A picture of a dead horse
[* Copyright © 2014 Trevor Herdman *
All rights reserved
Published by Trevor Herdman
There are many people I need to thank for their help, advice and support in writing this book. From my first faltering attempts Char March, an accomplished author in her own right, was my guide. She wasn’t ‘backard’s in coming forard’s’, as we say in Yorkshire, when she thought I was waffling on or repeating myself. Gill Crawshaw patiently read, and commented on, sections I bombarded her with, as did other friends and family including my supportive wife Denise. As much as anyone my thanks go to Meryl Moorhouse, who meticulously edited the book, and Eefje van den Hamsvoort, who designed the wonderful cover. I could not have achieved any of it without them.
Every group of teens needs to find its own heroes, and music is the obvious battleground. It was 1970. At seventeen we were all in our last year at school. Even though Doncaster may not have been the centre of the music revolution that was taking place, we felt like we were an integral part of the underground counter-culture movement.
To hear our parents rubbish our music choices and hark back to the ‘Good Old Days’ was the most satisfying endorsement. For us it was Prog Rock. Progressive Rock was a term coined to describe music that was outside mainstream rock music. Essentially British, groups often had classical musicians playing tracks that lasted much longer than the standard three minutes. I hadn’t seen many of the Super Groups such as Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Jethro Tull. There was no venue big enough in Doncaster. The nearest place to see them was Sheffield City Hall. The major drawback with Sheffield was that the last train back to Donny was 10.30pm. With no late buses we often had to leave before the gig had finished. I did get to see most of a Pink Floyd gig though.
Of course, there was more to it than just going to concerts or buying records. Your taste in music defined who you were. We’d carry albums around, usually still wearing our school uniforms, in a way that didn’t obscure the cover. This showed how hip we were, how cool, how we differed from the majority. They listened to MOR (Middle of the Road) music, wore suits, had ‘straight’ haircuts. Straight being a euphemism that meant they were boring, predictable, with closed minds to new ideas. Basically the person we all turn into by the age of 30. In those days we weren’t interested in what straights had to say.
It wasn’t even necessary to play the albums, just as long as they impressed your friends and any other members of the public who were of like mind. We called each other ‘man’ for goodness’ sake. We read ‘Oz’, and ‘The International Times’. We felt every inch part of this new world. Except we still had to go to school.
We were also children of the 60’s, brought up on a diet of protest singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez etc. The struggle of black Americans – who were still segregated in schools, jobs, transport – was as real to us as the miners’ strike of the 70’s. The Ku Klux Klan was still openly active when Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he was assassinated in 1968. All the time this was happening, the UK Government tried to sweep apartheid in South Africa under the diplomatic carpet. Including, embarrassingly, the ’64 Labour Government. It wasn’t until Basil D’Oliveira was included in the England cricket team of ’68 to tour South Africa, the land of his birth, that things came to a head. South Africa refused him entry, leaving England no option than to cancel the tour. Not only did it force the UK Government to act, it turned international opinion against apartheid forcing changes in sport in South Africa.
When Woodstock took place in ’69 it was ours too, even though no one I knew went to it. It was peace. It was love. It was equality. It was the dream of a new, fairer society. Our musical heroes reflected our views that nirvana was in reach.
Our views – political, moral, ethical – were, as far as we were concerned, well formed by then. It wasn’t necessary to live in a Kibbutz, follow an Indian Yogi, come from an oppressed group or, for that matter, give up drinking beer, to believe in an alternative society.
Not all of us, i.e. me, could afford a record player, let alone the LP’s to play on it. That was until I got a summer job that year riddling potatoes for the canning industry. I earned enough from that job to join the club.
There were two basic elements to riddling. The very dirty job was standing in a cab on top of a tractor, throwing out big clumps of dirt that the tractor dug up along with the potatoes. The other job was sorting out all the smaller pieces of muck, including that which stuck to the potatoes. It was not quite so dirty, although it was harder. Being on top of the tractor paid better than the sorting job. However, I preferred bagging up the spuds ready for the lorries taking them to the factories; much cleaner, even if I was constantly being told to speed up by the overseer, who was clearly on a payment-by-results deal. One time, he announced we’d hit 99% cleanliness in the previous day’s output. He told us it like he’d won the World Cup. As there was nothing extra in it for us, we gave a half hearted cheer and carried on.
My first stereo record player was paid for by the money I earned, as were my first three records. They were Free’s classic ‘Fire and Water’, ‘Valentine Suite’ by Colosseum, and, more importantly, my first proper prog rock album, Soft Machine’s ‘Third’. Its dull brown cover hid the sweetest music.
I wasn’t exactly an A pupil, preferring physical to mental activities. I’d passed six ‘O’ Levels, except four were grade 6, the lowest pass grade. Even so, I was now taking three ‘A’ Levels, including one in Engineering Science. Part of this involved the use of computers. Our school couldn’t possibly afford a computer. At that time they took up whole floors which were air conditioned. We were taken to stare at Bradford University’s computer through thickened glass, all of us clutching handfuls of brown oblong cards with holes punched in them. This was the way instructions were fed into the computer for even the simplest mathematical tasks. We were at the very cutting edge of science.
Although in 1970 the average price of a house was under £5,000, my mum and dad couldn’t afford to buy one. We lived in a Council house in Cantley, about three miles outside Doncaster, close to the Racecourse. It was a really well planned estate. All houses had decent-sized rooms, with reasonable-sized gardens, which people took care of. We even had apple trees at our first house.
When I was fifteen we moved to a smaller house, following my brother’s marriage. Our new house was still in Cantley, but on the Third Estate, the house we left being on the First. I like to think that it was some crusty old Chairman, probably an ex-miner or railway worker (Donny was a staunch Labour Council for decades) who considered any number of names from the Town Planners before he put his foot down saying, “NO! We don’t need any poncey names. We’ll call them First, Second, Third and Fourth Estates.”
It was a nice place. All the roads were wide, though not many people owned cars when it was built in the 50’s. There was a large park with football pitches. It even had a pitch and putt golf course. There were also plenty of wooded areas.
The best selling cars that year – Ford Cortina, Ford Escort, Mini, Morris Marina, Vauxhall Viva and Ford Capri – were all made in Britain. Even so, they were still out of the reach of many people. I couldn’t afford the lessons let alone the test fee at seventeen. In fact I didn’t think I’d ever drive at all.
My dad had tried to pass his test some years before. After failing his driving test twice he gave up on the idea. He’d even bought a second hand Austin A30 in anticipation of passing. It was a sad day when it had to be sold. However, he subsequently found that he could drive a Reliant Robin on a motorbike license. Since he’d bought himself a Honda 50 motorcycle in place of the A30, he promptly put in for his motorbike test, passing first time. After a quick visit to Michaels of Selby, the only people who sold Reliant Robins in our area, we were mobile.
Just after my seventeenth birthday, Dad asked, “How would you like to take the car for a drive with me?”
“Love to,” I said.
I started off rather gingerly, becoming more confident when we got on to the main roads. We turned into a side road leading to one of the many villages in the area. As we approached a crossroads, Dad asked me to turn left. An easy enough manoeuvre which I cocked up big style. For some reason, I pressed on the accelerator instead of the brake. Convinced I was right and the car was wrong, I pressed even harder. With Dad trying to take control of the steering wheel, we careered around the corner at great speed. It was only a grassy bank that stopped us rolling over, bringing us to a halt on the other side of the road.
Damage to the Robin’s fibreglass body was minimal, fortunately. Dad drove home. I was shaking so much I wasn’t going to argue against it. You know what they say about falling off a horse? Apparently you should get straight back in the saddle. Not me. Not only was I never offered another lesson, I never asked for one either.
At school I loved sport, playing everything from rugby to cricket to athletics. Modesty forbids me from saying whether I was any good. Let’s just say I held my own. Our school, Danum Grammar, wasn’t large enough to sustain a football and rugby team all season, consequently a compromise was reached. We’d play rugby till Christmas, football after Christmas. All the same, my first love was always football. I had two trials, one with Doncaster Rovers, the other with Nottingham Forest. In fact the school had set up a game against Rovers reserve players for me, which was quite an honour in itself. Despite scoring twice I wasn’t invited back. I also scored in the Forest trial with the same outcome. I told everyone, “I won’t become a professional footballer until I’ve completed my studies.” Like hell I wouldn’t.
I was surprised to be chosen to go on a 28 day, Outward Bound course. Dave Miller, unlike me a definite A pupil, was also chosen. The answer was probably because our names were put forward by Bob Bruce, the Games Master. The following year he made Dave rugby captain, me football captain. “It will look good on your CV.” he told us.
The course was held during February/March 1970 in Ashburton, Devon. The cost was about £120, of which the school paid half. Shortly before the train pulled into Newton Abbot station, we finished our last cig, drained our last pint of beer – like the potential sports leaders we were – picked up our bags and prepared ourselves for what lay ahead. Unsurprisingly, abstinence was at the top of their rules. The age group was roughly seventeen to twenty four, all males, giving rise to jokes about bromide in tea etc. It was a varied program of physical activities including, caving, climbing, canoeing, along with lots of other activities, some of which didn’t begin with a ‘c’.
Our base, Holne Park House, was set in 90 acres of grounds complete with the River Dart running through it. Originally built as a family home, the House was used for Outward Bound courses from the 50’s until the 70’s. Although the interior didn’t match the exterior, it was still better than living under canvas. We seemed to do a lot of living under canvas during our 28 days.
At the welcome meeting we were split into groups. There were 10 in mine, 12 in Dave’s, each with a qualified instructor. It soon became apparent that we were the only ‘schoolies’ on the course. The rest were from the police, the forces; even business. The day began at 6.00am with a run to the River Dart at the bottom of the hill. Dressed only in shorts, plimsolls and skin we had to jump in, submerging our heads beneath the water. If someone failed, then we all had to stay in the water until they’d dunked that doughnut. Even though the water may not have been fast-flowing, it was always freezing. Anyone who didn’t submerge first time was not flavour of the month.
When we got back we had to clean our room, including making our beds, after which they were inspected. Yes it was one of those type of courses. This was how I imagined public schools were run. Activities also included domestic duties, like cooking and cleaning. Even then it could be fun. Our instructor showed us how you could throw a raw egg onto a wet lawn without it breaking. A skill I never fail to put to good use when I’m entertaining at Herdman Towers.
I enjoyed the physical side of the course with one exception. There was one task which in my mind, was distasteful at best, abusive at worst. We’d been on a three day hike. Two nights were spent in tents, the third in a disused lighthouse. That was great. We had proper cooking facilities, it was much warmer and it was definitely was much dryer than we’d been the previous two nights. Then came the bombshell. It was called the ‘Captain’s Chair’. Each of us sat in this particular chair, whilst the rest of the group had to say what they thought of you. “Now I want you to be as honest as you like.” said our Team Leader. “Don’t hold back.”
Nothing much was said about me, or most of the others. However, a couple of the guys really went to town on one chap. From Bungay in Norfolk, he spoke with a very strong East Anglian accent which made him sound, well, a bit thick. He was a nice guy, only he was very vulnerable. I was horrified with what they said to him. I consoled him afterwards, even though I realized it would take some time to heal from a lambasting like the one he’d had. If I’d had the wherewithal I’d have said something. At seventeen I just didn’t have the confidence to challenge the instructor, let alone the bullies. It still leaves a foul taste in my mouth just thinking about it.
The culmination of the programme though, was when we were dropped off in groups of four, at different places on the other side of Dartmoor. We had to make our way back in three days whilst picking up markers at key points along the way. For some reason I was chosen as a team leader.
The day we were dropped off was bright and dry. The following day, our first on the moor, it began to rain. Rain in the only way it can on the moors. Endlessly. So began the three of the most miserable days of my life. My three compatriots consisted of an older, large, jovial chap who’d do anything for a quiet life; a lad about my age who was supportive; the third was a police cadet a couple of years older than me. He made it clear from the beginning that he felt he should have been team leader. Frankly it would have made sense to me too. Unfortunately that wasn’t how the cards were dealt.
The whole experience was a nightmare. One stream we had to cross had become a fast-flowing river. We had to throw all our rucksacks across as it was too wide to jump over with them. One of the packs rolled back down the other bank into the stream, disappearing from view in the blink of an eye. I thought we’d seen the last of it when, of all people, the police cadet chased after it. He returned fifteen minutes later, holding the rucksack aloft like a hunter with his quarry. We cheered him back. No one more than me. As team leader, he’d got me off the hook. Not just me, as any lost kit had to be paid for – by all of us.
When we finally got back to base, it turned out our team had collected the lowest number of counters. I was called into a hearing the following day. There were three of the main men plus our instructor. I was grilled over why we’d done so badly. Then the other three members of my team were brought in one at a time. Each was questioned along similar lines, with the addition of saying what they thought about me. All whilst I was there. At stake was whether they would give me my certificate for completing the course. In the end they agreed they would as I’d led my team over the moors in conditions that had made the army withdraw its cadets! Back then I was grateful. If it was now, I’d like to think I’d tell them to stick it.
Strangely, when we got back to school, Bob Bruce said, “You’ve both been given glowing reports. They’ll definitely help you as references.” As neither Dave or I ever saw them, they were of no use to us at all.
At some time in 1970, a few of us had taken to hitting the one night-club in town, Top Rank, on Saturday nights. We were typical teenage males, spending our time at the bar or prowling around edges of the dance floor looking at the girls dancing. Not daring to step over the line to join them until the end of the night when the slowies came on. By then, if we’d caught the eye of one we liked the look of, we’d plunge in hoping not to be rebuffed. It was on one such summer’s night, I met my first real girlfriend. I’d been watching her and her friend dancing all night. There was a particularly raunchy song that, because of the lyrics, was only ever played in night-clubs. ‘Wet Dream,’ by Max Romeo, consisted mostly of one line, “Lie down gal let me push it up push it up lie down.” It must have been played three or four times that night, and each time the line was sung, they’d make thrusting movements with their hips, giggling as they did. As slowie time came, my friend Rob and I decided we’d make a move. I had my eyes on the small brunette whilst Rob fancied the taller, fair haired one. We both scored, much to our surprise. Rob’s romance lasted a few weeks, whilst mine ran for ten months, which was a long time at that age. It was during these ten months that I was to discover the joy of sex – and I couldn’t get enough of it.
I followed the conventional method of the time, starting at the top and working my way down. First up was kissing. We moved from the polite kiss on the lips, to smooching, to French kissing. First base achieved. Then onto touching her breasts through her outer clothes, followed by slipping my hand under her blouse and touching them through her bra, and finally taking her bra off caressing, squeezing, enjoying. Second base accomplished. Then sliding my hand down the front of her jeans and into her pants, exploring her with my fingers. Third base completed. When she responded by holding my erection, it was a short step to the final act – full on sex. Home run and a lap of honour round the living room!
As we were both virgins, every step was new and exciting. Let’s be honest here; that first time wasn’t anything to brag about. Nevertheless – it was brilliant. Over time, I think we both realized that, apart from the sex, we didn’t have a lot in common. It was still painful when we split up in April ’71, just in time for my ‘A’ Levels in May. Great timing.
During that final year at school we managed to persuade Semper (the Headteacher) to let us have a live band, along with the obligatory disco. It was held on Friday 13th November 1970. The organising committee had pulled off the deal of the year, or so it seemed to us. They’d booked a relatively unknown prog rock band, Curved Air, for £100. Tickets were priced at 8/- (40p) which meant we had to sell 250 tickets to break even.
At first no one was interested and it looked as if the event was doomed. Maybe the curse of Friday 13th was true. Then, just days before the gig, the New Musical Express ran a full page advert for Curved Air’s album ‘Air Conditioning’, the world’s first picture disc. Things went ballistic. Demand for tickets guaranteed we’d break even, maybe even make a small profit.
Queues began to form at 7pm; many without tickets. As this was a private gig we weren’t allowed to sell tickets on the day. Inside, Lardener (Deputy Head) was collecting the tickets. A sort of relay system developed. As soon as he put the ones he’d taken to one side, we ’liberated’ them, reselling them to those in the queue who were ticketless. There were at least 500 people in the school hall, which only had a fire certificate for 250. We made a small fortune which was used to subsidize other social occasions.
The main attraction, apart from the music that is, was the gorgeous lead singer, Sonja Kristina. The gig was a triumph, they brought the house down. I don’t expect they remember that night as well as I do, if at all. It was a terrific night though. As for my copy of ‘Air Conditioning’, my sure-fire investment for the future? I sold it for £1. I was out of fags.
