Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas And The Most Dangerous Service Of The Year

It is Christmas eve and the big day hurtles towards us like a runaway snowball. I have two small boys who are wound up to fever pitch and vibrating with excitement. So much so, that if I could find a way to harness the energy they are emitting the world fuel crisis could be averted.

We've just come home from the most dangerous church service of the year, Christingle. For those of you not familiar with this peculiarly Anglican service, it's a children's carol service involving flaming oranges. Imagine 3 or 400 people, many of them children, holding oranges with lit candles stuck in the top, and waving them around whilst singing Away In A Manger. I make it my business to sit as near to a fire exit as possible. I'm pleased to announce that once again this year there was no fatal conflagration.

Matty and Sam took part in the nativity play as a king and a shepherd respectively. Sam ran down the aisle shouting “We're going to Bethlehem to see the bay-beee!” Very sweet.

Thank you for reading 'How To Be An Inspiration`. Assuming I survive the next few days I'll try and post again on or around New Years eve.

Merry Christmas to everyone reading this, what ever your faith or personal belief. Above all, let this be a time of peace for you. Even if you have children.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

A Weird Day

I wasn't intending on posting today but Sam made me laugh.

With fairness in mind the boys alternate opening the Advent calendar. Obviously the aim is to be the one who opens the double sized window on Christmas eve. Sam was delighted, and not a little surprised, when Matty graciously said he could go first.

And so the pattern was established, Sam opening on the odd numbered days and Matty opening on the even. Sam takes his duty very seriously but sometimes loses track of who's turn it is. Which is why I was puzzled and then amused when he came bounding up to me today asking, “Daddy, is today a weird day?” He was disappointed when I told him it wasn't.

Friday, 19 December 2008

A Door In The Life

The two men stood in our living room and sucked air in through their teeth. One of them took out a tape measure and checked again. He shook his head and turned to me.

“Do you mind if I measure your chair?” he asked. One of the men was from a company that had tendered to replace our back door, the other was the council surveyor. “You are going to lose about 3 or 4cm because of the new door jamb. Is that a problem?” “Yes,” I replied firmly. “It is.”

Welcome to the long running saga of our back door. We live in a ground floor flat (apartment) with a small back garden (yard). Our back door opens onto a ridiculously long ramp that allows access to the garden or the back gate. Both the door and the gate are electronically operated by a remote controlled entry system which was initially installed when we first moved in some 9 years ago. The back door worked beautifully for a few months and then broke. People came out and sucked air through their teeth and determined it had broken because the wood of which the back door is made had swelled in the wet winter weather. This had caused the electric door opening motor to burn out as it tried unsuccessfully to open the stuck door. The motor was repaired. The motor burned out again.

For a long time nothing happened. The motor remained burned out. We were left with a back door that was harder to open than an ordinary one because it had a heavy door opening mechanism uselessly attached to it like a particularly uninspiring piece of installation art. Eventually we disconnected the mechanism and used the back door like any normal mortal would. This effectively meant that I could only use the door if someone opened it for me. Fortunately I had children.

Years went by. The original installer of the door opening mechanism went out of business. We had another door opener... er, child. Periodically some one would come out to suck more air through teeth and explain why their door opening mechanism wouldn't be suitable for opening our door. Then one day I realised something awful. Soon the 2nd baby door opener would be going to school full-time and not be available for egress facilitation. We redoubled our efforts and made a fuss until the man from the council found a company to install a non-biological door opener. For a while everything was fine. The door would open at the push of a button on a tiny remote control and I could come and go freely throughout the summer. But...

The wooden back door continued to swell in wet weather. The new, improved, non-humanoid door opening mechanism is beginning to feel the strain. The door is beginning to stick. The solution? A new door. Hence the presence of the two men in the living room this morning. The problem? The new door will be 3 to 4cm narrower than the old one because the door jamb will be larger.

3 to 4cm may not seem a lot but you can't make a wheelchair 'breathe in'. The man from the council has gone away to think. I'll let you know when he's thunk.

Oh, and just as he was leaving Polly pointed out that the electrically operated back gate is beginning to crack. The poor man winced. I think I saw a tear in his eye as he left counting the days to his retirement.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Christmas Fairy Monologue


La la la la la la, hosanna in the highest. There! [SHE HOLDS UP A RATHER WONKY WAND.] Now where's that tiara?


