant offbeat segments, like Humphrey The Tortoise, The Prof and of course, The Gallery. In this segement, artwork sent in by children was displayed over a real earworm of a tune. Then the presenter would sign and speak the immortal line ‘I’m sorry, we cannot return any of your paintings’’.

That line would often be used by comedians of the day, accompanied by some elaborate cod signing and that voice that people do when they impersonate deaf people talking. when addressing someone in the audience they deemed to be slow or ‘backward’. It was telling of the un PC time we lived in. I imagine there’s some old dinosaur club comic, somewhere still steadfastly using this gag today.

Suffice to say that, being a kid’s programme,Vision On was on at tea time and not in the middle of the night. I can’t think of another TV show since, aimed at a minority that had such a mainstream spot in the schedules. Which brings me to another tea time show. One that I used to appear on myself..
03:00 am
I glance breifly at the telly again, interrupting my train of thought.Yes, the lady in red is still signing for England or should I say, Team GB?  I wonder why signed TV is always relegated to these anti-social hours. Because, as far as i’m aware, people with hearing problems do watch TV throughout the day. Or maybe there’s a subculture I’m unaware of, people with hearing problems who all set their alarms, ready to arise as one, in the early hours to feast greedily on the images, signed by the red lady and her ilk, like aurally challeneged vampires. Dawn of the Deaf. But I digress..
 Early 80’s
I was working on a pop show, The Tube, doing bits of poetry and comedy. One week Ian Dury was due to appear. I’d been a total fan since he’d first appeared on TOTP singing What a Waste and loved his subsequent New Boots and Panties album in 77. Everyone loved Dury. He was a sort of New Wave Willy Wonka, with street cred. There was a period though, between his initial storm of success and becoming a national treasure, when he wasn’t that hip. New wave had become New Romanticism and Durannies were the new Duryites.The routine on The Tube was that the bands did studio rehearsals on the Thursday, before the live show on Friday. On Thursday night I was in the hotel bar along with some of the show’s presenters, researchers and techies. We were pleasantly surprised when who should appear in the doorway, but Dury himself. Everyone perked up, as the bands who appeared sometimes kept themselves to themselves. In he came.

He was flanked by a woman, his personal assistant, and a young guy, a sort of minder. I was struck, as he entered at just how physically fragile he actually seemed. Shocked almost. I’d only ever seen him on TOTP and suchlike and as he hobbled in, towards our group, everyone was really happy to see him, as you would be. Then he thumbed his nose at us. We smiled.

The production assistant, a sweet soul, not at all a media luvvie type, got up asked him if he’d like a drink. He replied. ‘Get a fuckin wheelchair, you cunt’’.

There were a few nervous laughs as he took a seat. His assistant looked sheepish and the minder stood by the door seemed embarrassed as Dury launched into a verbal attack on everyone in the group. If you remember his song Plaistow Patricia from New Boots and Panties, the opening line goes,  ”Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks”. That was a fair summary the extent of his communication with us that night. ‘Get a fucking wheelchair, you cunt’ became an oft repeated phrase. When he eventually turned his attention to me, he said I should get a walking stick and  thumbed his nose again.

This general rollocking went on for a couple of hours. (General Rollocking sounds like it could have been a track on New Boots and Panties, between Clever Trevor and Plaistow Patricia) Too sustained to be a wind up surely. And if it was supposed to be anti media bashing, the Tyne Tees lot were a pretty down to earth bunch so it all seemed a bit misdirected.

When People eventually began drifting off to bed, with Ian’s gruff tones still slagging them off as they left, I went over to him and said goodnight. Then, for some reason, something to do with being determined to not dislike him, I suppose, I leant down and kissed the side off his cheek. He didn’t flinch, but seemed a little surprised and I’d like to think the softening in his eyes wasn’t imagined. I glanced briefly at his withered leg, (can I put a penny in the little boy, mum?)  then as I straightened, glanced down at his head. No slot.

This wasn’t then end of the Dury story though, as there was a second encounter, the following night, after the live show. But I’ll get back to that..

Eary 90’s

Jumping forward a decade to another flurry of filthy language, in a different place.

Remember I mentioned I once met a deaf signer? It was at comedy benefit gig for a disabled charity, at Shoreditch Town Hall, in East London. The audience was a mix of people with and without disabilities and the organisers thought it would be appropriate to have a live deaf signer onstage for the evening. Now, if you’ve been to a live comedy show in the last thirty years or so, you will no doubt be aware that the language can get a little fruity to say the least, and the subject matter can be, shall we say..wide-ranging.

So a few feet away from us, on stage was this straight-laced diminutive looking female (not at all like the big brash signer on the TV I’d just watched). As a stand up, you’re used to being on stage alone so it felt a little strange to begin with then you sort of forgot they were there. For a while. Untiil it suddnely dawned on you what you’d just said..