In 1971 there was no potato riddling to be had, so I worked for Massarella’s ice cream. There were two of the Massarella family based in Doncaster, both of whom sold ice cream. The best known was Ronnie Massarella, who ran the soft ice cream vans. A dapper, well groomed chap, he was the well respected Chef D’equipe for the British Horse Jumping Team until retiring in 2000. Well it wasn’t him I worked for, it was his brother Andrew, or Mr Andrew as he liked to be called. A rotund chap, he had an unfortunate stutter. He dressed like he was on holiday all the time with his cream jacket, complemented by a cream hat. He sold ice cream at all the big outdoor events. It could be a Test Match at Headingley in Leeds, the annual RAF Air Display at Finningley near Doncaster, or one of the many country shows that took place during the summer.
We didn’t get paid much, drinking most of it as soon as we got back to Doncaster. It was a great time to be young though and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. With the money we had left over at the end of the season, three of us went to London’s Kensington Market. Dad worked for British Rail, so he got a number of free passes each year. If he hadn’t given me one, I’d have been waving the other two off at the station. Yet here I was. At the most famous market in London. The most famous we’d heard of anyway. The fashion order was: Afghan coat first choice – the larger the better – closely followed by the two-tone suede jacket as second choice, not so closely followed by the single coloured suede jacket as third choice. I couldn’t afford either of the first two, so it was a grey monotone for me. Chris Hickson, standing 6 feet 7 inches tall, bought a full Afghan. As if he needed anything else to make him stand out in a crowd. Whilst best mate Steve Spencer, who had more money than us, bought a short, sleeveless Afghan as well as the much coveted apple green and red suede coat (coveted by me at any rate). Of course they went straight on our backs and we affected the personae of student hippies.
In Leeds I found a pair of bottle green velvet loons, which were too small for me. I loved them so much I bought them anyway, along with an ethnic brown T shirt with small mirrors embroidered into it. With the jacket it was the image I craved. You can tell I had an eye for matching colours. Unfortunately the loons split along the bum seam the first time I wore them making them impossible to repair. At least that’s what my mum told me.
I attended my first all-nighter on September 10th 1971, with three of my school friends, Steve, Chris and Ged Kelly. Ged was in the unenviable position in that both his parents were teachers at our school. His mother taught English, his father, Physics. His father was an eccentric with arms waving around like Magnus Pyke. On top of which he dressed like Robin Day, complete with bow tie.
The event was held at the Pavilion Gardens in Buxton, Derbyshire. Although the line-up may not have been the best of the year – Edgar Broughton, East Of Eden, Paladin, Juicy Lucy, Gentle Giant, Eggs Over Easy, Bees Make Honey and Brewers Droop – it had the band we wanted to see above all others. The Groundhogs featuring Tony ’TS’ McPhee, a real Axeman if ever there was one. There were no seats so it was several hours sitting on hard floors. Who was on dictated whether or not you got up to stretch your legs, or went for a slash. Once you’d moved a yard from your space, it was filled. Since The Groundhogs were one of the headliners, they weren’t on until the very early hours of the morning. By then it was numb bums, very achy legs and full bladders. Didn’t stop us head banging though. They were fab, though we still had to endure the statutory 20 minute drum solo whilst the rest of the band went to the bar.
The date of the gig was significant. We were no longer school boys. We were waiting to take up places in Universities and Polytechnics. We were about to become students. The most important part of which was to grow our hair long. Well maybe getting laid was up there with it. Our School, about 3 miles out of Doncaster, was set up as a Technical Grammar School with an emphasis on science. No Latin or classics here. Those were taught at Doncaster Grammar School, the top academic school in the area. The ideal ‘A’ Levels to take, at least as far as Semper was concerned, were Maths, Physics and Chemistry. He was fairly strict on stuff like wearing uniforms, hair length etc. I think he wanted to turn out Oxbridge students, unfortunately, as none of us achieved such lofty heights, our main goal was to see how long we could grow our hair before being told to get it cut. The other was finding places not to get caught smoking. By Buxton, my hair had grown quite well, though it was still a work-in-progress.
We did have one thing in common with Doncaster GS, we were an all boys school. I don’t think it did us any favours when it came to chatting up girls.
I’d taken three ‘A’ Levels, Maths, Engineering Science (a practical version of physics) and Geology. My two grade E’s in the first two, the lowest pass marks possible, got me into Sheffield Poly to study Housing Management. This was aimed at people who wanted to manage social housing, which at that time was entirely the realm of Local Councils. To be honest, although this wouldn’t have been my first choice, it was my only choice. I’d gone through the clearance system after being tipped off by my mate, Steve Kimber, that they were taking two E’s. Since I’d rather be a student on a course I was ambivalent about, than re-sit my ‘A’ Levels or, even worse, look for a job! I accepted their offer.
School Rugby Team c1970
I’m second from the left, Dave Morley is third and Dave Miller forth. Larry “Mullogs” Muldowney is seventh left standing. Photos by Lou Melstrom.
School Rugby Team Formal
The sulky looking one, standing extreme right, is me trying to look cool. Preston NE fans may recognise a young Mike Elwiss sitting extreme right. He was an excellent rugby player as well as our star footballer.
Soft Machine’s Third.
The first Prog Rock album I bought.
Our Buxton heroes and their classic album Split.
Holme Park House.
Our Outward Bound base. Courtesy of The Outward Bound Trust.
I’m second left kneeling.
It was during my second term at Sheffield that Britain hit ‘the three day week’. On 9th January 1972, the coalminers went on strike bringing the country to a standstill. The three-day working week was introduced to save electricity on 11th February. 1.2 million workers were laid off. It took a special agreement for supplies to be allowed into essential services such as hospitals.
We weren’t phased by it. As good socialists, it was a price worth paying. Then again we were students without the responsibilities of bills to pay, or families to feed. More to the point, our grant cheques kept on coming.
The strike lasted until the miners, having got their pay rise, returned to work on 28th of February. By the time the miners came out on strike again, just two years later, my life had changed beyond all recognition.
It was during the 1972 strike that I was introduced to marijuana by one of the lads on the course. It came in a small, blackish block called cannabis resin – commonly known as ‘shit’. I took my first few drags, which I held in my lungs for as long as I could. I started to laugh and laugh and laugh. He smiled saying, “I did the same when it was my first time. It gets better the more you get used to it.” He was right. Ironically, our favourite piece of music to listen to whilst smoking was Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’, which is where the aforementioned band had taken their name.
My sartorial elegance hadn’t improved in Sheffield, in fact it had gone downhill along with my available finances. I’d bought a dark and light grey striped ‘fur’ coat for a shilling (5p) from a jumble sale. After adding a pair of DIY moccasins to the ensemble, I felt I was back on track. The fur coat should have looked like the raccoon coats you see in old US Movies set on University Campuses. Mine didn’t. It looked like what it was. A mangy piece of old tat. On my way home at Christmas, it rained, boy did it rain. By the time I got home the coat stank whilst the moccasins unravelled, falling off my feet. My mum threw them straight in the bin. I didn’t complain.
On a personal level though, 1972 had not been a great year for me. I thought it was going to be one of the best when I met Maddie Roberts, in a pub in Doncaster, in the summer of ’71. Maddie was a slightly taller brunette than I’d been used to, but I didn’t hold it against her. She wasn’t what you’d call naturally beautiful. She was attractive with a personality that drew you to her. She was funny and laughed a lot. We seemed to hit it off straight away. I walked her back to her bus where we made a second date. It wasn’t long before we were ‘going out’ together.
Just before Christmas I’d been invited to a party in Leeds given by Mike Weston, a friend of mine from Doncaster. I asked if I could bring a couple of friends. Mike said, “No problem.” As it was Sheffield Rag Week we thought we’d make a few bob selling the magazines in Leeds centre during the day. I knew best mate Steve would look after Maddie for the afternoon. I just didn’t realize how closely he’d do the looking after. Later, after the pubs had closed, we headed back to Mike’s. The place was crammed with people. We were enjoying a glass of Mike’s whiskey when Steve and Maddie decided to tell me I’d been dumped. I took it like a man, and got drunk.
It really knocked my confidence back to lose Maddie. I wasn’t the urbane, sweet-talking charmer I am today. Despite finding it hard to start up a conversation with girls, I would have died sooner than use a corny chat-up line. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d lost confidence since my split from Maddie, until travelling back to Sheffield from a party in Small Heath, Birmingham. I was on the train with a young woman who’d been at the same party. We were chatting along okay, at least that’s what I thought, when she suddenly said, in a very annoyed voice, “Will you stop agreeing with me all the time!” Suddenly the carriage we were in seemed so much smaller. It was the end of all conversation between us. I was never so relieved when we went our separate ways.
It was a January day when Mike died. He was travelling back from his fiancé’s, supposedly stopping off for a drink with me on his way back home to Doncaster. He was late, which was unlike him. After an hour I rang his fiancé’s number. The woman who answered said, “Is this some sort of sick joke?” After I’d explained who I was, she told me that Mike and another woman had been killed in a road accident. When I came off the phone I didn’t know what to do or say, so I hid for a week. I don’t mean I disappeared into a darkened room or anything. I just never contacted his family. When I turned up at his funeral the Westons were all over me, concerned I’d done something foolish. I had. I’d run away. Thing was, although Mike may have been two years ahead in age, he was light years away as a man. He was cool, he had style, he had a beautiful, intelligent fiancé. He talked passionately about the textile degree he was taking. I thought about my own course. The one I’d gone into through expediency. I never felt anything but indifference. He introduced us to music we were unaware of like electro folk. In particularly the wonderful Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, and The Strawbs, before they became a crappy pop band. He was our hero, our guru.
In May 1972 I had the chance to go to my first music festival. This wasn’t Glastonbury or the Isle of Wight. It was at Bickershaw, Wigan. I can see your eyes glaze over at the mention of Wigan. I did the same myself until I saw the line up: Grateful Dead, Kinks, Country Joe and the Fish, Incredible String Band, Donovan, Family, Wishbone Ash, to name a few. Along with my flat mate I got a lift in a van. With £15 of bush (marijuana in leaf form), and a few quid in our pockets, we set off for Wigan. The weekend was excellent. I was pleased I’d chosen to do it rather than watch Leeds win the centennial cup final. Not an easy decision at the time.
There are two specific images that will stay with me forever. One was the sight of Hawkwind finishing their set, loading their gear into a van, driving round to the back complex on the outside where they played it all over again for those that didn’t have tickets! What stars. The second was the toilets. There was a large circle of doors, arranged Stonehenge like. When you opened one of the doors you were treated to the sight of the backs of all the other users shitting straight into an open cesspit. At least the toilet seats faced the door.
There’s just one further confession to make about my time at Sheffield. After The Beatles had split up, Paul McCartney formed Wings. They were touring the country playing venues for free, including Sheffield University. A gang of us went up to see them when, against all the odds, we got a table in the Students Union bar. On top of that, it was a cheap beer night. I’m ashamed to say I decided I’d rather stop where I was, rather than walk 50 yards to see one of the world’s greatest musicians for free. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d make similar brilliant decisions.
By now I’d taken my first year exams. Waiting for the results, I ran over my answers, convincing myself I’d be alright. When they were published, I was in for a shock. I’d failed the Building Module, a mix of architecture and building techniques. It wasn’t my favourite subject I admit, although I thought I’d done enough to pass it. The re-sits were held two weeks after the end of term. At home I decided I’d better get down to some serious work. For some reason I got it in my head that I should revise all the topics that had been in the first paper. Yes I know this was crazy. They were bound to ask questions on different topics, which is what they did. Needless to say I failed the re-sits and my time at Sheffield had come to an end. At least my hair looked great.
Back in Doncaster I was kicking my heels wondering what to do when I was summoned to attend an interview at the Job Centre. One rainy day found me sitting on a bus heading to the Job Centre where I expected to be told, “We haven’t any jobs,” followed by me feigning disappointment and going back to picking up my weekly handout. I nearly fell off my chair when she said “We’ve a number of jobs going at Butlins in Filey if you’re interested.” What could I say:
“I’ll take it.” It wasn’t, I was relieved to be told, as a redcoat. It was re-stocking the bar with bottled beers – more commonly known as a bar monkey.
Butlins in Filey prided itself on having the largest bar in Europe. It was our job to keep the bottles fully stocked. There were hundreds of them. Our days consisted of getting up late, hanging round the staff canteen, going to work, drinking what we’d earned, then starting all over again the next day.
I’d struck up a friendship with a woman about the same age as me. She worked in the amusement arcade. She was a very attractive, curly haired brunette (curly hair – another departure from my normal women). This woman, whose name I have long since forgotten, was talking about spending a year in France, as she was in between jobs or Uni. I told her that I’d love to meet her out there as I adored France. There was no chance of this happening. As well as failing my French ‘O’ Level, I just wasn’t the type to head off into the unknown. I’d read ‘On the Road’ by American writer Jack Kerouac. It had inspired thousands of people into giving up their normal lifestyles to go adventuring. It put me right off the whole idea. My reason for saying I would join her was because her chalet-mate was due to move out in a couple of weeks, and I was keen to take her place. I never gave a thought as to whether or not she was as keen as me. All I was interested in was my plan.
The only other thing of interest was that I’d brought a marijuana plant with me, hoping to get something suitable to smoke from it before the end of the season. Also, it would be my nineteenth birthday in three weeks, 29th August, the day I broke my neck.
Staff birthdays followed a certain routine. You sat in the bar where you worked, whilst your mates bought you drinks in their breaks. The staff area was a roped-off area of seating, the furthest from the entertainment. Breaks lasted all of 15 minutes, meaning I was on my own for most of the evening drinking snake bites. These were a mix of beer and cider, at least they were in those days.
At the end of the evening we had to wait until someone finished working in the café before we got to the highlight of the night – throwing me in the pool. At about 1am we finally headed off to the pool. I’d sobered up a bit by then, probably too much on reflection, as I’d decided on the way to the pool that I’d dive in rather than be thrown in. I was showing off basically. Mainly to the previously-mentioned brunette who, I was convinced, would find me irresistible after showing off my diving prowess. At that time there were three pools, all the same size. They were all different depths though. As we arrived, I should have taken notice which pool had the diving board. It was on the pool furthest from me. That made the pool I was about to dive into the paddling pool.
I dived in.
All I felt was a slight bump on the top of my head, then nothing. It was as instant as that. Like flicking a switch, replacing light with darkness. I knew something was wrong, putting it down to the drink. Pushing myself onto my back – I was only in two foot of water – I managed to call for help. If the water had been much deeper I would certainly have drowned. A couple of the guys hauled me out. I was carried back to my chalet shoulder high, all the time thinking, “My neck really hurts.”
They threw me into my bunk bed in my wet clothes before leaving me. All the time I was thinking, “I’ll be back to normal soon. I’ll take these wet clothes off then.” It never happened.
When my bunk mate woke up, I said, “I can’t move Robin. Can you get the doctor for me.” Robin came back with a wheelchair. He, along with one of the other guys, somehow got me into it. This was quite a feat as I’m over 6ft tall. Fortunately, for them, I wasn’t overweight. On the way to the surgery I couldn’t stop thinking, “My neck really hurts.”
In the surgery, I was lifted onto a table where the doctor stuck pins into me. When he’d finished he told me in a flat, matter-of-fact way, “You’ve broken your neck. You’re paralysed.” I was shocked when I heard what he said. Paralysed? Me? I couldn’t be. I mean that was the sort of thing that happened to other people, not me. Then I thought he could be wrong. After all he’s just a GP, what does he know about such things. He phoned for an ambulance to take me to Hull Royal.
In the five days I spent in Hull, I had a number of X-Rays on my neck. None showed any signs of a break, leading them to conclude I had a trapped nerve in my neck. Fantastic! It was just a matter of time before it would be freed. I knew the GP didn’t know what he was talking about.
My bed was a sort of ironing board affair. If I was on my back when it came time to turn me, another ironing board was put on top of me then the whole thing was rotated so I was facing the floor. It had a hole where my face was. A leather skull cap was placed over my head from which weights were suspended. This was to hold my neck in tension, stopping me from moving it around. The skull cap wrapped around my chin. The more my whiskers grew during the day, the more it itched. I was quite comfortable when I was laid on my back, whereas lying on my front was very, very uncomfortable. I wasn’t too happy about it, but if it would free that trapped nerve, then I’d do it (what a hero). Doctors would stick pins in me each day to see how much I could feel. They didn’t vary much, always ending around nipple level.
I never heard from the brunette again. Although she did send me a string of beads with Dave Hudson who brought me a whip-round of £30, a not inconsiderable amount in 1972. It was the final act of my three weeks in Butlins, as I never saw or heard from any of them again.