Oh hello. No, don't mind me, I'm nearly done.


Does that look straight to you?


Ah, look at this. A card from Cinderella. "Dear Brenda, Merry Christmas, love Cinders and Charming. XXX. PS. Please can you send me your recipe for Pumpkin pie."

What palaver hey? Every year it's the same. The sound of the last firework dies away and Asda is discounting mince pies on the telly. Wham, bam, thank you mam, it's the festive season. Mind you, you won't hear me complaining. It may only be seasonal work but being the fairy on top of the Christmas tree is a lot better than scraping a living collecting children's teeth from under pillows. People go round sticking Fluoride in toothpaste but they don't think of the consequences. There are those of us for whom bad teeth are a source of income.

Being the fairy on top of the Christmas tree is dead brill. For a start you get a good view of what's going on. And don't it go on.

First there's all that business with Father Christmas. What's that all about, hey? A fat bloke in a red suit squeezes his way down the chimney and leaves a load of stuff. The first time I saw him I thought he was a fly-tipper.

I had a peek one year. Do you know he arrives on a flying sleigh? It's only got one light and that's red. It's stuck on the nose of a reindeer. That can't be legal.

Oh and them poor elves he has. He never lets them have a swig of the sherry people leave out for him. Mind you, it's probably a good thing. They're vicious when they're drunk.

Do you like my wings? I'm not sure myself. I think they make my bum look big.

I want a figure like that fashion doll they gave the little girl here last year. Ooh she was lovely. She had long golden hair and fabulous clothes. She was 44-18-24. Look at me, 44-44-44. Well it comes from being made out of the inside of a toilet roll.

You wouldn't believe the turkey the family has bought. It's the size of a small caravan. They always buy too much. No one needs a hundred weight of Brussels Sprouts. Not even in Belgium.

That's the thing about Christmas. Everyone does things to excess. Have you seen outside? They've put up some outdoor decorations. There are so many lights out there a jumbo jet landed on the garage roof.

And what about this tree I'm supposed to sit on. It's huge. There's still a family of squirrels hibernating in the trunk. It's got so many baubles hanging off it it looks like a pawnbrokers convention. And it's got those fairy lights that flash and play music. It's going to be like sitting on top of a high pitched discotheque.

Still, I shouldn't complain. It's that lot in the corner I feel sorry for. Apparently it's called a crib scene. Now I have to be honest, for quite a while I didn't realise that it had anything to do with Christmas. But I've been talking to one of the camels and he explained it all to me.

It seems there's a baby over there. It's in a manger. Apparently it's his birthday. The poor thing, fancy being born at Christmas when there's so much going on.

Anyway, according to the camel, Mum and Dad couldn't find anywhere to stop and have the baby. They obviously hadn't booked in advance which is what you should do in the holiday season. And so they ended up in a stable. It's very picturesque, just not very hygienic.

So then, the baby is born and next thing they know all these people start appearing. There's a whole load of shepherds complete with sheep. There's a donkey and then three kings turned up on camels bearing gifts. The kings not the camels. Gold, frankincense and fur. It should be myrrh but that broke off a few years back and when they tried to glue it back on - the cat got in the way. On top of all this there are several angels and a whopping great big star made out of bottle tops.

I feel sorry the child, I really do. He's dragged out every Christmas and made a fuss of. Then before you know it he's back in a box and shoved up out of the way in the attic. You never have a chance to get to know him. It's a pity because I get the feeling there's a whole lot more to him than a guest slot in the school nativity and a chorus of 'Away in a Manger'.

Right, it's time to climb the tree. I hope they've got one of those non-drop ones. Those pine needles get everywhere.

 Stephen Deal, 1998

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Language Of Disability

If the title of this post has led you to expect a deconstruction of the social model of disability or an analysis of inclusive versus exclusive constructs of language then I'm sorry to have misled you. This post is about something far less esoteric, it is about the look of incomprehension on the faces of people I speak to. In short, this is just another Deal rant.