Every comedian on that night, at some point stopped to marvel and shake their heads at how this woman had found the correct hand movements to interpret some choice phrase or other. I recall Mark Thomas doing a bit about The Spice Girls, ending on the words..’’corporate fuck puppets’’. Big laugh, then he glanced at the signer and got a bigger one!  We all knew what he was thinking. How the fuck did you sign that?

During my set, and for my sins, I was talking about anal love beads, saying that up north people are more robust and need something  more substantial than those flimsy things you see in sex shops. I mimed removing said item, then, in a strong northern accent, ”Yorkshire definition of anal love beads? Six cricket balls on a skipping rope’!

I glanced at the woman stage left, and said, ”I bet that’s the first time you’ve had to sign the words, ‘anal love beads’. She signed my question to her, back to the audience. But didn’t answer. Which got one of the biggest laughs of the night.

That night was the most disabled people i’d personally encountered together in one place at the same time. However, that would soon change..

Barcelona 92

Not long after that gig, I went on holiday with a mate, to Barcelona, for a few days and to our great delight realised we’d be there during the Paralympics.

It was all free and we spent spent a memorable day at the stadium in the blazing sun. We saw, amongst other events, some 100m blind sprinters, with their running guides, shouting as they ran alongside them. There was amputee table tennis. I remember one player wearing a built up shoe!  How quaint and odd that would that look now, at the side of Oscar Pretorius’ state-of-the-art prosthetics?
As an added bonus, each night near the stadium, again, all free, punters were treated to the spectacle of the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc. A multi-coloured aquatic display, that you can’t really do justice to in words, All neon spurting and spouting, with the amplified tones of ‘Barcelona’ by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe resounding all around. Sounds cheesy but it knocked your socks off. Or your built up shoe..

But my abiding memory of that visit wasn’t the fountain, or the even the athletes. It was the sheer volume of people with disabilties just hanging out. The whole of the centre of Barca was abuzz and teeming with confident looking disabled people. You might think that sounds patronizing but this was 20 years ago and I have never before seen so many people with disabilities en masse in one place and not looking marginalised.

Barcelona has quite a small contained centre. The main boulevard, The Ramblas has, snaking off it, dozens of tiny little side streets full of bars and bodegas. There was a charged atmosphere and disabled people were not just highly visible, but really having it large. Dangerously so, in the case of one particularly boisterous group of guys in wheelchairs who had to be warned by the police for playfully trying to nudge each other’s chairs into the oncoming traffic!

But the memory that sticks the most, was one night in one of the more popular, crowded smoky bars off The Ramblas. Me and my mate had managed to get seats, but the place was full of people, standing and leaning, on sticks and in sitting in wheelchairs. There was little room to manoeuvre. Then the door opened and in came a one legged guy on crutches. He paused by the door, then leant his crutches against the wall. He paused, looked over the crowd shouted something, then bounded, like a human pogo stick across the room,without stopping, the crowd parting to let him through. When he got to the other end of the room, he fed change into a cigarrette machine, then turned, and clutching his fags, bounced all the way back again. He then picked up his crutches and without a backward glance, disappeared out into the warm night..

03:35.am
I’m back in the room, the signer is still on the TV and though I’m feeling less grumpy, buoyed by pleasant reminiscences, I’m still wide awake and  I’ll definitely be in a mess of exhaustion, dizziness and pain tomorrow. .The walking stick beckons, I reckon. The one Ian Dury told me to get. All those years ago. Back when I had the luxury of living properly, without this fucked up condition that has blighted my life for the last few years. Disabled me. But back then..back

then..

….Friday. And The Tube has just finished. It was a good one and all the bands went down well. A group of us are in the pub opposite Tyne Tees TV. The mood is upbeat, the adrenaline of  live telly still coursing through our veins, when we notice the familiar minder and the personal assistant, and then Ian Dury himself, entering the pub.
 
We stand around recounting details of the previous night’s bizarre encounter with him, to the people who hadn’t been there. But I still had nothing but respect for the man. I couldn’t dislike him if I tried. He wrote Sex n Drugs n Rock n Roll, Billericay Dickie, and Spasticus Autisticus, He can call me what he likes. Then his assistant comes over and gives one of the show’s presenters a hand written note. She says it’s from Ian, then leaves. us all looking curiously at the missive. We all crowd around and read. It says ‘Sorry for last night. I hope I was nothing more than a boring little prick. I guess I was just nervous about doing the show. Love Ian.’’
 
Over the next half an hour, two or three more similar notes are despatched via the assistant, but there is none for me. Then just when I thought I was  going to be left out, over trots the assistant one last time and hands me my own personalised Dury message. It was written on the back on an envelope.
 
”Dear Mark. Here are some records you should listen to.
 
(He’d listed a few, one by Charlie Mingus and a couple of others that I don’t recall, and then…)
 
P.S. You’re fucking useless”
 
Love Ian xx
 

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