On day six, I was sent to Pinderfields in Wakefield. I wasn’t clear why. The staff at Hull just said they had a ward that was better suited for cases like mine. I had no idea it was a spinal unit.
I hadn’t eaten since I’d arrived in Hull. I drank water or juice, I just never felt hungry. Not that there’s anything unusual or life threatening about this, particularly following a trauma of some sort.
The journey to Pinderfields took ages. It was all A class roads as there was no motorway. The driver, conscious of my condition, wasn’t taking any chances. Ward staff had made me some ham sandwiches to take with me. In honour of the treatment I’d had from them, I tried a sandwich. I could only manage a quarter. That quarter was to cause me a great deal of grief later on.
We arrived at Pinderfields about two hours later. As they wheeled me along the corridor to the ward, all I could see from the stretcher were doors. I later found out they were mainly offices and store rooms. At the end of the corridor was Ward 1, where I would spend the next six months. I was transferred onto a bed in the Centre Ward, where all new patients were deposited, along with patients who were at risk for some reason. I spent the majority of my time in the second bed on the left. Not that it meant anything. People were moved to different locations all the time, often without explanation.
This Victorian hospital was no comparison to the state-of-the-art hospital I’d left in Hull. It was oddly laid out, not at all what I was expecting. From the Centre Ward there were two eight-bed wards, one leading off to the right, the other to the left. There was also a verandah with four more beds and, right at the end of the both wings, were two three-bed rooms. I believe it’s what’s called a Nightingale ward, though who thought this was a great layout for a hospital was beyond me. There was one aspect I learnt early on. The further away your bed was from the Centre Ward, the closer you were to going home.
At that time, Pinders Spinal Unit had three ex-Army orderlies. They did everything non-medical, plus one or two things they shouldn’t have. One of them, Bill Brannon, found my break. An X-ray plate was placed behind my neck on the bed. Bill grabbed my wrists, pulling my arms downwards. For a slightly-built chap he was very strong. So strong in fact, I thought he’d pull them out of their sockets. Where Hull failed, Bill succeeded. The break was at the base of C7, the last vertebra in the neck. C being shorthand for cervical or neck. It didn’t look much on the X-ray. Just a tiny piece of bone missing from the bottom of the vertebrae. It was enough to rob me of my locomotive and sensory abilities. I was paralysed from the nipple level down, just as the Butlins GP had said.
Strange as it may seem, it lifted a weight off my shoulders. Not because it clarified my situation, or meant I knew what I was dealing with. It was because I didn’t have to decide what I was going to do next. There was no pressure to take any decision for months. All I had to do was concentrate on getting better.
A few hours after the X Ray I started to have problems with my breathing. It was getting harder and harder to catch my breath. I was a little concerned about this. I was told that doctors would have to do a tracheotomy on me, whatever that was. Unfortunately they had to wait 12 hours until that bloody quarter of a sandwich I’d eaten had gone through my system. I was taking shorter breaths, becoming more distressed. This was not helped by a procession of people telling me to, “Calm down. Breathe more slowly.” My right lung had collapsed, which doesn’t mean it had collapsed at all. Mucus on the inside had effectively put it out of action. Around midnight I was taken down to theatre, had my throat cut and a short metal pipe inserted. So that’s what a tracheotomy was. It instantly made my breathing easier. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was. That was the start of three months of putting a latex tube down the pipe into my lung, to suck the crap out of it. Apparently, during the night of the operation, I took a swing at the Physiotherapist on call. Physiotherapists were responsible for keeping chests clear. I have no reason to doubt this happened as it was the Physiotherapist, Sally Hall, who told me.
Funny thing was, I knew I was lucky. I still had full use of my arms, more or less. All I’d lost was the sensation along the back of them. Although my grip could have been better, it meant I’d be able to live a fairly independent life. If the break had been any higher, my level of independence would have plunged to nothing fairly quickly. For example, the chap in the opposite bed to me, Brian, had been lifted up then dropped on his head for a joke – by his best man at his wedding. As he couldn’t move anything he’d always need round-the-clock attention. Great way to start your married life.
To distinguish between quadriplegics (quads) and paraplegics (paras): quads are neck breaks, whilst paras are those with breaks in the thorax (the main part of the backbone), or lumbar region (from the rib cage to the pelvis). Where your break is dictates what level of feeling and movement you had. The lower the better. If the break is in the lumbar region there is a good chance you’d be able to walk.
The Pinders way of dealing with neck breaks at that time was to screw a couple of bolts into the sides of the patient’s head, one at each side, then hang weights from an armature held in position by the bolts. This was to keep the neck in tension, whilst holding the head still to enable the healing process. Because of the way I had been bounced around immediately after the accident, it was considered that there was little benefit to be had from this procedure. Consequently I was nursed without it which, to be perfectly honest, was fine by me. Had the way I was carried from pool to chalet, and chalet to surgery, made my condition worse? Or damaged my chances of improving my condition? Maybe even stopped me from walking? Who knows. I didn’t waste much time thinking about it.
Seven days after the accident, my second day on the Spinal Unit, one of the nurses asked me when the last time I’d moved my bowels. Moved my bowels? What was she talking about? “When did you last go to the toilet?” she said helpfully.
“Not since before my accident.”
“Right, we’d better get you sorted.”
That was the cue to have my bowels emptied for me for the very first time. I was laid on my side with one nurse at the side of the bed I was facing, holding me in position, whilst a second nurse was at the business end doing; well I didn’t have a clue what she was doing at this stage. I couldn’t feel anything. It was all over in seconds. I then became just one of the many on the bowel rota. Bowel days were Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Patients were issued with laxatives the evening before, suppositories were inserted by the night staff. One of the orderlies, Lol, a big bear of a man who always worked nights, also brought round an early morning cup of tea for those who wanted one. I never missed. They’d even make you a cup at night if you asked them. Sometimes the night-time cup meant you had to listen to Tosh’s endless anecdotes. Tosh was another orderly who only worked nights. He was Spanish, and whilst his English was very good, understanding his heavy accent meant you had to listen carefully, or you could find yourself having a completely different conversation to the one he was having.
Bowel days invariably consisted of the nursing staff giving you a manual evacuation, as the stimulants rarely worked on their own. They certainly didn’t for me. This meant that the nurse would insert a gloved, gelled finger or two into the rectum and tease out the faeces usually by rotating the finger or fingers. How did I feel about this? In the early days it didn’t bother me at all. It was just part of the routine of the ward, like meals or medications, they all came round at their allotted times. As I couldn’t do anything but lie in one of three positions, I wasn’t able to do anything about it anyway. It would only became an issue when I started to get up. All of a sudden this was a major problem. Paralysis means just what it says, it isn’t restricted to legs and arms. It affects all your organs. If I couldn’t carry out the evacuation myself, by transferring onto a toilet, the consequences were unthinkable. How would I be able to do anything if I was always reliant on someone to carry out such a basic function as this? Any thoughts of returning to education, or working, would be over for me; wouldn’t they?
One Saturday afternoon I suddenly started sweating. This was quickly followed by headache and blurred vision. I was heading for the dreaded ‘Autonomic Dysreflexia’, although I didn’t know it at the time. This is a condition that can affect anyone with a break of T6 and above. When the body encounters something that’s causing it distress, it sends signals to the brain to say what it is. For people with breaks above T6, these signals are blocked. At this point the body’s autonomic, or involuntary, reaction kicks in, increasing the blood pressure to dangerous levels. If it isn’t checked it can lead to strokes, heart attacks – even death. The main causes of this reaction are bladder and bowels.
As it was Saturday there was only the duty doctor on, which meant one doctor for the whole hospital. Eventually he arrived. He took my blood pressure, temperature, heart beat etc. after which he didn’t have a clue what was causing it. I was left to see if it subsided or got worse. It got worse. It was then that one of the nursing staff said, “It may be your bowel. I’ll take a look.” She found it was full. Within minutes I returned to a more comfortable state. My blood pressure, pulse etc. began to look more normal again. It would not be the only time I would experience this horrible condition over the coming years.
The other bane of a spinal injured person’s life is bladder control, or lack of it. As with bowels, the bladder becomes paralysed too. For those males who could urinate, but not control it, there was a complex system using an ordinary condom. For those who couldn’t, such as myself, there was the indwelling catheter. A length of tube was inserted up my penis into my bladder. 10cc of water was injected into another tube within the catheter which inflated a bulb in my bladder, thereby stopping it from coming out. Great, so not only couldn’t I go for a crap like anyone else, I had a tube in my dick as well. It’s what every 19 year old dreams of. There were two more drawbacks with indwelling catheters. The first was that the latex they used then began to smell after a few days. The second was that they laid you open to urine infections, which are not pleasant.
Breakfasts were a revelation. Right from the establishment of the ward it served cooked breakfasts. They were Full Monty breakfasts too, including cereal, toast, bacon, sausage, beans and scrambled egg. My favourite was sausage and beans, which I limited to two or three times a week. Well, you can have too much of a good thing. At the time, many wards served some hot breakfast items. When the hospital got rid of them in favour of a more continental breakfast, the spinal unit successfully argued that cooked breakfasts were necessary for their patients, because of the physical work they did in the gym.
One of the highlights of the day was when older paras called in to pass the time of day with in-patients. For those involved in sports, it was the opportunity to lay the foundations for recruiting potential athletes. Before I started getting up, I met athletes like Carl Hepple, who’d been in the GB Basketball Team, as well as other sports. He held down a full-time job too, as did some of the others. They’d come back from the Paralympics in Heidelberg. Ron Nichols, an electrician at the hospital, had also been there as manager of the GB weightlifting team. In those days the Paralympics were held in the same country, though not the same city as the Olympics. The 1972 Olympics being held at Munich. They were full of tales about the social side of the games, the laughs they’d had with athletes from other countries as well as the GB team. Somewhere amongst all the banter they even mentioned the games. I thought, this is for me. After all, I was a good all-round-athlete who’d be competing against a much smaller number of people, the majority of whom wouldn’t be as good as me. At least that’s what I thought. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Also arriving back with the Pinders contingent of the Paralympics was Geoff Conlan, one of the nursing staff. He was another colourful character. There was more than a suspicion that he was gay, although he always deflected anyone questioning his sexuality with a put-down. He could be outlandish in his behaviour at times, leading to many a right-off gag. It was water off a duck’s back to Geoff. However, catch him at the wrong time when you wanted something, and you were likely to be on the receiving end of one of his put downs. “Where do you think you are? On your fa’thers yacht?”, being typical. However, he was the one you turned to when you were in trouble. It was no surprise he was part of the GB Paralympic support staff.
One of the regulars was Syd Hollingsworth. Not good enough to make the Paralympics team, he participated in sports non the less. A low-level para who could walk a bit, he was a true one-off. A loveable rogue, a real charmer; a ladies man, as they used to say. He had a million stories and a word for everyone. He used to own dogs, greyhounds, which he raced. He once told me he had something to make them run faster, and something to slow them down. All said with a twinkle in his eyes. He was also the unofficial bookies’ runner for the ward, placing bets for patients every day. Your spirits were guaranteed to rise after only five minutes in his company. To be in Syd’s gang was to be one of the chosen few. Except that everyone could be in Syd’s gang. He welcomed all into his company.
The Charge Nurse was the saintly John Mullins. Known by many as Father, he was always smartly turned out in his pristine white coat, clean shaven, always smelling of aftershave lotion. He had a confident air; no, not confident; he had an aura about him. This ward was his ward. What he said went. If other staff wanted to come onto the ward, they had to ask his permission first. That included Dr Cook, the Consultant. I don’t know what his staff made of Mullins, what I do know is the patients loved him.
Whilst a stickler for rules, well his rules anyway, he allowed smoking and drinking on the ward. His philosophy was that as patients were there for a long time, they deserved to be treated more leniently than hospital rules usually allowed. It was commonplace to see an ashtray on a patients’ bedside table. In the evening it would often be joined by a bottle of beer.
On the right-hand wing was Jack, an old Glaswegian para who liked a whisky on a Saturday night. Mullins had a soft spot for Jack, often letting him drink a whole bottle. This was inevitably followed by some very loud singing into the wee small hours of Sunday morning. The matter came to a head when complaints from the rest of us led to Mullins wrestling with Jack over a bottle of his whisky, both men ending up on the floor. Even though I couldn’t see it from my bed, I could hear it. Someone nearby helpfully gave us a running commentary. Mullins told to the staff, “Put him on a mattress, cover him up and leave him there until the morning.”
Not being able to feel my body below nipple level was strange. At first I was, as the Americans say, in denial. I clung on to the trapped nerve diagnosis, despite no sign of the slightest change. Even after it was confirmed I had broken my neck, I still couldn’t give up trying to move my legs. If I thought I’d moved a foot, say, I’d call one of the nurses over. “Is my foot moving?”, I’d say in hope.
“No it isn’t. Sorry Trevor.”
It didn’t deter me from trying though. Walking was the Holy Grail for everyone on that ward, sensation was secondary. If I couldn’t walk, what was the point of feeling my legs, or any other part of my body. It was only later I realized the flaw in my reasoning, like not putting a hot cup of tea in between my legs. It happened just the same.
For some strange reason, even though I’m a ‘complete’, i.e. I have no movement or feeling below the level of my break, I have some sensation around the paralysed areas of my body. These sensations weren’t the same as they were before my accident. For example, I knew which leg or foot was being touched, but it was like feeling it through a wellington boot. Spinal injuries are like fingerprints in that no two people are exactly the same – even if their level of injury is.
Three weeks into my stay at Pinders I’d noticed there were an awful lot of people in wheelchairs; nothing much gets past this boy. I’d also noticed that a number of them came walking up the ward using a variety of crutches, sticks and walking frames. With this in mind I asked Sister Gill Hepplestone, “When will I start to learn to walk again?” Her answer shocked me, as much as for the way it was delivered as anything.
To understand why, you need to know what type of a nurse she was. She had a quiet, soothing voice. She used words like ‘lovey’, and ‘sweetheart’, which is exactly the sort of thing you want to hear when you’re going through a life-changing, traumatic incident, at nineteen. My mum hated her with a vengeance because she felt she should fulfil this soothing role. Unfortunately Mum couldn’t do it like Sister Hepplestone. Mum was more of the don’t-show-your-emotions type: common amongst those from the war generation.
With this in mind, Sister Hepplestone’s reply was, “You’re not here to learn to walk lovey. You’re here to be rehabilitated.” Rehabilitation being a euphemism for teaching patients how to live in a wheelchair. Rehabilitation was how to transfer, use the toilet, bath and even push a chair. It wasn’t about learning to walk. Well not for me apparently. I was gutted, as much by the most un-Gill-like response at a time I needed her comforting words most.
This was no John Wayne movie where, in 1957, he starred in the film ‘The Wings Of Eagles’. In it, Wayne falls down the stairs breaking his neck. Determined to walk again, he starts with the mantra, “I’m gonna move that toe.” It comes as no surprise to anyone that he bounces back to walk again. Supposedly a true story based on the life of Frank W. ‘Spig’ Wead, that line is all I can remember about the film. Strangely it was never used as part of the treatment in the Unit. Perhaps I should have brought it to their attention.
However, as I was to learn over time, the ability to walk moves down the list of things I’d like to change. Bowels and bladder being two of the main contenders.
As I mentioned earlier, the Olympics were held in Munich that September. The one where the Israeli team was decimated by terrorists. I would have loved to have seen it – the games I mean – although it soon became apparent the best I could do was to listen to the TV coverage.
There were two large TV’s, each mounted on the walls at the ends of the eight-bedders, with a small portable on a high trolley for use in the centre ward. Whether I could see it depended on a number of factors. I was turned every four hours to reduce the chance of pressure sores. That is to say that for four hours I’d be on my back, followed by four hours on one side, then four on the other. To see any of the action, I would have to be on one of my sides facing the TV, which would also have to be at an angle I could watch it. I didn’t see much of the action.
Lying in this prone position made everything that little bit harder. There was no sitting up to eat. Everything I ate had to be spooned, or forked in after being cut up into bite sized chunks. Cups were out. Drinks were sucked through straws served in plastic beakers. Simple things, such as reading a paper or a book, became almost impossible.
A few weeks after I’d been admitted, a young man from Northern Ireland joined us in the centre ward. He was a soldier who’d been shot whilst on active service in Northern Ireland. He appeared to be in a bad way, lying in his bed doubled up in pain all the time. Talking to him was futile. All he was interested in was when he could have his next painkillers. He’d shout out, day and night, pleading for them. The doctors kept prescribing him stronger painkillers until he finally ended up on morphine. For a while it seemed to do the trick. He was able to converse normally. Alas, before too long he was back to pleading for his next shot of morphine. There was no way he was going to get it any earlier so there he lay, one hour of respite followed by three hours of pain. I’m afraid the staff grew tired of his constant appealing, as did we.