I would consider myself to be reasonably adept at expressing my thoughts. I can, if required, turn a phrase. Indeed people have, over the years, actually paid me to do so. I have written for television, had books published, shows performed in front of audiences of thousands and have given countless seminars and workshops. I could go on and mention the few times I have actually appeared on television and had my opinion sought, or the radio programmes in which I have featured or the occasions I have addressed auditoriums packed to their 3500 seat capacity. I would mention these things not to boast but to reinforce the fact that I am not some mono-syllabic, tongue-tied person unable to communicate and string sentences together.

I am the first to admit that when I am ill with a chest infection my diction is affected due to the emphasis of words being altered to match my breathing. But even so, I have occasionally led workshops whilst unknowingly suffering with double pneumonia. I also know that first thing in the morning, after a night on the ventilator, my voice is croaky. But a few sips of water or, better yet, coffee soon sorts that out. When I am particularly tired I know my voice slurs a little and becomes unclear, and I know that in a noisy environment I find it difficult to project my voice with sufficient volume to overcome the surrounding distractions. I know that the muscles in my face, particularly around the mouth are affected and means that it is difficult for people to take cues from the way my mouth shape the words, as we all unconsciously do. All this I know.

But, for the love of God, I do not understand the look of blank incomprehension I get whenever I open my mouth to speak to a stranger. I know that on the telephone, especially when talking to some call centre located in India, accents combined with the Dystrophy can make things complicated, so I go to some lengths to avoid such conversations. But in the real world, face to face, I do not believe I am completely unintelligible. And yet, time and time again, be it in shops or at home with new carers, with tradesmen or with Jehovah's Witnesses at the front door, I am continually met with looks of befuddled bewilderment and the aforementioned incomprehension. Okay, if the fate of the world rested with their crystal clear understanding of every word I utter, then a request for clarification is understandable.

“Did you say cut the blue wire or the red wire to defuse this 1000 mega-tonne nuclear device ticking down from 60 seconds and located in a densely populated city?” In such circumstances I would understand that you would want to be certain you had caught my meaning and not take a wild guess, but if I am waiting at a till, clutching a packet of biscuits and waving a debit card, which is more likely; that I am asking your opinion of the economic downturn or that I am asking for the price of the packet of Chocolate Digestives? Looking at your colleague and mouthing “What did he say?” does not help the situation. Equally, if you are helping me to sit up in bed and I ask you to let go of me, it is because I need to find my own point of balance, you calling for Polly to come and translate for you not only slows things down, it means you are not considering the context of the mysterious sounds I am uttering. “For God's sake, LET GO! You are going to KILL ME” as the weight of your arm pushes me over the side of the bed.

The fact of the matter, as I see it, is that some people see the disability and expect not to understand me. The more disabled I look, the less effort they put into trying. Wait a minute I hear you say. Perhaps you are deluding yourself, Stephen. Perhaps you are an incomprehensibly mumbling, speech slurring simpleton. But just moments ago the doorbell went and the groceries were delivered by a Spanish driver who seemed to understand me perfectly well and put the delivery exactly where I specified without any problem at all. And yet, when a parcel came yesterday, the delivery man, who appeared English, couldn't understand me at all when I said that yes, I would sign his delivery note. After asking me several times and me replying “Yes I can” in as many ways as I could manage, he gave up and said he'd sign it himself. It was almost as if he didn't expect to understand me, so he couldn't.

So at the risk of being misunderstood - I'll write slowly and clearly – Thank you for reading. Or as some people out there will hear – My fish pushes wheelbarrows.

Friday, 12 December 2008

They Came From The Sky

“There are some men here,” said Godfrey, my carer, shaking me awake. “They come from Sky.” At last! I thought. Aliens. I always knew Erich von Daniken wasn't completely bonkers. “They have come to install cable.” It was 8.45 this morning. Not exactly the crack of dawn I know, but I was still half asleep. “Shall I let them in?” Godfrey was looming over me. Aliens wanted to install cable in my home. They come from outer-space and they come with power tools. Hang on..,

A few weeks ago I had made a terrible mistake and endangered my marriage by allowing a TV aerial socket to be installed in completely the wrong place. (See The Wrong Thing.) Now the contractors were back to make good my calamitous error by moving the socket to a Polly approved location and installing another in the bedroom. Godfrey continued to stand patiently awaiting instructions. I dimly recalled Polly saying they were coming today, but she would never have arranged for them to come before 10.30am, because she knows that it can take until then for the carers to prise me from my bed, get me up, washed and dressed and infuse me with jet black coffee. I blinked at Godfrey a couple of times and tried to speak. All that came out was a croak. My mouth in the morning, after a night on the ventilator, is drier than a camels sense of humour. Godfrey gave up. “I will tell them they have to wait.”