One night, he was put into a single room on the corridor because things got so bad. It was one of those actions that made me feel uncomfortable. On the one hand, patients got some undisturbed sleep. On the other, a patient was isolated for non-medical reasons. I spoke to one of the nurses about my feelings. She had no doubt in her mind that it was the right thing to do, as she said, “We have a duty of care to all patients. The majority were unable to sleep because of his outbursts.” When he finally got out of bed into a wheelchair, he still complained about pain. I wondered if he would ever find peace.
I should have been up after two, not three, months, but I got a boil. Can you guess where? If you didn’t say testicles, I’ll bet you were close. The treatment kept me in bed for a further month.
All this time Mum and Dad visited me almost every day. It was a round trip of 50 miles. As there was no direct motorway link between the two towns, it would have meant them travelling up to an hour each way. Dad, a train driver, had to alter his shifts constantly to be able to visit at least part of the day. How easy for him to do this I don’t know. What I did know was that he loved his job. He’d driven all the major steam engines in his time. The Flying Scotsman, Mallard and Sir Nigel Gresley, were all in his portfolio. When they were replaced by diesel engines it didn’t alter his pleasure. In some ways he liked it more. Dad enjoyed being his own boss, and with steam engines there was always a fireman with him. It was only in the previous few years that British Rail staff pay, had improved to the point where we could afford luxury goods.
For example, not only had they finally installed a telephone, Dad had begun driving lessons again. The Reliant Robin was fine for our needs before my accident. It would be no use to us once I’d left hospital, as there was no way it could take a wheelchair. Against all the odds, Dad passed his test first time. Shortly after, we were the proud possessors of a light blue Vauxhall Viva. Even though it was only the standard model, it had a massive boot with plenty of room inside. I really admired him doing this for me, he would have been about 52 or 53 at the time. No mean feat for a man of that age.
I don’t remember receiving many visitors outside of family. I can vividly remember my brother Malcolm, and his wife Janet, walking down the corridor preceded by their tottering one-year-old daughter Sasha. I had more than one visit from them, though it wasn’t as if we were close. Malc was six and a half years older than me. I’m sure he was saddled with me when Mum wanted me out of the way, though in the main, the age gap was too great for us to socialize. At fifteen, when Malc and Janet got married, I was more concerned about the cricket match I was missing than their ceremony. As we watched the happy couple having photographs taken, one of Janet’s relatives said to me, “Do you think it will last?”
“I’m sure it will.” I replied, somewhat taken aback that anyone should ask such a question thirty minutes after they’d taken their vows.
I don’t know why I didn’t see more of my old friends. We were as thick as thieves before the accident. I expect it’s that whole thing of visiting, not knowing what to say to someone who will never walk again, feeling uncomfortable about talking of things that, they imagined, I would never be able to join in with again. Plus they had their own lives to lead. Most had gone to University or Polytechnic nowhere near Wakefield. Of course it could be that I wasn’t as popular as I thought I was.
Regardless of any of this, it actually didn’t matter. You soon form close bonds with people in the same boat as you. As you’re told – several times during the early days, by staff and patients – this was your new family. That was because you’d always need them at some stage. We had plenty to talk about. Not just medical matters, or which nurse was an angel or a pain in the bum either. Sport, particularly football, was never far from male patients’ topics of discussion, as were the issues of the day. We were, after all, just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Eventually I got up for the first time, the objective being to take me for a bath. I was taken in a wheelchair, passing out three times on the way because my blood pressure dropped too low. For a short time I was known as the pass out king, for which I was justly proud. I was brought round by Bill, the orderly I previously mentioned, tipping the wheelchair backwards so my feet were above my head. Eventually I made it into the bath. Once it was established I wouldn’t drown, I was left to luxuriate in its comforting warmth. It was a sort of freedom after three months of enforced bed-rest.
After a while Bill returned to wash me. Damn, I was hoping for someone a little more attractive, and I don’t mean one of the other orderlies. After three months there wasn’t any part of my body that nursing staff hadn’t seen. There was no embarrassment being nude in front of them, although I did draw the line at the cleaners.
One of the most debilitating conditions caused by my break was a continuous tight feeling in my chest. It was like having a steel band that restricted my breathing. It was there all the time I was awake, whether lying in bed or sitting in the chair. Hour after hour, day after day. The other major problem with my breathing occurred when the sun shone, sending the temperature soaring. As I didn’t sweat anymore, I had no internal way of keeping cool. Once I overheated, it took ages to cool down. The medical name for it is poikilothermia. Quads will readily adopt the ambient temperature of their environment, whether hot or cold. However, our brains are unable to receive messages that say it’s too hot or cold. Consequently it is unable to trigger the appropriate action. People with complete quadriplegia, like myself, are most at risk of both hypothermia (excessive cold) and hyperthermia (excessive heat). Fortunately, living in Britain, neither of these scenarios are that common. Add it to the ‘walking’ list anyway.
Of course when I said paralysis affected everything, it doesn’t take a genius to work out this included sex. I could get a decent erection, though there’d be no direct orgasmic pleasure for me. Not that this was a reason to dismiss it out of hand, particularly when you love your partner. It was still an important part of a relationship. Even if I could get a proper erection, what would I do with the catheter? Should I take it out or leave it in? The issue was never discussed as part of our rehabilitation. I can’t remember it ever being discussed by in-patients. On rare occasions it was discussed with outpatients. One, lamenting that he’d never have children, pulled me up sharply. Whereas children were never part of my life plan, sex certainly was. Frankly I felt robbed of one of the great natural pleasures of life that was available to all. I was relieved I’d had sex prior to my accident. At least I wasn’t condemned to be a virgin for the rest of my life. I knew that there was more to sex than penetration. I also knew I was no expert in these matters by any means. It was a depressing thought, but one that I could put to one side for now. I was still getting better after all.
Definitely add this to the list of things that might be more important than ‘walking’.
After a while I was able to sit upright without passing out. I began my rehabilitation with the physios, where I was measured for shoes that had holes in the heels for special, bespoke, leg callipers. The physio equipment consisted of two sets of parallel bars, a weight-lifting bench with weights, some free weights, a treatment table, a couple of Zimmer-type walking frames, a few crutches and sticks for those who were able to walk. There was also a cage-looking thing that quads, with higher levels of break than me, were attached to by springs. This enabled them to move their arms keeping, or enhancing, what movement they had. Starting in December, I did things in the gym for three months. The head physio, Maurice Smart, was another ex-Army man. A very straight, upright chap he didn’t bark out orders. In fact he was softly spoken if anything, although he expected patients to do what he asked them to. Protestations were brushed aside, as he wheeled them to the piece of equipment he had in mind for them. He was in his penultimate year before retiring at 65. His number two, Roger Ellis, duly took over Maurice’s position.
I was also assessed for a wheelchair, not that there was any real choice. There were two basic types of chair. The premium one was made by Everest & Jennings, the other by Vessa. It was mostly E & J chairs that were recommended for patients. The Vessa was lighter only because it was made of inferior metal to the E & J’s, chrome covered steel frame. Not that the E & J chair was anything to write home about. There was no ergonomic consideration in its design. It was difficult to get away from the stigma attached to using a wheelchair. It wasn’t too bad when I was on the ward with my fellow patients. As soon as I went out into the real world I became only too well aware that I was different. In time I would come to understand that a wheelchair was a convenient way of getting about if you couldn’t walk.
Mullins knew this too of course, and was a great advocate of patients getting out and about. He even encouraged nursing staff to take us down to the pub. I remember my first outing with them. It was to the Working Men’s Club, Syd Hollingsworth used.
It was typical of WMC’s of the 70’s – formica tables, mostly men, cheap beer. My most vivid memory was when I needed to empty my leg bag (a bag attached to my leg, which urine drained into from my catheter). A female nurse said, “I’ll take you.” She promptly got hold of my chair handles, then burst into the gents’ toilets. All the blokes at the stalls looked perplexed. She said, “It’s alright. I’m a nurse.” At which point they ignored us returning to the matter in hand, in some cases both hands. Drinking plenty of fluids didn’t just apply to alcohol either. We were encouraged to drink water, lots of water. Six water jugs, each holding a litre plus, was considered to be the ideal daily intake. Now that’s a lot water. Keeping your kidneys flushed was the key to good health, as kidney problems could be a killer.
And so my three months of toil began. Not that it bothered me of course. I’d distinguished myself leading my troupe of men for three days across a deluged Dartmoor after all. If anyone did need reminding what was expected of them, there was a very helpful plaque above the door to the ward. It said ‘WE CAN SHOW YOU HOW BUT YOU MUST MAKE THE EFFORT’. True, but irritating after a while.
All new patients were started on the equipment, such as it was, when what we really wanted was to be up in the parallel bars, trying to walk. My buddy, Tony Baldwinson, and I would have the callipers on at the weekend, getting a couple of hours in each day whilst waiting for our visitors to arrive. I only mention it to demonstrate how much effort many hundreds of patients, including us, put into trying to walk. It upsets me when the popular press run a story about someone who, “Doctors said he/she would never walk again, yet they proved them wrong because of their determination and dedication.” As if people like me just didn’t try hard enough. No one tried harder than me. I tell a lie. Bob Jowitt, whose break was almost identical to mine, learned to do swing through so he could ‘walk’ down the aisle to get married. (Imagine two crutches as one unit, Bob’s legs as the third. The two crutches would move forward as one unit whilst Bob would swing his legs through like a pendulum). It was so hard for him he never did it again.
Whilst I was the youngest on the ward at the time, spinal injury doesn’t distinguish between age, gender, social class, ethnicity, rich or poor. It also means you’re likely to have your share of ‘characters’. We did. There was one chap who had mental health problems. I, like most patients, tended to avoid him. Prone to shouting out for no apparent reason, he had a haunted look in his eyes. Somewhere along the way he started going to Stanley Royd Hospital for treatment. Stanley Royd, the local mental health hospital, was located in the same grounds as Pinderfields. After his first session there was a noticeable difference in him. After a few more sessions he’d been transformed. Into what exactly, was the question. If you asked him how he was feeling, every two or three words he’d grip the arms of his chair, straightening up as if he was reacting to an electric shock being passed through his chair. Whatever they’d done to him may have made his actions more acceptable, but at what cost to him? At least he thought he was better.
Maurice Smart was testimony to living a healthy lifestyle. He died on reaching 100 – driving into his 80’s, cycling into his 90’s. I didn’t follow his lifestyle I’m afraid. My body was less of a temple and more of a pub. I liked beer too much.
Wheelchair skills consist of more than just pushing about. We didn’t need to be told it was easier on the flat than uphill. Although, when I was first let loose, the ramp from the ward to the misleadingly named Restaurant, which wasn’t that steep, might as well have been the north face of the Eiger. Reaching the top deserved some form of celebration. I decided not throwing up would suffice.
Of course it was only a matter of time before I was strong enough to successfully push up much steeper ramps. The tricky manoeuvre was getting up and down kerbs. This meant balancing on my back wheels with the front wheels off the ground.
The physios advice was to practice with a bed behind us. After I got over the apprehension of over-balancing, it became fairly easy. Then came the acid test. Could I drop down a kerb on my back wheels? I was taken outside to the back of the hospital grounds where the roads were used less. Despite understandable nerves, I did it first time. Could I get back up though? The technique was to approach at speed then, just as I was about to hit the kerb, flick the front wheels up in the air, lean forward, pushing at the same time as my back wheels made contact with the kerb. Believe me, it’s easier to do it, than it is to describe it. As there were few dropped kerbs in the real world, this was an essential skill to have. For the record, I got up that first time as well.
Many patients were sent to Occupational Therapy, which was at the other end of the hospital. I was quite pleased not to be one of them. From what I heard they spent their time basket weaving, or at least making trays. I’m sure there must have been more to it than that except, for years afterwards, Syd Hollingsworth was still knocking them out. I had three or four of them over the years; and very good trays they were too.
When it comes to spinal injuries, there’s always someone who’s the exception to the rule. John Mattick was a higher break than me. He couldn’t use his hands, or feel most of his body. Despite that he could walk. They may have been slow, deliberate steps, as he had to watch where his feet were. Nevertheless, he could walk. At that time, I never saw any spinal injured person who came close to what John had achieved. That’s the thing with spinal injury. Even those with the same level of break may differ wildly in their abilities.
I used to hold the view that people who had their accident later in life took it harder than the younger patients. It was certainly my experience at the time I was first admitted. A bloke in the centre ward from Hull used to bang on about never being able to walk over those ’green fields’ ever again. Whilst I know there are plenty of open spaces in Hull, I doubted he’d walked over any green fields for some considerable time. Those of us who were in our late teens/early twenties wanted to get on with life. We might not have known exactly what it was we wanted to do, that was beside the point.
Rehab included learning to dress myself, which wasn’t the doddle you might first think. Since I couldn’t stand, I had to do everything on the bed. Pulling up pants and trousers involved a lot of rolling from side to side. It was exhausting at first. I felt like I’d done a session in the gym before I’d got out of bed.
Part of the dressing routine was securing a drainage bag to a leg. There was no distinction between night and day bags, so a little low tech solution was needed. Bags came with one metre length tubes, which was fine for night use. For day use they needed to be shorter. The answer? Cut the tube in half, remove the spigot from the cut end, pushing it into the tube attached to the bag. Then, I kid you not, the bag was pinned to a pair of Long Johns. I never understood why. As soon as there was any urine in the bag, down came the pants of the LJs. It was easier to re-pin the bag further up the leg as the day wore on, rather than try to pull them back up.
Once you could dress unaided, you were expected to get up for breakfast. As there was no dining room, tables were erected in between the rows of beds in the two main wings. It wasn’t very convenient for the staff as there wasn’t enough room to get the food trolleys past when we were seated at them. Probably the worst time was when the tea trolley came round at 3pm, when visiting hours started. By then the place was crawling with visitors and outpatients. Some outpatients were there to continue their rehab, some were there just for a chat. As 3pm was also when physio ended for the day, some came to use the sporting facilities, particularly weight-lifting and table tennis. In-patients were encouraged to join in. Table tennis was a game I’d enjoyed for many years, so I didn’t need to be asked twice. For me, this was inspirational. I was mixing with people who’d had their accidents not that long before mine. Yet, not only were they driving and playing sports, they were taking care of their own personal needs.
The more I mixed with the outpatients, the more I learned about them as a group. For example, the men would never decorate their chairs. No serious sportsmen would do such a thing. No way. There were, however, three things that were de rigueur. The objective of the macho male was to look completely different to the stereotypical view of a wheelchair user, thus injecting an element of cool. First up, get rid of the armrests. This was a sign that said, “I cannot be penned in.” Secondly, handles were removed so that you couldn’t be pushed, at least not easily, thereby declaring, “I need no assistance.” The biggy was to chop the back of the chair down as far as possible without falling out. This was the ultimate statement. The one that said, “I have no need of you. I am capable of looking after myself.” It didn’t take me long to dispense with the armrests. I decided I’d definitely get the hacksaw out once I was home. I did saw the handles off eventually, though I didn’t chop the back down. I realized a lower back meant I’d be kissing the floor very quickly.
No names were given to our chairs either. Names, like decoration, was the realm of women. The closest I came to hearing a wheelchair being given a name was by Gerry Mills, a weight-lifter, who called it his ‘barrer’.
I was introduced to some of the Paralympic sports at this time, in an ad hoc sort of way. In addition to table tennis, I’d listen to the weightlifters. They’d talk about what they were doing to improve their technique such as what they were eating or drinking, to what supplements they were taking. Gerry Mills made it plain that he would take anything if it would give him an edge. His logic being that the others in his class (heavyweight) were already doing it, therefore he was only evening things out. They’d constantly talk about weights. Weights they’d lifted, weights they were lifting, weights they were going to lift… I lost interest somewhere in the midst of this dialogue.
If the weather was okay, the archery gear was dusted off and we’d be out there trying to be the new Robin Hood. Robin had nothing to fear from us. There was an archery event, which was part of the internationals, that was ideal for fund-raising. Dart Archery took place in the clubs around Wakefield. Our Archers shot at a paper target, that was printed like a dart board, from as far away as the premises allowed, whilst their darts teams played as normal. Carl Hepple was always up for these fund-raising evenings. Carl rarely lost.