Some 20 minutes later, as Godfrey and Abby eased a jumper over my head, I asked where the contractors were. The flat was eerily silent: “They wait,” said Godfrey. Abby nodded in confirmation. I wheeled down the hallway and into the living room. It was empty. I glanced through the window. There, in the garden, stood three men, huddled together in the drizzle. The electrically operated gate had swung closed, trapping them like exotic zoo specimens in an outdoor enclosure. They watched morosely, through the window as Abby struggled to fit the footplates on to the wheelchair and Godfrey brought in a large mug of steaming coffee and placed it carefully on the table. Satisfied that all was ready he went to the door, unlocked it and opened it. “You may come in now,” he said to the three shivering workmen, loaded down with drills and co-axil cable, and who were, inevitably Polish, with barely enough English between them to ask if you needed a conservatory built. They glowered at Godfrey who smiled benignly back at them. “He is ready now. You may start.”

I haven't been able to check the socket in the bedroom yet. I won't be surprised if it only receives Polish reality TV documentaries about paint drying.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Bring On The Girls

By early 1981 I was signed off work at the Civil Service, in a fair degree of pain as the muscles in my back wasted, unable to walk more than 50 metres at a time, and lacking any direction in life. But on the plus side I could drive. It was the single greatest pleasure of my life. I would go for long drives simply because I could. I enjoyed a sense freedom that I could not achieve in any other way.

Aside from the previously mentioned friends, Paul, Jay and Darren, I was also spending time with others; those ineffably mysterious, bewildering and contradictory creatures, girls. From the safety of a quarter of a century, a happy marriage and two children later I look back on what was at times a confusing experience with a wry smile, and in case any are reading this, a definite fondness. Having always gone to co-ed schools girls had always been part of my life, albeit a particularly mystifying part. As far as the girls at school were concerned there may as well have been a perspex wall between me and them, such was their unattainability. Fortunately the church youth group provided at least the theoretical possibility of social contact. My first girlfriend, when I was 13, was a girl from an associated youth group from the other side of the city called Jackie. Jackie was small, blonde and disturbingly curvaceous. We would meet in town and hold hands while wandering around the shops. I bought her a necklace for her 14th birthday. The relationship lasted a little over 5 weeks during which time we grew apart. Had I known the dearth of relationships I was about to enter into I may well have made more of an effort, but truthfully she scared me.

Years later my ability to drive and the fact I had my own car increased the opportunities I had to interact with the female of the species. Unfortunately it coincided with the significant deterioration in the MD which undermined any burgeoning self-confidence I might have felt. The growing obviousness of my disability and the almost palpable sense of desperation I must have exuded limited my potential as boyfriend material and I entered in to a series of 'nearly' relationships.

In amongst all this hormonal mayhem I did strike it lucky, if not romantically, with a couple of girls who have since gone on to become life long friends. During my time off work from the Civil Service I would often meet up for lunch with a girl who had been at both my school and my church. Michelle was a lot of fun to be with during a difficult time while I struggled to find some direction for my life. It was nice to have an attractive friend to just hang out with (as opposed to my not so attractive male friends) and I both appreciated and enjoyed her company. And, on the off chance you are reading this Michelle, it's your turn to write.

(And yes, Jacq, you were the other one.)

Pleasant though spending time with friends was, and despite the uncertainties pertaining to my physical condition in the future, I knew I had to move on. It was time to go back to education. I applied to Southlands College, part of the Roehampton Institute, which at the time had its degrees validated by the University of London and was set along side the common in Wimbledon, to read for a combined studies Bachelors Degree in Psychology and Religious Studies. It was a decision that transformed my life and took me in a whole new direction.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Dear Mary - A Christmas Letter

Dear Mary,

Oh my poor, poor girl. A stable! I’m so sorry. It sounds like a nightmare. I just thank God that the baby is okay. Jesus is a lovely name but what happened to calling him Immanuel?

I’m not sure that it’s right that you should be entertaining guests so soon. Did you make sure those shepherds washed? I read somewhere that sheep carry all sorts of diseases. As for Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh - What kind of gifts are they for a newborn? And they call themselves wise. Men! Where is Orient R anyway?

Regarding the problem with the bright star all I can suggest is that you make sure the shutters are firmly closed at night. You must make sure you get a few good nights sleep.

I can’t wait to see the baby. A newborn always give hope for the future.

Write soon dear and give my love to Joe.



PS. Did you get the swaddling cloth I sent? I’m knitting you a shawl. It’s blue.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A Civil Servant

I joined the civil service in late October 1979. After the Youth Opportunity Programme sponsored make work employment at the Fire Brigade this was my first proper job. I entered on the lowest rung of the ladder as a Clerical Assistant, there were cleaners with more authority than me in the South West Regional Office of the Manpower Services Commission. I spent my days writing out Giro cheques for, ironically, people on YOP schemes all over the west country. It was an open plan office, where we sat in little clusters of desks, wreathed in cigarette smoke, and overseen by a young man called Brian.

Brian's real interest in life was women's hockey, which tells you everything you need to know about him. He passed the time between matches by micro-managing every aspect of Giro writing, and particularly mine, with the kind of anal-retentiveness that makes for a good junior civil servant and, presumably, a great women's hockey coach.

My colleagues were a nice enough bunch of mostly middle-aged women who chain-smoked through out the day and seemed to talk about nothing other than various operations they had had, and a number of younger women with unfathomably complicated love lives. Towards the end of each day we would stuff the Giro cheques into envelopes, ensuring that the hand written addresses were visible in the little transparent windows, and stick a postage stamp on it. (In the top right corner. You see, I hadn't forgotten my life skills training from earlier in the summer. (See In The Summer Of '79)). After several months of this daily routine we received a franking machine which did away with the need to lick stamps.

Being the most junior of junior civil servants meant I was not required to think. So to compensate I wrote scurrilous articles for a very unofficial office newsletter which was pinned to the notice board secretly during lunch breaks. But the best thing about the job was that it made absolutely no demands on my spare time. This was good because I was happily involved with helping to run the youth group at the church, and since learning to drive was in a position to mcct up with friends like Darren, who at the time was, for some reason, living in Cheddar (where the cheese comes from), and Jay who had dropped out of University and was kicking around like me.

For a while Jay and I shared a house that was so cold that the only way to stop the milk from freezing was to put it in the fridge. As a result we would often eat out, visiting a series of restaurants on a regular basis. Paul joined us for a few weeks but sensibly decided it was too cold and went back to the warmth of his parent's house. Eventually our landlord sold the house and I went back to live at home. Jay moved into the first of a series of bcdsits where I would visit him and from which we would continue visiting restaurants on rotation. All the while I was finding walking more difficult and was in near constant pain as the muscles in my back weakened. My car, a white Mini, was the saving grace, giving me freedom to move around the city, freeing me from walking distances and waiting for busses.

The highlight of each working day came when I got to sit at the newly acquired franking machine and, while feeding envelopes through one at a time, got to enjoy the panoramic view of Bristol from the 5th floor office window. I would watch seagulls wheeling beneath me and the comings and goings of the busy city centre. It was my 20 minutes of mindless relief from the hand-cramping Giro writing. But then, one day Brian looked in the staff manual and realised that a lowly Clerical Assistant was too junior a creature to operate such important equipment. I was relegated back to sealing envelopes. Enough was enough. I determined to make my escape. But escape to where?

Then, one day in early 1981, I found I could barely walk from my car to the office anymore. My back was in excruciating pain. A doctor signed me off work and warned me it would never get better. I quit the Civil Service and swore never, ever to work in an office again.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Escape To The North Pole

Yesterday, Polly and I picked the boys up from school and we all headed to the North Pole. The North Pole had temporarily relocated to a garden centre a few miles away, although Sam maintained with absolute certainty that it was usually located west of Africa. Matty was less than enthusiastic about the adventure, maintaining that both the North Pole and garden centres were boring.