Another outdoor sport was the javelin. There were two games; the first was the usual throwing it as far as possible, the second was throwing it at a target which was a mere 10 metres away. The closer to the centre, the more points you scored. I couldn’t reach the target. The shot putt was equally disappointing, as was the discus. It was the first sign that my plan for taking the sports world by storm might not be as easy as I thought. I consoled myself with the thought that it was the first time I’d tried these sports. Inside I was gutted I hadn’t performed better.
Bowls was a little more difficult. Not the action of rolling the bowl. That was simply a matter of holding onto the non-bowling wheel, leaning over the other wheel, then rolling it. Job done. The problem was it was all flat green bowls in para sports, whereas we lived in crown green land. We had to rely on a mat being rolled out in the gym. It wasn’t as long or wide as the lanes were in Stoke Mandeville, the home of para sports in the UK. They, I was informed, had a purpose-built indoor bowls arena which they shared with a local bowls club. Furthermore, it was only played in the Commonwealth Games, not the Paralympics. Not in the Paralympics? Then I’d have to look elsewhere. Actually I did play it at Stoke; it was very enjoyable.
Apart from table tennis, fencing was another sport I became involved in. It wasn’t exactly the same as the able-bodied version. There was no movement involved, though it would have made it more interesting. In our version we were clamped to a frame. Although we didn’t have a frame. Instead we measured out the distance in the same way, putting our brakes on in place of the frame. There are three types of fencing, Sabre, Épée and Foil. Sabre and Épée were all slashing strokes, designed to bludgeon your opponent into defeat; no finesse needed. Unlike the foil which was probing, testing, feigning a move, trying to trick your opponent. It was, to me, the essence of fencing. That was until I fought Syd Hollingsworth. He treated the Foil like a Sabre. He’d slash away before muscling his way through my guard, forcing a winning point. I had no answer to his tactics. My methods were, frankly, namby pamby when dealing with Syd’s direct approach. I felt like a Cavalier, all airs and graces, fighting the uncouth Roundhead who didn’t know the rules of engagement.
The one sport I coveted above all others was basketball. I loved team ball games including basketball, which I’d played a bit at school. I thought that this could be the sport for me. The gym was too full of equipment at one end to actually play a game in, even though it had basketball hoops at either end. At quiet times, two or three of us would practice throwing the ball into the hoop at the clear end. On one of those days, a middle-aged chap sat watching us. He had a grey face suggesting he wasn’t too well. We were soon made aware that this was no interested bystander. We were shooting by simply holding the ball in our laps with both hands, one either side, launching it towards the hoop. After a short while the man spoke, “No, no, no.” he said, taking the ball from my lap. He went on, “You hold it like this.” He held it as we had. “Then you shoot like this.” He raised the ball shoulder high with two hands. Then he released his left hand leaving his right hand underneath. He flicked the ball with power. It sailed through the air, dropping neatly through the hoop. He carried on schooling us for half an hour in a very brusque manner, totally without any pleasure or light-heartedness, before drifting off. He appeared a few more times, each time passing on his advice. I asked Carl who he was:
“That’s Frank Taylor,” he said. “He was the best basketball player, archer, and field eventer in the country in his day.”
“What happened to him?” I asked. Turned out he had a condition affecting his liver or kidneys. He died in 1973. A wooden trophy for archery was carved in honour of his achievements.
I’d been up for a month when Christmas and New Year arrived. As I hadn’t spent any time at home, I had to stay on the ward. The week before Christmas the hospital nursing staff put on a show in the restaurant. This wasn’t as odd as it may have first sounded, as it had a stage at one end, a minstrels’ gallery at the other. It was a mixture of sketches and songs, most of which were full of in-jokes. It was entertaining just the same.
On Christmas Eve we were unexpectedly treated to a group of nurses singing carols. We were each even given a present. The blokes all got socks, I can’t remember what the women got. The socks were too small to tuck a drainage bag into, which meant they were hastily re-wrapped before being passed on to male relatives as late Christmas presents.
Christmas Day lunch was presided over by Dr Cook. He carved the turkey, wished us all a Happy Christmas, before leaving us to it. I felt a little cheated at the time. He hadn’t stayed long, or dined with us. Then again, he wasn’t the type who mixed with patients on any sort of social level. He was old school when it came to dealing with his charges.
A bar had been set up in the three-bedder next to the gym. It was a free bar. How was not a question I even thought of, let alone asked. I was fairly restrained during the Christmas period as there were so many visitors. At New Year, well that was a different matter. Hardly anyone came for a drink on New Year’s Eve, leaving it to me, and the husband of one of the patients, to do our best to uphold the finer traditions of Hogmanay. We started at lunchtime, working our way through the extensive selection on offer, right up to midnight when we sang, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, very quietly, as we were the only ones left up.
Other memories from that time were being forced to watch films brought in by ‘Friends of the Hospital’. I say forced because that’s what happened. You were asked, “Would you like to see the film?” Whatever you answered, your bed was pushed through to the gym anyway where the films were screened. 1972 was the year films such as ‘Cabaret’, ‘Deliverance’, ‘The Godfather’, were released. We wouldn’t be seeing any of those. No, the films we saw were ancient. Usually they were some dreary movie, in black and white, that wouldn’t make the 3am slot on ITV. Now there may be many reasons why television is bad for us. I’m sure you could come up with many of your own. However, their proliferation on the ward killed off the ‘Friends’ enforced movies. For that alone, TV will have my undying devotion.
At some point I became involved with a nurse, Sue Watterson. She was a small brunette, for a change. Like Maddie, she wasn’t a natural beauty. It was her personality that I found irresistible. She also drove a mini which, with a bit of pulling and shoving, I was able to get in and out of. The chair, amazingly enough, fitted into the boot. We had a few outings, including a couple of fund-raising events which took place whilst I was still on the ward. Not long after I left the ward for good, her father picked me up to take me to their house for Sunday Lunch. It was somewhere miles away in West Yorkshire. I seemed to get on well with her family. “This might develop into something,” I thought. I think it’s fair to say that my mum successfully ended our relationship at the Pinderfields Games in May, but that can wait for now.
After three months I hadn’t mastered everything. I could get in and out of bed on my own, even though it was too high for a level transfer (hospital beds were at a fixed height). I couldn’t get on or off the toilet, or in and out of the bath, unaided. Nevertheless, I knew I had the skills to do so when I had things set up for me at home. The method I used to transfer onto the toilet was to angle the chair along one side of the pan. At the other side of the pan I needed a horizontal handrail, which I grabbed hold of, then pushing my other fist into the cushion on the chair, I lifted myself onto the toilet. This meant that at one side of the pan there had to be enough space to get my chair alongside. The handrail at the other side had to be attached to something substantial. Usually this is a wall. Surprisingly though, there wasn’t one toilet on the ward that fitted these requirements.
Transferring into and out of a bath was more or less the same. I required a space at one side large enough to get the wheelchair alongside, with a horizontal handrail at the other side. Getting out was harder than getting on or off the toilet though. I was now hauling my whole body from the bottom of the bath to the top; balancing myself on the rim. From there I slid onto my chair. It put an enormous strain on my shoulders, which were effectively my legs as well. Unfortunately, the baths on the ward were positioned so staff could get all the way around, giving me no chance of practicing that manoeuvre.
By now, Tony Baldwinson and I had been placed in the three-bedder next to the gym, which meant we were getting close to being discharged. Now the advantage of being in the three-bedder was that we could watch what we wanted on TV. At the start we were on our own, an arrangement that suited us fine. Then the third bed was filled. With the soldier.
Yet what could so easily have turned into a catastrophe for us, became a positive experience. We made a conscious decision to include him in our discussions. For example, Monday night was always ‘Pot Black’ on BBC 2. We’d each pick out favourites then follow their progress. The soldier had his difficult moments, although they were much less than they were before. Unfortunately I heard that when Tony and I left, he reverted back to how he’d been before. Things came to a head when he complained of feeling unwell, whilst doing something with Roger in the gym. He flopped forward. Mullins was quickly on the spot as were the crash team. The soldier didn’t make it. He’d had a pulmonary embolism – a blood clot on the lung.
By now I’d had three or four weekends at home, sleeping in our front room. It wasn’t the largest room in town, though you could probably swing a cat in it if the mood took you. On one of those weekends I was visited by my old youth club footballing mates. It was a disaster. They sat round the room clearly feeling uncomfortable, waiting for the appropriate time when they could leave. They didn’t know what to say to me, nor I to them come to think of it. I never saw them again after that day.
Part of the routine when it came time to leave Pinders was for Dr Cook, the Consultant, to have you in for a chat. Dr Cook was a tall, thin, angular man who wore half-moon glasses. Part of this chat was to ask what I intended to do in the future. I said that I intended to go back to college, improve my ‘A’ Levels, then apply to do an Economics degree. It was the only part of my course in Sheffield that I’d really enjoyed. I sat back expecting some encouraging remarks for making the effort to do something positive. He laughed like a drain. “Economics!” he said, peering over those glasses in the way people do because they think it gives them gravitas. Adding, “What use is that?” I wasn’t best pleased.
Almost six months to the day after my accident, I was being sent home – to what? I’d dreamt of the day I could go home, though at the back of my mind I realized I was losing my safety net. Fortunately, it was considered I would benefit from more physio, three times a week. When I finally got my three-wheeled Invalid Carriage/Tricycle, or Noddy Car as we called them, I was able to get over there whenever I liked.
It will come as no surprise to learn that a spinal injury doesn’t just affect your physical abilities. Your self worth, self confidence, even what you feel about your own body, takes a real nosedive. Some seem to turn it to their advantage; that’s not the norm. It certainly wasn’t for me. There was always the feeling that, although I might have an idea of what I wanted to do educationally, what about the rest of my life? I would throw myself into sport, that was a given. What about girlfriends? My old mates? Other people? What would their reaction be to me? How would I handle it?
I remembered, a few years before, seeing a young lad in a wheelchair in the Salutation, one of the pubs where my mates and I from home all used to drink. It was the first time I’d been near a disabled person. Although I wasn’t expected to interact with him, I still felt uncomfortable. Now, that young lad was me…
Bob Jowitt’s Wedding, 1 September 1973.
L-R Syd Hollingsworth, me, John Mattick, Bob, Barbara, Stuart Lindley and Billy Leake.
Standing in the parallel bars whilst an in-patient c1972/73.
Roger’s in the middle, Tony’s on the right.
In my first Pinderfields tracksuit c1973.
Basketball Team c1975/76.
From L to R, Steve ?, Steve Donnelly, Colin Peate, Don Kennedy (Coach), Me, Arthur Lee, Syd Hollingsworth, Carl Hepple and Derrick Dagless.
In classic defensive position 1974. Photo courtesy of the IPC.
AC built invalid carriage.
Or Noddy Car as they were affectionately known.
Arriving home was exciting yet daunting at the same time. Apart from my journeys to physio, this is where real living began again. I wasn’t getting better any more.
In the beginning it was an ambulance that took me to Pinders. Later it was a volunteer driver. They used their own cars and were paid for the mileage they racked up. Seems to make sense doesn’t it? Well my driver was well into his seventies. I couldn’t help envisaging him having a heart attack whilst en route. He really struggled to put the wheelchair into the boot. I was grateful, but it was a great relief when I finally got my Noddy Car. I had to wait for a few months for it to arrive but, oh what a difference it made to my life.
The Noddy was something of a joke with those of us who owned them. They certainly hadn’t been designed by Enzo Ferrari. The specification must have included: design something that’s obviously for crips, which no one would want to steal. They were single seater, three wheeled, blue fiberglass vehicles. They had a top speed of 50mph and were no fun in the wind. What can’t be denied is that it gave me the independence of transport, so who am I to to take the piss?
When it was delivered I had to drive to town and back, followed by the blokes who brought it. When I got back they said I was competent to drive it, put L plates on then left. It wasn’t exactly stacked with extras. In fact outside of a heater, it had none. The controls were more motorbike than car. A thickish metal rod ran from the centre of the floor. Legs were placed at either side. At the top, was a tiller bar. It had twist grip controls on the right hand grip. There were no gears to worry about. To accelerate you twisted one way, to slow down you twisted the other way. The brake was applied simply by pushing the whole tiller bar downwards. Although it had sliding doors at each side, wheelchair users had to get in at the left hand side. The wheelchair was folded such that the wheels were brought together. As the Noddy’s chair slid from this side to the centre, the driver only had to pull the wheelchair inside.
It left no space to carry passengers of course. However, if they got into the right hand side, put their legs underneath the driver’s legs whilst twisting their torso round, I’m lead to believe that two can travel as easy as one. Not that I’d condone such irresponsible actions, which is why I only did it once or twice. Okay, maybe more.
When I first came home, one of the first people to call was our GP. I can’t remember what the reason for his visit, or if there was one at all. All I can remember was him banging on about how sad it was. Really cheered me up. Following a visit from neighbours for drinks, along with some very awkward conversation, we were back to normal. Whatever that was going to be like.
By far the major event during these early months revolved around adaptations to our house. Nothing had changed since I’d had my last weekend break at home, despite discussing it with Social Services months before. There was no process to deal with people like me. It was as if I was the first person to request alterations of this sort. Not that they were excessive. I needed a hard standing for my car, ramped access to the side door, a platform lift to get me upstairs, a handrail at the side of the toilet, with another at the side of the bath. Social Services had responded quickly enough to our initial request for help, although the Social Worker was a right know-all saying that it was, “Highly unlikely the Council would approve your request.”. The next time we heard from her was when she came back to offer us a five, yes five, bedroomed house in Balby, an area we didn’t know having never lived there. Why? Because it had a downstairs bedroom. Mum was incandescent with rage. She decided to take matters into her own hands, starting with the local press. The Doncaster Free Press was like any other paper, local or national. If there was a Council they could give a good kicking to, they’d be there. When the story appeared there was plenty of poor crip, nasty Council copy, with photos to match.
The following days saw an amazing change in Social Services’ attitude. We were also visited by one of our newly elected Councillors. Although we were part of a ward that had a large Council Estate, there was an even larger Private Estate, Bessacarr, which meant we always returned three Tory Councillors. This year, for the first time, a Labour Councillor was elected. How he’d slipped through the net is a mystery. He didn’t look like a closet Tory; he didn’t look like a stereotypical Labour man either. In fact he looked so dishevelled in his appearance, he wouldn’t have looked out of place on the CND marches at Aldermaston that were popular in the 60’s. Nevertheless, being a young, enthusiastic chap, he was only too pleased to take up our case. Between the two of them, workmen turned up within the month. We had a new Social Worker by then who came complete with the social skills her predecessor sadly lacked. She still held the departmental line, telling us that it wasn’t necessary to have gone to the papers as everything was in hand. Drat, if only we had known…
At the first sports day in May, I did manage to take part in some the sporting events. It wasn’t purely about Mum trying to break up my relationship with Sue. I had a go at a few events, including sitting on the sidelines of the basketball, all without success. However, it was in the fencing that I experienced beginner’s luck. There were only four of us competing, even so, one of them was the GB number 1. After disposing of Bob Jowitt in my semi final, I found I was facing him in the final. It was a best of three. Somehow, it was one each after the first two. Actually I could tell he was just playing with me, in a fencing sort of way that is. No doubt expecting to finish me off in the final round with an Errol Flynn flourish, sending my sword flying into the air whilst laughing haughtily. No sooner than ‘en garde’, had been called when I straightened my arm out before he had chance to block it, striking him in his chest. I’d won. I’d actually beaten the top fencer in the country. I felt on top of the world. The trophy was worth winning as well. It was a small sword, about two foot long, mounted on a wooden plinth, which I held for a year.
It was around then that Mum killed off my relationship with Sue Watterson. I’d come to the sports day with Mum and Dad and tried to involve Sue as much as possible, whilst Mum had tried to do the opposite. Out of the blue, Mum decided we needed to leave. Before I could say anything to Sue, we were gone. Handles on wheelchairs are a double edged sword (just to milk my finest hour a little further). They’re great when you need a hand to get up a steep incline. They’re not so great when they’re used to take you somewhere you don’t want to go. It wasn’t long after when I had them chopped off. The handles, that is. The next time I was in Sue’s company I could feel an icy, Arctic wind that would have had King Penguins doing their fatherly dance. I decided to chalk it up to experience.