Matty's attitude changed markedly when he saw that we were following signs to Santa's Grotto. At 8, Matty is beginning to harbour uncertainty about the whole Father Christmas mythology, but faced with the prospect of a face to face encounter decided to hedge his bets and repent his doubts and embrace the fable. An elf at a cash register welcomed us and invited the children to meet Santa. As we entered the grotto a sign read '2 hours queuing time from this point' and a winding path led off to the left. Fortunately our quick escape from school meant we were ahead of the crowds and the grotto was, for the most part empty. We wound our way along the path, pausing to admire animatronic elves preparing for Christmas, making and wrapping presents with mechanical efficiency while others played seasonal musak and loaded a sleigh. All good fun but I confess to being relieved we weren't enjoying them for 2 hours.

Eventually we reached a sign declaring '10 minutes queuing time from here` and joined the line of excited children. Every few minutes an elf, slightly self conscious in his green elven attire, would open a door and beckon the next group into Santa's living room. Some long 10 minutes later it was our turn.

A suitably convincing Father Christmas, resplendently bearded, greeted the boys and determined if they'd been naughty or good. Assured of their saintliness he enquired after their
preferences regarding presents but was thankfully vague about the likelihood of them receiving anything specific. He posed with the boys for a couple of photographs and finally, prompted by the elf, doled out presents, before the busy elf ushered us out from the North Pole and back into the garden centre.

After a much needed cup of coffee, during which the boys unwrapped their gifts and discovered that they both had age appropriate construction sets, we followed signs to Santa's Reindeer. The reindeer were in a high security enclosure, having last year made a bid for freedom, escaping to be found grazing on a round-about a mile or so away on Christmas day. This lot were going nowhere. I was surprised not to see gun turrets. After a few minutes of watching them eat carrots and forge identity documents we headed for home, humming the theme tune to The Great Escape.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Fabulous Adventures Of Wheelchair Man

Sometimes you paint yourself into a corner. I, like countless other parents around the globe, tell my children bedtime stories. And when I can't stand another Horrid Henry or Captain Underpants story I make one up with the help of Matty and Sam. By far and away the favourite of these made up bedtime stories are The Fabulous Adventures of Wheelchair Man, in which the eponymous hero and his two sidekicks, Speedster Sam and Destroyer, save the world and, not infrequently, the entire solar system. Wheelchair Man is a mild mannered father of two with a wheelchair that, at the press of a button, transforms into a flying, laser shooting Superchair. The boys, who chose their own hero names and powers, super speed and super strength respectively, assist their father in his missions to save the world and demand disabled access to the Fortress of Evil. All the adventures, alien invasion not withstanding, have to be fitted in around school and homework, or, as in the case of the current adventure, during school holidays, because saving the world is all well and good but if you can't read and write how will you be able to understand the instruction manual of a top secret space ship?

The stories have a somewhat eccentric narrative because both Matty and Sam like to fully participate in the telling, so anything from monkeys to red-armoured scorpion robots have to be incorporated. Matty, who has improvisational skills to dazzle Robin Williams, likes epic adventures with lots of battles and cliffhangers. Sam is currently most concerned with finding the exact right word to initiate the transformation from school boy to superhero. “Transformulation!” seems to do the trick at the moment. However, since each metamorphosis requires getting out of bed and spinning around whilst shouting the trigger word, we tend to limit the number of times school boy Sam is required to become Speedster Sam each episode.

Currently, the super team are on a remote tropical island helping a team of scientists to install 'the tower of electricity', which will help solve the worlds energy problems. They've already battled pirates and now, whilst exploring the island and rescuing a trapped monkey, have been caught in a deadly trap themselves. With Destroyer down a spike filled pit, Speedster Sam entangled in a net hanging from a tree, and Wheelchair Man faced with a ramp steeper than 1:12 (and a huge number of guns), can they escape? If yes, then how? Let me know, there are only a couple of hours until bedtime!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

In The Summer Of '79

I left school in the summer of 1979, at the dawn of the Thatcherite era and the end of disco. I had not applied to any colleges and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. My parents were in the process of moving house and everything felt very up in the air. My friends were moving on with their lives; Paul to be a rock star, gigging all over the country and Europe; Darren, to manage a shoe shop in Weston-Super-Mare; and Jay to study Astrophysics at University College London. For want of anything else to do I joined a government Youth Opportunities Programme.