It was around this time that Stuart Lindley raised the bar in the macho man wheelchair stakes. He added a fourth category, which I foolishly followed. He announced one day that he was removing the brakes from his chair. The object of this was to announce, “I am master of this chair.” The first time I’d had one or two drinks too many, I got on my stairlift as I’d done many times before. For some reason I didn’t pull the security bar down. You’re ahead of me I know. The stairlift had gone about four feet when I rolled off. Fortunately my forehead broke my fall, leaving me with a large gash gushing blood everywhere. Perhaps not gushing but there was an awful lot of it. An ambulance was summoned to take me to A & E, where I was treated like some sort of pariah. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was just another drunk on Saturday night, taking up valuable NHS resources. After waiting for hours, they stitched me up. The following day I put the brakes back on the chair.
Nothing prepared me for my first National Games at Stoke Mandeville in Aylesbury. We met up in Pinders car park one Sunday morning. A few were driving down in their own cars, whilst most of us travelled by coach. However, the coach didn’t have a lift, or anything else to help non-walkers. It was left to Ron, and a guy called Tony McCann, to physically lift us onto the coach. In my case that took some effort. Nowhere near as much as Gerry Mills though, who was a really big guy. I spent most of the journey trying to get into a comfortable position. This was not a new coach though. Any comfort it once possessed, had literally ’had the stuffing knocked out of it’ a long time ago. Tony turned out to be the chair of Pinderfields Paraplegic Fellowship Committee, which raised money to pay for us to attend sporting events. He worked for a Leeds based motor car company, so I think he must have obtained the coach somewhere along the line. I suspect cheapness may have had something to do with it. The sort that came with having friends in low places. He was an odd fish though. Saying very little to anyone, he seemed to spend all week trying to get laid. Something he seemed unbelievably good at.
Stoke Mandeville was truly the home of sports for disabled people, both nationally and internationally. Every year there wasn’t an Olympics, there was an international games at Stoke. As we drove though the entrance my eyes were pulled one way, then the other. When the bus pulled up it was outside a number of what looked like army billets. They were large, single storey wooden buildings with apex roofs. All in a row.
“What’s this place?” I asked.
“It’s where we’re staying.”
I didn’t have a good feeling about this. I was right not to. As we entered I saw four rows of beds. Two along the sides of the hut, two down the centre, with just enough room to get a wheelchair alongside. There was a basic washing/toilet block attached. So this is what the home of spinal injury sports looked like. I was glad we were there only a week.
We shared the hut with the Scotland team. For some reason we got on well with them. Or at least whoever had arranged the accommodation thought so. We arrived first, which gave us the pick of the beds. As we settled in there was a cacophony of noise outside; it sounded like bedlam, with a distinct Scottish accent. As soon as they entered the hut it started. The banter, the insults, the general bonhomie of friends who hadn’t seen each other since the previous year. They were on top note the whole time. I felt like an outsider looking in on a private club.
It soon became clear that this environment belonged to Geoff Conlan, our orderly from the ward. He was up by 6.30am every morning. After showering he dressed, then began his daily tasks. The first being making the tea. This really endeared him to the Scots as they didn’t have a Geoff. Our Geoff made it clear he was supporting Pinderfields, and only Pinderfields. Then he’d be taking care of minor injuries, making beds, organizing the laundry plus any other tasks that came his way. Finishing by lunchtime he’d socialize the rest of the day. He seemed to know everyone, including the top dogs. Geoff had a penchant for unusual night wear though. One year he turned up with karate style pyjamas. He was mercilessly lambasted all week. He couldn’t have cared less, throwing his head back, ignoring all that was thrown at him.
There was no privacy during the mornings or evenings. Well maybe there was one set of screens to pull round your bed if it was deemed necessary. Otherwise it was one large open bedroom. If I needed to take care of essential maintenance, such as changing a catheter etc. I had to wait till late morning when the games got under way.
Breakfast was served in one of the buildings near the centre, as were lunch and dinner. The food was okay, given the number of people they were catering for.
We, that is Bob Jowitt, Derrick Dagless, Billie Leake, Stuart Lindley and myself, tended to stick together as we all played table tennis. Stuart also competed in weightlifting, Billie in the snooker. Bob and I took part in the fencing. Bob was probably my best friend at this time, sharing the same sense of humour as well as taking part in the same sports. Apart from our breaks being at the same level, there were only two days between our birthdays.
Derrick was often the butt of our jokes, mainly because he’d make some outrageous claims, whereas Stuart was intensely passionate about things that took his interest. Billie, on the other hand, was serious; methodical. He once built a table tennis table. It seemed to take forever before he finished it. When he brought it in we could see why. It was perfect, a real work of art.
Basketball was the premier sport. It was exciting in a way none of the other sports were. Basketball was supposed to be a non-contact sport. Nothing could be further from the reality. The classic move was to hit your opponent sideways on, knocking his chair, with him in it, onto the floor. Of course this type of manoeuvre attracted the ref’s attention; but the crowds loved it. Most of us were on the Pinders basketball team. I’ve deliberately phrased it that way as opposed to saying we played for the team, because we rarely did. As in able-bodied basketball, only five players were allowed on court at any time. Games were played on the same size courts including the height of the nets.
The only difference was that players were assessed as being a one, two or a three. A one being the least able in terms of impairment, a three being the most able. The total points on court had to be 11 or less. Few of the ones were much cop. Our team were mostly ones. We only got a game if someone was sent off, or we were so far ahead we could afford to drop points. Basketball was the only team game in para sports. I’d loved team games all my life, consequently I was devastated to find I was crap at it. My level of my break coupled with being tall was probably the worst combination for this sport. Yet for years, I dragged my sorry arse around the country, in the hope that one day it would all come together, making my star shine like a beacon. The reality was the Hubble telescope couldn’t have found it, no matter how many years it looked for it.
For some reason, which I never understood, we hated Southport, another club attached to a Spinal Unit. Not that that was the reason. It seemed to be more to do with their three best players, Phil Craven, Vinnie Ross and Gerry Kinsella. They were labelled as being dirty cheats. At least they were by us. Although I never saw anything to back this up, I joined in with moaning and groaning anyway.
If truth be known, I was somewhat in awe of Phil. I secretly wanted to be like him. There, I’ve said it. At one time that would have been a hanging offence at Pinders. I didn’t know exactly where his break was compared to mine. All I knew was his style of play might just work for me. Like me, he had a full size back on his chair. He played in an upright posture whereas the rest had low backs, playing bent double as they chased around the court. Yes he was arrogant. Yes he did a fair bit of ‘sledging’, to borrow a cricketing term, winding the opposition up thereby giving his team the edge. It wasn’t his playing skills or his confidence in himself that fanned my jealously. It was his whole lifestyle.
One year I saw him pushing along with a small child on his lap, behind him was his wife with another small child. Okay, children still weren’t my favourite, even so, they looked a perfect family. I knew he had a good job with the Coal Board, when so many had no intention of working. The killer for me though, was that his wife was gorgeous. As in if she walked into a room, however large, every heterosexual male would stop talking just to watch her. She was also French, and Phil was talking to her in perfect French! Admittedly it was in a thick Bolton accent. Didn’t detract from that moment when I really envied another person. My basketball skills didn’t get any better either.
At least I got to compete in other sports, even if I was knocked out after the first or second rounds. Table tennis, fencing and bowls made up those I took part in. By the end of the week I had nothing more to show for it than enjoyment. I’d say that was a positive result given that it was less than a year since my accident.
The lowest point of the week had nothing to do with the sports. On 6th June the England football team were beaten in a world cup qualifier by Poland, 2-0. There were no TV’s, so we were clustered around a radio that someone had the foresight to bring with them. Getting beaten was one thing. Getting beaten whilst sharing the same hut as the Scots was unbearable. The game was on Tuesday – we didn’t leave until Sunday. They reminded us – every single day.
My final memory of that first year was when Derrick challenged Syd to a 100 metres race. It all started when Derrick said Syd was an old man, telling him he could beat him because he was young. The gauntlet barely hit the table when Syd snatched it up. The only track available was an old stretch of well used tarmac. The following morning, Derrick and Syd lined up at the start. Someone shouted ready, steady, GO. Syd was away with his trademark fast, short pushes. Derrick pushed hard once, turning his chair over backwards, hitting the tarmac, much to the hilarity of the rest of us. He wasn’t allowed to forget it in a hurry.
I’d got in touch with Doncaster Metropolitan Institute of Higher Education (DMIHE), soon after leaving Pinders. It was like a sixth form college in that it did A Levels, although it did a lot of other courses that targeted trades as well. I’d met with some college officials to see about the courses I wanted to take whilst checking out how accessible the building was. They’d promised me my own parking space – result. Also, I only wanted to take, Economics and Maths ‘A’ Levels. The College wanted me to take General Studies as well; three being the norm for students taking A Levels. We had a frank, open discussion, at the end of which I agreed to include General Studies. Deal done, one Monday in September 1973, a little over a year since my accident, I parked in my designated spot. My year at DMIHE had begun.
Travelling back to Pinders for rehab, two or three times a week, put me back in my comfort zone. As I mentioned earlier, going out was another matter. As soon as I left the house I was extremely self-conscience. Never more so than going into a class of sixteen and seventeen year olds. It wasn’t just the disability, it was an age thing too. Okay, I hadn’t exactly seen the world; I hadn’t seen much of Yorkshire if it came to that. At twenty, the age gap was huge. Not only had I already experienced college life, I’d lived away from home. The hippy gear had gone, as had smoking dope. Only the hair remained. On the surface I was like them, yet we were poles apart. I did make friends whilst I was there, though it never went further than a couple of drinks in the pub when we’d finished at lunchtime. If I return to my opening theme about every set of teens using music to establish at least some of their independence in the world, prog rock was dead in the water as far as they were concerned. The music that floated their boat was led by the likes of Slade, or glam rock bands like the Sweet. Groups I wouldn’t have crossed the road for, however narrow it was.
Luckily, a few unexpected friends appeared on the scene who helped me through those early days by taking me out, usually to a pub, or into their homes. I say unexpected because although I knew them all, we hadn’t particularly been in touch for a couple of years or more. My closest friends were all away at Universities or Polytechnics.
The first was Alan Weston, the late Mike’s brother. He wasn’t anything like Mike. He had longish ginger hair, with a strong, lean body from manual work. He wasn’t the least bit interested in academic life, apart from studying things to do with his chosen career; an electrician or sparky. He had a completely different taste in books to Mike. If they didn’t have a killing on the first page, then he wouldn’t read it. On saying that, I’m sure it was Alan who got me to read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’. His musical tastes weren’t so far apart from my own so we had enough common ground to go for a beer, or rather several beers, on a weekend. There were plenty of, “You’re my best mate you are,” as we parted company at my front gate.
Alan worked for a company that sent him around the country on contact work. He was often working away during the week. When he returned home we’d head for the ‘Two Palfreys’, one of our local hostelries. The two steps into it were nothing for Alan. The pub was in two parts. Immediately on the right was a standard bar with the usual bar games available. A mini ballroom was straight ahead where local groups would play at weekends, or it would be hired out for functions. It was a shame they didn’t have more bands or singers on. Even though none of them were destined to live the dream, they were better than looking at the same old faces week after week. Alan was in a band. He had a more than passable rock voice and could play the moody lead singer up to the hilt. They played the Palfreys one time, acquitting themselves very well. As with so many others before them, the band was short lived.
One of the most bizarre things I witnessed in the bar involved cribbage players. There were many regular players who, to me, all seemed to be old men. On saying that we quite liked to play occasionally. On this particular Saturday night all the old stagers were in their usual places, concentrating on their games. Suddenly, all hell broke loose as two of them, partners, started arguing about who’d lost the game. This escalated into a fight within seconds, or it would have if the table hadn’t been in the way. The whole pub was in uproar. Even Alan got involved trying to keep the protagonists apart. In the end, one of them went home leaving the other to tell his side of the story to anyone who’d listen. The conclusion to this incident was most unexpected, well to me it was. The following Saturday the cribbage players were all in place – including the two who’d been fighting the week before – partnering each other, just as they always did.
Another friend who turned up out of the blue was Dave Morley. Despite being in the year above me at school, we’d played in the school football and rugby teams together. We’d got on well, although he wasn’t in my immediate circle of friends. His claim to fame at that time was that he hadn’t missed a Donny Rovers home game in five years. Some may say get a life, me included. Not that I’d ever done anything of note so who am I to decry his passion? I was delighted when he asked if I’d liked to go out with him and his girlfriend one night. As lovely as she was lively, Sue was a few years younger than Dave. That first outing became a regular event, or as regular as anything was in my life at that time. Picking me up on Saturday nights, we’d drive out to various pubs, always stopping for fish and chips which we’d eat in the car. Dave always drove, which limited his drinking. We did our best to make up for his losses.
The third person to contact me was one of my former close school friends. Steve ’Pop’ Hall, had left school at 16. He was always the joker in the pack. One of his favourite gags was to say, “What’s the use of History. There’s no future in it.” Well maybe it’s lost a little over time. As he lived in Thorne, a good 8 miles away, we hadn’t kept in touch. Married now, he was still living in Thorne. Not the Council house he’d been brought up in though. He now lived on a new private estate. I’d often drive over there for a few hands of cards and a beer with a couple of his mates.
Once when I was round at Steve’s, a friend of his, who lived a few doors down, called round. He was a couple of years younger than us. Steve introduced him as a cricketer, followed by, “You used to play cricket didn’t you Trev?”
“Well no more than school level.”
At the time I thought I’d heard his name somewhere before. It came to me on the way home. He’d just been picked for the England under nineteens. It was Ian Botham.
There was no particular structure as to who I saw or when. It was quite fluid although, over the next few years, I suppose it was Alan I saw the most. We’d do the working men’s clubs, mainly because they were the only places you could hear live music. They also sold cheap beer, which was another point in their favour. On saying that, we did see David Bowie’s classic Ziggy Stardust tour at the Top Rank nightclub on 27 June 1973. Now that was a show. Was Bowie gay? Who knew. There were times he and Mick Ronson looked like they were making out on stage. Didn’t bother the punters who sang along with every song. Which was all very well, except I hadn’t bought a ticket to listen to them.
During all these times I was still conscious that I was in a wheelchair. What really cheesed me off was being approached by blokes in pubs saying, “What’s wrong with you then?” Or, “What happened to you?” They weren’t trying to strike up a friendly conversation, they were just nosey bleeders. I’d like to have asked them, “Why are you such a fat bastard?” I just didn’t have the nerve.
I have to own up to ducking the issue early on with Alan. I told him I was just the same as I always was, except I was sitting down. It satisfied Alan’s curiosity, even though it wasn’t true, as I often heard him trot it out to others.
Things that changed my routines rather abruptly were; Dave and Sue becoming pregnant; Alan meeting a young woman, Linda, who he eventually married; Steve’s marriage breaking up – I think he was caught playing away from home as they say in all the best clichés. What is true is that I never saw or heard from him again.
Alan’s wife, Linda, was one of a twin. Born in Edinburgh, the family moved to London whilst they were at a young age. Although brought up together, one talked like she’d just ‘Knocked them in the Old Kent Road’, whilst the other could have walked straight off the set of ’The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’. Alan married the latter, whilst her sister, Julie, married Al’s mate.
Whilst my year at DMIHE had passed quickly, it’s worth spending a little longer on my time there for two reasons. The first of which I already knew – I wasn’t naturally gifted or blessed with a photographic mind. It was the further revelation that put things into perspective. If I really wanted something, I’d have to put the bloody work in for it. From that moment, the Economics grade ‘A’ was in the bag. I made sure I did all my homework on time, going that extra mile by reading around the subject. What’s more, I actually enjoyed it. It was that irritating sign back in the gym all over again, ‘WE CAN SHOW YOU HOW BUT YOU MUST MAKE THE EFFORT’.
Secondly, I had a stroke of luck. My Economics tutor asked me which Universities I’d applied to. I read him my list. As it happened, none had made me an offer. He said, “Have you thought about Hull?” I said no. He said it would be ideal. “It’s flat everywhere,” he said, “and they already take disabled students.” It turned out he’d gone there. I took up his offer to ring one of his old professors for me. Before I knew it, I’d received an offer of two C’s.
The exams took place during a heat wave. For some reason I didn’t take my exams with my colleagues. I took them in one of the outlying buildings with a group of other students. I was quietly pleased with this arrangement as it was an old building with thick walls, meaning it didn’t get as hot as newer buildings. With the exams over, it was just a case of waiting for the results.
Around the second week in August, my letter duly arrived confirming my ‘A’ in Economics. Disappointingly, I only got a ’D’ in Maths. As for my grade in General Studies? There wasn’t one, as I’d seen enough after the second class to realize it was a waste of time. Nevertheless, I’d scored more points than I needed meaning Hull beckoned in October. To say I was pleased with myself would be a massive understatement. I was well-fucking-pleased. I’d made it. Top 5% in the country. Whilst it had never occurred to me, even during my three years at Uni, I’d done it as a crip too. Not too shabby for kid from a Council estate.
The few adapted rooms at the main university campus, The Lawns, had all been allocated. Needler, an all male hall, stepped in asking me what I needed. I wrote to them, including some rudimentary drawings, describing the essentials. A couple of months later I received a letter inviting me to the Freshers weekend, introduction to Needler Hall etc. It fell on the same Saturday as my cousin’s wedding, which I was keen to attend. I rang the warden, Bob Chesterton, explaining my dilemma to him, saying I could be there Sunday. Far from being sympathetic, he told me that if I missed it, there’d be no one available to meet me, or show me round. I rolled up on time with Mum and Dad following on bringing my stuff. I’d checked out my room, toilet and bath. They were all spot on for my purposes, which meant I could relax. I should have checked them out before this I know, although as the ramp hadn’t been completed until a few days before the Freshers weekend, it would have made things a little difficult. This was some ramp too; it must have cost a small fortune.
Before they left, Mum and Dad gave me a present which they thought might help me with my studies. It was a state-of-the-art calculator with loads of mathematical functions. Calculators were still fairly new, consequently they were expensive. This one cost £20 at a time when the average wage was around £38 a week! That was one hell of a present. I felt really touched by their generosity. They would have seen it as giving their son, me, something useful to start on my University career. Of course it was more than that. It was an act of love. One which none of us were equipped to deal with properly. I should have thrown my arms around them, thanked them for it whilst telling them I loved them, as they should with me. (Just like we should have done on their first visit after my accident in Hull Royal.) We didn’t. They stood there whilst I made the appropriate, “Thank yous.” Then, after an uncomfortable moment’s silence, we said our goodbyes and they left. I used that calculator for many years.
Needler Hall was, “A traditional, 18th century country house in attractive grounds close to Cottingham village shops and social amenities. Needler Hall is only 2.5 miles from the University campus.” I never took much notice of the building. It had become expanded into a hall of residence, so bore little resemblance to how it looked in the 18th century. My wing, located on two floors, was separate from the main building. As well as the common room, my floor had bathroom facilities, a kitchen, a games room, along with the bedrooms. This common room consisted of a piano and the only television in the hall. Some rooms had very attractive vistas overlooking the extensive lawns. My room looked onto the car park.
The main building was given over to dining facilities, serving breakfasts and evening meals. It wasn’t unknown for us to supplement the evening meal with fish and chips, preferably from the Finkle Street chippy (as if the three course evening meal wasn’t enough!). They were bloody tasty though.
At the welcoming event, the common room was crammed full of first years, all seemingly wearing their interview outfits. Including me, even though I hadn’t been interviewed. We all waited intently to hear the words of wisdom. They consisted of the warden telling us he lived in the Hall with his wife and two small children. He also laid out the hall rules, which seemed to consist of not being an arse. No letting off fire extinguishers, keep the noise down… No surprises there. A few words from the Hall President; even fewer from the Keeper of the Keys. The whole sorry event was brought to a close with a quick guide as to what was where. The Keeper of the Keys was just a glorified go between. If there were any misunderstandings between Needler students and the Landlord of the Cross Keys, the pub directly across the road, it was his job to smooth things over. What a waste of time it all was. From what I’d learnt, I’d have been no worse off if I’d turned up on Sunday. I was well pissed off.
As you do at these events, I looked for someone to go for a beer with. The only bloke I’d had any sort of a conversation with so far was older than me. He was rather too well spoken for my tastes too, but needs must. We headed for the Cross Keys to find it crammed full of Freshers with the same idea. After we’d been served it became clear that this relationship was going to whither and die fairly quickly. “What are you studying Ben?” I asked.
“I’m studying Politics.” he replied. “Actually, I’m a Captain in the Army. In fact they’re paying me whilst I’m on the course.”
Army? Pay? Politics? It sounded to me like he was sent to learn infiltration techniques.
As luck would have it, we found a table to put our beers on. There were a couple of guys sitting at it, so I introduced myself and Ben. They responded by saying they were Hugh and Steve. Shortly afterwards, Ben moved on. He must have decided they weren’t for him. Fortunately, they were exactly the sort of people I wanted to spend time with. I saw Ben now and again during the first week, then not at all after that.
This being Saturday, it was Freshers Ball night. I don’t know if anybody from Needler went as it was far too busy for me to find anyone. Sitting just at the entrance selling newspapers, was a guy in a wheelchair. I could see he was a spinal injury from the way he sat, along with the lack of chair arms. I thought I’d introduce myself to him.
“Hi,” I said, “my name’s Trevor. This is my first day.” He mumbled something.
“What are you studying?”, he asked.
“Economics,” I replied. His response was reminiscent of Dr Cook’s, “What use is Economics,” when I told him of my plans to study the course.
“Keynes got it wrong didn’t he?”, he said in a manner that really meant, “Fuck off you’re cramping my style.“ Except he didn’t have a style. Unless dickhead qualifies.
“Do you think so?” I persevered.
“It’s obvious isn’t it?”, was his gruff response. It was clear he wanted to have the same relationship with me as he did with syphilis. Which after our exchange, I sincerely hope he got. I bought a paper from him anyway. It was the ‘Socialist Worker’, which said a lot about his sense of humour bypass.
“No,” I thought. “I’ll stick with Labour.”
I could have sworn it was Sweet who headlined the set. However, their list of engagements for 1974 said they were in Denmark at the time. On consulting friends, opinion is divided as to whether it was Mud or The Rubettes. Consensus puts Sweet to have played the Christmas Ball. In both cases they were better than I expected. When you saw them on Top of the Pops they were slick, smooth and sickening. Live they often sent themselves up, whilst singing their hits of course. It all made for a bloody good night. I remember someone helpfully pushing me to one side of the stage, when Sweet played. Right in front of Steve Priest, their bass player. He was as camp as a row of tents, or at least that was the role he played. I would have preferred to have been at the back of the hall, given my earlier view of the band. Yet, like the Rubettes/Mud, they were terrific. They really hammed it up, in their iridescent outfits. Steve had on an electric blue jumpsuit affair, the sort you’d only normally wear for a bet. Annoyingly, it looked great on him.
That first gig made me acutely aware of my disability. I felt extremely visible, in as much as it was difficult to move about because it was so crowded, yet invisible in as much as everyone else seemed to be part of a group. I knew this wouldn’t last, I’d make sure of it. My first trip to The Lawns, which was where the majority of student accommodation and social facilities were, wasn’t a great success. I couldn’t get to the bar or toilets, because they were up several steps. Most of the seating was up steps as well, making the level I was on a walkway. This meant as well as having to ask people to get me a drink, I was unable to join them.
I quickly made more friendships in the next few weeks. That’s the beauty of living in a hall of residence, you see the same people regularly so it’s easy to strike up a conversation. It was also easy to suss out who you did or, what’s more to the point, didn’t want to share your valuable spare time with.
Let’s be honest here, unless you did law or a science, you had plenty of spare time. Not that you’d want to waste one second of it with someone who didn’t share your interests. In our case that was football, beer, music, women, having a good time; that’s it really. Admittedly, some crawled under the radar. John Patterson wasn’t a football fan for example. However he was exceptionally witty, liked a good time and was just fun to be around. In the main, the rest of us had a big affinity with some football team or other. Newcastle, Sunderland, Liverpool and Leeds were the main 1st division teams, though some stayed faithful to their lower league, home town teams.
The course began the following week, which was potentially another place to make friends. During the first week we were introduced to the different courses that were available. We all had to take five subjects, of which two were compulsory. There were a number of other subjects to choose the remaining three from. The best piece of advice to come out of these sessions was to find a second year who was selling their first year text books, rather than buy them new.
The second week was less auspicious. On Monday morning I felt awful. Bad enough to park on the road inside the University so I could push over to the medical centre. When I was stripped in bed my drainage tube was full of a thick gunk. It didn’t need a doctor to tell me I had a urine infection, but one did anyway. I was in for a week before they let me go. In all that time I had one visitor, the hall president, Dave Sargison. Even then he was only fulfilling the duty that went with his office. I was grateful all the same. I hadn’t been there long enough to be missed. The number of people who asked me where I’d been the previous week was underwhelming. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Many said they’d have dropped in to see me if they’d known. Then again, visiting poorly people is right up there with self-flagellation, whilst watching Dagenham & Redbridge reserves on a wet, December night.
During the first week, I met up with an old school buddy who was living and working in Hull. Larry Muldowney, or Mullogs as he was affectionately known, was a great bloke. We’d played rugby together at school. He carried the scars that his position, hooker, inevitably picked up. Like a nose that wasn’t quite as straight as the majority of the population. He was a gruff Yorkshireman who some found difficult to understand, particularly those born south of Sheffield or north of York. Come to think of it, there were plenty in Doncaster who struggled too. He introduced me to a friend of his who was doing a social degree of some sort. As it happened, one of the options he could take was the same as mine. It was a course dealing with the social effects of economic policies. He was so enthusiastic about it, he convinced me to choose it as one of my options. What a mistake. The tutor, Eric Evans, was excellent. One of those people who really knew his stuff. There were so few of us we met in his room, which was very cosy. The downside being there was nowhere to hide if you weren’t confident about your grasp of the subject, as was the case with me. Following the first tutorial after the Christmas break, I decided I needed to change subjects. It was a risky strategy I knew. It could have easily backfired on me. Fortunately it paid off. I was more careful in my choice of subjects after that.
I made acquaintances, rather than friendships, with other course participants. That is apart from two people. One was Howard Royds. Like me, he was slightly older than the majority of students. He was from Rochdale with a similar background to my own. During our three years at Hull he only ever wore denim. His pride and joy was his Jag. Although not new, it had the look of a classic model. Except that his had a diesel engine which required him to go through an unusual procedure every time started the engine. There was no turning a key for him. After raising the bonnet, he had to use his cigarette lighter to, literally, fire it up. In winter, the number of failed attempts was accompanied by an ever increasing level of cursing.
The other was Stuart Fitzgerald. At 30, he’d left a good job with Customs and Excise to follow his dream of becoming a lecturer. It was obvious he’d have to put the work in if he was to come close to fulfilling his dream. He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. If someone was guaranteed to ask a question in every lecture/tutorial, sometimes more than one, it was Stuart. It became irritating because they were either questions we all knew the answers to, or they were so far out of context they were only on planet Stuart. He never flinched from his goal though. I don’t think anyone on the course put in more work than Stuart. He had a family, who eventually followed him up from London. After that we only saw him around the campus during the day.
One of the lecturers, a young chap called Nik, used to invite students to join him in the Student Union bar. I thought this was a bit odd, not to say irregular. Not that I was ever invited to join any lecturers for sherry, a chat about how I was getting on with the course, or England’s chances against the West Indies, and would I like to come to lunch on Sunday. Perhaps not lunch. I could see Ben fitting right into such a scenario though. I, like many others, got a buzz at the idea of having a drink with this good looking, cool guy with longish black hair and wispy beard, who also happened to be one of my lecturers. The first time I joined him it was clear he liked the sound of his own voice. I’ve no doubt he considered us his acolytes. The second time I was determined to contribute to his discussions. I forgot how it came about; I think it must have had something to do with money, as I made a comment about how some spinal injuries got hefty compensation payments. To which he replied flippantly, “Well I’d rather be able to walk however much they got.”
To say it was insensitive would be an understatement. His put down made me feel foolish, embarrassed even. Nevertheless, that instant made me look at him in a different light. The veil had been lifted from my eyes. I no longer looked up to him. Further proof followed shortly after.
One of the big stories of the year was the bombing of a pub in Birmingham, which was attributed to the IRA. Subsequently, six Irishmen were arrested. The popular press labelled them the Birmingham Six. As far as they were concerned, they were guilty before the trial had started. As so often happens in these cases, some students, convinced they were innocent, decided to raise money to help with their defence costs. They passed amongst us with buckets collecting money. I had some sympathy with them and the way they were being hounded, so threw something into one of the buckets.
When Nik was approached he almost yelled at the collector, “I have no intention of giving them anything. They’re all murderers and I hope they get locked up for life.” He was entitled to his own views, of course, though did he really have to be so obnoxious letting us all know what they were? As it happened the students were proved to be right, though it would be another 17 years before the six were released. This was the last time I joined his group. Looking back, I think he used this circle to impress young first year women, with the intention of laying as many of them as he could. Then again, I can be sceptical at times.
Back at Needler my circle of friends grew. Unsurprisingly, most were first years. Halls of Residence tended to be top heavy with first year students, as it was like a half way house for those living away from home for the first time. Many would look for cheaper, self catering accommodation in later years. Hugh Gullick and Steve Dean, the two I met in the pub that first day, were becoming firm friends. Hugh was a lovely, amiable bloke who, shall we say, liked his dinners. I’m trying to avoid the jolly, fat man cliché, as he was more big boned. Particularly the bones in his stomach. On saying that, the only time you saw him down in the mouth was when Leeds United lost. He also liked his beer, accompanied by the occasional cigar. During our three years at Hull he became famous for his red shirt, which he wore so often we thought he must have had a wardrobe full of them. When his shirt was finally retired, as in retired to the bin, he replaced it with another which looked exactly like it. It became known as ‘son of red shirt’.
Steve was affectionately known as Deano, on account of his second name being Dean. (This is not the best example of our rapier like wit). He had one quality that endeared us to him above all others, he was short. Along with his propensity to sleep for England, he made an easy target for me and my cohort, Mick Cuthbert. Although Mick was a second year, he soon became part of our expanding group of friends. We hit it off straight away finding a mutual interest in lampooning our friends. No, make that anyone. As far as Steve was concerned we’d mercilessly put him to the verbal sword, whether he deserved it or not. Mick was more than capable of doing this on his own, though I like to think that together, we were an irresistible comedy force.
Steve was a 150th Dan, or thereabouts, at some variation of Karate that we’d never heard of. He’d often train with the laziest man in the world, Bob Tavendale, who also did a variation of Karate different to Steve’s. When I say Bob was lazy, you wouldn’t know it from the way he looked or dressed. He had more than a passing resemblance to Joe 90, with his short haircut, black rimmed glasses, jumper and trousers. Indeed you’d be forgiven for assuming he was a studious, classical music loving, exemplary student. However, Bob usually rose late, occasionally attended lectures, and was more interested in his Kata than his course work. When asked about anything to do with his academic efforts, his reply was always prefaced by a smiling, chuckling “Ahaaa.” Sometimes you’d get an answer. More often he’d divert the conversation to something else; like Karate for instance.
Now it should be made clear that, like professional footballers of the day, drinking was our major pastime. About half of us smoked, which was probably less than the population as a whole. Rob Lynch, for example, was a slightly built, non smoker who was a very handy footballer. He was also the biggest drinker I’ve ever known. A good night out was 15 pints for Rob. I think he was probably a very shy person who used alcohol as a way of making his mark amongst his peers. I can’t recall him ever being with a woman, or even chatting one up. I don’t think he knew where to start. Excessive drinking gave him a status, albeit amongst other drinkers. Of course that could be a pile of amateur psychological bullshit. He was also the hall gambler, introducing me to horse racing via the 5p Yankee.
A Yankee was a bet involving picking four or five horses. Two or more had to win for the punter to get anything back. It consisted of doubles, trebles and fur-balls, plus a lot of other combinations I didn’t fully understand. All I knew was that a 5p Yankee cost 50p. Unsurprisingly I lost more often than I won, although I did once win £13 elevating me to horse racing guru for the week.
Some may say that being from Newcastle, drinking and gambling were just preparing him for his future. This may seem a little unfair given he was studying Law – except for Rob. He simply didn’t bother going in to lectures that often. One of his favourite sayings was, “I can’t wait to be old. You can say what you like and not give a toss about what people think about you.” He was a generous bloke though, and a popular member of our group.
There were a number of other Geordies amongst us. Okay, strictly speaking they weren’t all Geordies, in the same way that not all Londoners are Cockneys or Scottish people are all called Jimmy. Didn’t stop us calling them Geordies! Sunderland fans Mick Scales, Jim Schickle and Steve Blackburn were three who fitted into this category. Jim, a second year, was the best darts player amongst us. He was the strong, silent type. Well perhaps not strong. Or that silent come to think of it. Softly spoken whilst outwardly reserved would be a better description. If you imagine Clint Eastwood in his Spaghetti Western films, you’ve got the essence of Jim. He didn’t wear a poncho or a Stetson. He didn’t even carry gun. He had been known to miss shaving though. At about 6 feet tall, he could look cool just by standing still. Jim enjoyed a cheroot, the type favoured by Clint.