The YOP was one of an endless series of schemes to shoehorn young people in to the workforce. Spiralling unemployment meant that young people with few or no qualifications were finding getting work difficult and so were sent on courses to learn skills. I found myself in a group of 30 or so, mostly young men,, learning how to write job application letters and where to stick the stamp on the envelope. Even with my pitiful handful of A level results I was massively over qualified for the course. I once spent a whole afternoon learning how to give imaginary change to imaginary shoppers for imaginary goods. I would have happily endured this less than mentally challenging employment substitute indefinitely, mastering such skills as shoe lace tying and bottom wiping one after another until I was as full of life skills is it was possible to be. However, the course was held in a converted Georgian house in a road off Park Street, the steepest shopping street in Bristol, a half mile walk uphill from the bus stop. However tempting it was to learn how to open a tin or polish your shoes, the walk was too much. It was time to move on.

I was placed, courtesy of the YOP, in the administration department of the local fire brigade, where it was my highly supervised job to procure provisions and equipment for our fire fighting heroes. My first job was to locate and purchase a stool for the brigade drummer to sit upon. It is responsibility like this that builds a man. This was my first experience working in an office. There were five, including me, in the procurement department, a microcosm of offices everywhere. One man stood out, and even to this day remains the rudest man I have ever known.

George was in his mid 50s, balding, with a comb-over. He wore a brown jacket, usually with a yellow shirt straining to close across an ample belly. His nose and cheeks were a fine network of red, broken capillaries, and tufts of grey hair sprouted from his ears.. In his desk draw he kept a flat bottle of Bell's whisky from which he took surreptitious slurps through out the day, winking at me and saying it was his medicine. Most mornings, but especially on a Monday, he would crash into the office, some ten to fifteen minutes late, plonk himself at his desk, and ask each of us in turn how much sex we'd had over weekend, and in what positions. Maureen, to my left, a married woman in her 40s would sniff and tell him to mind his own business. Colin, who I would guess to have been in this early 30s would make up a ridiculous figure and go back to reading the Sun, while Barry, who was supposed to be in charge, but was a good 20 years younger than George, would flush crimson and asked George if he had completed the Leyland order in an attempt to change the subject. George ignored him. He would lean across his desk, directly opposite mine and ask me if I'd 'got any' over the weekend. He seemed convinced that as a teenager I must be promiscuous and wanted every detail. Disappointed with my mumbled and evasive answers he would regale us with his own exploits in various clubs through out the city and tell racist jokes.

When ever I hear people moaning about how PC everything is these days I think or the odious George. And even though I was barely 18 at the time I still feel ashamed that I didn't stand up against him. Even in 1979 he was a dinosaur and I can't believe he was tolerated, let alone excused because he was 'only joking'.

I was only with the fire brigade for about 4 months before moving to the civil service, ironically to work in the department that paid young people on YOP schemes.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Wall-E Wants A Cracker

I would like to tell you about my time in the Civil Service. A tale of cigarette smoke and seagulls. But at this moment I am distracted by a pain in my right foot and I can't concentrate on anything else. My foot naturally would turn inwards on it's side. There is a point about the size of a penny where all the weight comes to rest. If I try to place the foot in such a way as to relieve the pressure then this stresses muscles further up the leg. It is coming to the point where I am considering judicious use of a chainsaw to remove the offending appendage.

On Saturday it was my friend Stuart's 35th birthday. To celebrate, some 40 or so of his friends and their families, including us, descended on Wing Yip, a centre of all things Chinese for a buffet style meal. The food was fantastic and it was lovely to see everyone, but I think I must be getting old (well much older than Stuart) because the heat and noise of so many people (for people, read children) in such a confined space made me feel positively claustrophobic. Would it really be too much to expect to enjoy satay chicken on a stick and some Hong Kong style noodles without a plastic model of Wall-E landing amid the prawn crackers in front of you? Perhaps it was all a dastardly ploy to get me to experiment with Chinese herbal remedies for migraines. Or perhaps my foot is making me grumpy. Any way, happy birthday Stuart. Just think, by the time you are my age all those kids will have grown up and left home. There's a thought.