Since a large part of our social life revolved around pubs, putting caricatures of my close friends into a Western Saloon setting seems to me to be a good way of illustrating their finer points. Therefore, this would seem a good point to describe my Saloon, ‘The Broken Wheel’, in more detail.
Imagine the classic Hollywood Western Saloon. There is a solid wooden bar on the left which runs the length of the saloon. At the other end of the bar is an impressive staircase leading to a set of apartments where grizzled old cowboys, tired of cowpoking, had their needs taken care of by grizzled old ladies.
At the far end is a stage. In front of the stage is an upright piano. Behind them are Roulette, Poker and Blackjack tables. The rest of the floor is taken up with tables and chairs. Spittoons are placed strategically on The Wheel’s rough, wooden floor. There are few rules:
No feet on the tables if you’re wearing spurs.
No firing pistols in the air. However good the act is.
No spitting on the floor. Move the spittoon closer.
No manhandling the girls. If you know what’s good for you.
That was it:
Hugh would be the amiable bar tender, complete with red striped shirt and apron, welcoming everyone with a cheery, “Hello lads, what’ll it be?” whilst drying a glass.“Didn’t see you at the game last Sunday,” he’d continue. “I thought Dry Gulch would have murdered them”.
Deano was like David Carradine’s character Caine, in ‘Kung Fu’. He had the ability to maim or kill except he’d only use it whenever he was pushed too far. Unfortunately for Deano, not only did no-one know about his deadly skills, he didn’t know what constituted being pushed too far. So he remained the bar’s comedy diversion.
Howard ‘Howie’ Royds would be the town’s wheelwright. Regular as clockwork he’d shut up shop at 5.30pm, crossing the road to The Wheel for his usual three beers. Reading the latest copy of ‘Classic Stagecoach’, he’d dream of the day when he could afford a classic of his own. He was a simple man with modest ambitions.
Ed Reagan, Liverpudlian and Liverpool fan, demonstrated an unexpected talent one rainy afternoon. Ed was generally a glass half empty sort of chap. He tended to walk hunched over, which matched the way he dressed. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear for days at a time. On this particular day we were hanging around the common room when Ed sauntered over to the piano. Lifting the lid, he played a few notes. I thought, “Oh no, he’s going to play that awful chopsticks.” He didn’t. He amazed us all by playing a whole array of music. He finished to spontaneous applause. The air was full of:
“Bloody hell Ed. You never told us you could play,” and,“That was brilliant!”
It was a skill that put him firmly in The Wheel.
He’d sit at the piano, playing the musical accompaniment for the acts, wearing a battered brown Derby hat with a waistcoat that had seen better days. A cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, a glass of beer sitting on top of the upright. When he’d finished playing, he’d drain his drink, put his coat on, before slinking off into the night.
A great bloke, with a warm friendly persona, clichés such as, ‘Bonny Lad’, tripped off Steve Blackburn ‘s tongue without a sense of irony. Add to this his passion for football, beer and horse racing, and he appeared to be the archetypal Geordie. Tact wasn’t one of Steve’s strong points. He was quick to give his views on anything, regardless of the impact they may have. And all in a VERY loud voice. He was what you might call plain speaking. Others said he should put his brain in gear before opening his big fat mouth. I liked to think of it as being part of his charm.
Steve would be the barfly of The Wheel, offering his advice to all and sundry, none of whom had asked for it.
There was a time when Steve and Rob Lynch’s betting losses concerned them so much that they began betting against each other. I could never decide if this was brilliant, or crazy. On the plus side, overall they would have as much at the end as they had at the start. On the minus side, if one lost heavily to the other, or lost more often than the other, this could, shall we say, create tension between them.
Mick Scales was different to the others. He had a certain attraction to women who liked the lean, handsome, unshaven look. He was also quick to point out the errors in other people. “He’s a right wanker,” being a typical example of this.
Not unsurprisingly, then, he was the first amongst us to get a girlfriend, Elaine Willey, strangely another Geordie. At times it was like they were joined at the hip. Elaine was often heard calling, “Mick. Come over here NOW.” She was a lovely woman who liked to laugh, even when she was being sent up. This was usually by Mick Cuthbert, who else.
Come Friday or Saturday night, Mick would often approach a group of us rubbing his hands together, saying, in his East Midlands accent, “Right then lads. Are we ready?” Mick was something of a conundrum. He was studying Maths, heading towards a life of accountancy, yet he was fun to be with. Perhaps my view of accountancy was coloured by Tony Hancock’s film ‘The Rebel’. In it they all sat in rows, like a school classroom, using adding machines, all pulling the levers in unison.
In The Wheel, Mick would be a character like those played by Dean Martin. Tom, in The Sons of Katie Elder, is him to a T. In it, Martin raffles off his glass eye. He buys it back off the winner who asks if he’s going to put it back. Martin reveals he doesn’t need it saying, “It would be a little crowded in there!” Lifting his eye patch to reveal his real eye.
Elaine also makes it into The Wheel as the croupier on the roulette table. Her friendly, easy going rapport and good natured banter with the punters would change in an instant if anyone tried to sneak extra chips onto the table after she’d called, “Rien ne va plus.” They would be given a sharp rap on the knuckles from her croupier’s rake, followed by one of her famous withering looks.
Elaine was, unwittingly, good for me in that through her, I met her friends from Thwaite Hall. Why was this good? Because Thwaite Hall was a women-only hall. One of her friends, Maggie Culbert (Geordie), was a pocket dynamo. What she lacked in height she made up for in personality. Her party piece was to sing,‘I’m just a girl who can’t say no’, from the musical ‘Oklahoma’. Including actions. I loved it. Which was surprising as, up until then, I’d never heard it before. It was the sort of thing I’d liked to have filed away under ’things you didn’t know about me’, which I’d bring out at the appropriate time to tumultuous applause and general astonishment. Except I didn’t. I didn’t know any jokes, poems or monologues. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, or play an instrument. No, like so many of us, when someone says, “Right, now who’d like to come up and entertain us?” I’d pray that the house would catch fire, or the host would have a heart attack. It was a talent that meant Maggie was one of the top attractions at The Wheel.
She’d be on the stage most nights, giving it her all. Her charismatic performance would hold the audience spellbound.
Chris Blacknell (Geordie), was a statuesque, no nonsense woman. She had no qualms in saying what she thought or felt. Chris was no lightweight when it came to drinking. She could hold her own with the best. It did lead me to ask her, unkindly, after a particularly heavy Saturday night, “What gutter did you wake up in Sunday morning?” It wasn’t big, it wasn’t clever; but it got a laugh.
Chris would be the dealer on the blackjack table. No one would be left in any doubt who was in charge. If she saw any sign of cheating she’d grab the offender warmly by the throat, march him to the saloon doors, throwing him into nearest horse trough.
Sue Howe (Geordie) completed their core group. She was more softly spoken than the rest, thankfully, with a face that lit up the room when she smiled. Although I don’t remember her being pushed to one side, she must have found it difficult to hold her own amongst such opinionated women.
For me, it was nice to have girlfriends, as in friends who were girls/women, without a romantic attachment. In the past, the only women I was likely to meet were other mate’s girlfriends. There are other friends, not mentioned here, who would make my time at Hull so enjoyable.
A lot of our socialising took place at The The Lawns. Infinitely better than sitting in the walkway, I could now be lifted onto the bar area. From here I got a good view of everything, as well as having access to the toilets. Most of the time someone, usually Hugh or Deano, would push me there and back. This meant I could drink what I liked without worrying about driving. It could be a bit repetitive though, as there was little in the way of live entertainment. Mostly it was a disco. I always badgered the others to request Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ for me. It became my signature tune in a funny sort of way. If we were there on a Saturday, we’d inevitably end the night watching Match of the Day in their large television lounge. With a nightcap of course.One year they had the great George Melly and John Chiltern’s Feetwarmers on. I’d liked him when I’d seen him on the telly. In person, live, was something else. He had one of his trademark outlandish suits on with a huge fedora hat. I don’t think anyone has done Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehaving’ any better than George. When it came to his version of ‘Frankie and Jonnie’ Tim Lowe said he was losing it. “I’ve seen him in the past where he’d fall off the stage when it came to the bit where he gets shot”. I thought this was a bit harsh given it was a hell of a drop from the stage to the dance floor. George was a real one off. I wish I’d seen him again.
Tim was my music litmus paper, particularly for prog rock. He broadened my horizons, guiding me towards groups that were worth listening to. He had much more knowledge of Caravan, for instance, a group we were both big fans of. He was a good looking guy with thick, black, curly hair. I thought he would have been beating women off with a stick yet he never seemed to have a relationship of any substance.
When we’d had enough of The Lawns we’d look further afield. One of our favourite alternatives was Beverley. Taking the train from Cottingham station was a breeze, with one drawback. I had to travel in the goods carriage as there was no provision for wheelchair users on most trains. That didn’t stop them charging me full fare. The highlight was the White Horse Inn, or Nellie’s as it was more commonly known. Nellie’s was originally run by three sisters, of which only one was left. She was always there, behind the bar pulling pints of that prince of beers, Theakston’s Old Peculier. That wasn’t the only attraction. The thing that set Nellie’s apart was it’s décor. Inside was like a rabbit warren, lit by gas lights. Such was its popularity, we spent most of the night spread out throughout the pub, waiting to pounce on a table when one became available.
One year we were joined by Tim’s dad, who’d come over for a few days. As Tim was a Theology student we all expected a vicar to turn up. What we got was a very loud, extrovert character, whose only religion seemed to be Hedonism. It was clear Tim was embarrassed, which made it all the more pleasurable to the rest of us.
It wasn’t just Tim who was unsuccessful with women. In fact not having girlfriends was a feature of our group. In my three years at Hull, I can only think of Mick Scales who did. I don’t know why the others were as unsuccessful. There was one chap, not a group regular, who had amazing success with women. It was not unknown for him to be juggling three at a time! His motivation, unsurprisingly, was not looking for a life partner. Here’s the rub, he wasn’t the most attractive bloke in the Hall by a long chalk. Clearly this was not a stumbling block to him, because whatever he was doing, it was reaping him rewards big style.
I certainly gave it a go. I just couldn’t turn a friendship into something more. Or I’d fall for women already in relationships. Maybe I didn’t pick up on the signs of women who were interested in me. There was always the catheter at the back of my mind too. What if I did get into a relationship and it (hopefully) turned sexual? What would I say, or do, when the moment came?
Bizarrely, over 90% of men with complete, high breaks, can get erections; whereas many with lower brakes can't. To a non-medical person like myself, the explanation is difficult. Apparently it's to do with reflexogenic erections which result from direct stimulation of the genital area. They are called reflexogenic because they are controlled by a reflex arc between the genital area and the spinal cord. Spasms, the sudden, involuntary contraction of muscles, also increase the likelihood of erection. And it's common for high breaks to have some spasming, usually in their legs. On top of this, one of the parts of my body I had a slight sensation was at the end of my penis. Changing my catheter, in particular, stimulated an erection.
During the first term, many of my buddies began playing for Needler in the University’s football league. I’d often drive out to watch them. During the course of the year Mick Scales was made captain. He asked me to help with team selection, which I was more than happy to do. I used to write up the match reports pinning them to the hall notice board. I tried to make them amusing, gently sending certain players up. I was encouraged to do more, but there’s only so much comedy material you can squeeze out of the same game week after week.
I hadn’t abandoned my own sporting ambitions either, although they centred entirely on basketball. Every Sunday I was in Wakefield for 10am. Training began with some set moves that Carl had picked up from his GB days. There was little enthusiasm for them from me and the other sideliners. We wanted what we never got in a game – a game. Our training games were contested as keenly as any real game. Bearing in mind that many of us were ‘ones’, the least able of players, we couldn’t recreate the slick, flowing moves which were a feature of inter-club games. We were too easily picked off, as in blocked out of the play, by the more able players who then left us for dead when they went on the attack.
Carl was our star player. Pushing with one hand whilst bouncing the ball with the other, he’d turn in the twinkling of an eye before launching a scoring shot. By the time the ball had dropped through the net, Carl was already on his way back to a defensive position, shrugging off any attempts to block him.
Apparently an integral part of the training was to reconvene to the Alexandra pub. Two pints later I was on my way back to Hull. Looking back, it’s not really surprising I never improved.
Spring 1975 brought a football bonanza for Leeds fans. They’d already won the First Division when, on 28th May, they also reached the final of the European Cup against Bayern Munich. As far as we were concerned, it was our year. To guarantee seats in front of the telly, Hugh, Steve and I grabbed them at 5pm, even though the kick off wasn’t until 7.30pm. Leeds were all over them. However, poor refereeing decisions conspired against us. Bayern eventually ran out winners with two late goals. Leeds fans threw cushions onto the pitch in disgust. It was to cost Leeds a four year ban in Europe. Hugh joined in the protest by throwing his beer bottle at the central heating pipes behind the TV, shattering it into a hundred pieces. I can think of no other way that Hugh could show how upset he was. Then again, it was empty.
One of the final major sporting events of 1975 was England v Australia in a one day cricket international held at Headingley, Leeds. Someone hired a bus and bought the tickets, which we snapped up. Surprisingly, one of the loudest cheerleaders for this event was Hugh, who had no interest in cricket whatsoever. However, he found out that they sold beer there all day. ALL DAY! I’d never seen him so excited. It was the era of Dennis Lillee and Geoff Thompson, the Aussies’ legendary fast bowling attacks. Sitting near where Geoff Thompson was fielding, we were treated to some of his celebrated wit. For example, one of the quotes attributed to him about the England team was, “Let’s see how stiff that upper lip is when it’s split”. Whilst I can’t remember anything as memorable as that, he did point out how crap England’s team was, followed by a few choice words on the country, finishing off with the English in general. It was generally good humoured though. He even signed autographs in between overs.
It was also an occasion when I was sharply reminded that being disabled, in a world that was far from accessible, could be a burden for others. As I mentioned earlier, it usually fell to Hugh or Deano to push me to The Lawns and back. In reality, I relied on Hugh more than anyone else when it came to this type of donkey work. To be fair, the others were happy to let him do it. The coach hired to take us to Headingley had no wheelchair accessible facilities such as a lift. Then again, I doubt if there were many, if any, in the country that did at that time. It was left to Hugh to take the heavy end of me when I was lifted onto the coach. It was also left to Hugh to take the heavy end when we arrived. It was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back; he snapped, “Why is it always me that gets landed with Trev?”
“Whoa,” I thought. “Is that what he really feels about me?” This was a real blow. There was an uneasy silence between us as someone else took over. Of course it wasn’t how he really felt at all. It was an understandable out-flowing of frustration. I can’t remember discussing it with Hugh. Then again, why would we? We were blokes. Any tension between us quickly evaporated and we were back to our previous relationship.
By the time summer came, the country was in the throes of a referendum about whether or not to stay in the EEC (European Economic Community), or Common Market as it was more generally known. Opinions had never been so divided. Even within Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, which was in favour of going in, members of his own party openly campaigned against it. On 6 July 1975 just over 67% of voters supported the campaign to stay in the EEC. It was probably the most important decision of the decade, if not longer. Studying Economics, you would have thought I’d have a strong view about the issues. Yet even though I’d voted in every election since I was eligible, I didn’t this time. I just couldn’t make my mind up. And that bombshell brings me to the final part of my first year at Hull.
I’d taken my exams in the gymnasium, along with all the other students. I managed okay, though it wasn’t ideal. We had five, three hour papers. All we needed to do was pass them to continue to the second year. I was relieved to find I’d passed. There was no need to re-live the nightmare of my Polytechnic year.
One weekend, post exams, we decided to go to Scarborough. When I say ‘we’ I mean the rest of the group who, since they were camping, effectively ruled me out. Not that I was annoyed by this decision; well maybe a bit. They all wanted to go and had every right to do so. Whilst I might not have been able to spend the whole weekend with them, I decided to drive up on the Saturday. We’d arranged a place and time to meet up. There was no one more surprised than me when we met up at the right place at the right time.
As we ambled along the seafront Paul Paccito, one of our non-Needler friends, announced he was skint. We were going to have a whip round when he said, “No need. I’ll borrow a fiver off my uncle.” He crossed the road entering, what used to be known as, an ice cream parlour. This one just happened to be called Paccito’s. Ten minutes later he reappeared clutching a five pound note. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.” I’ve often wondered what their conversation was like. It didn’t last long so there can’t have been much time for pleasantries or family chat. Paul must have asked for the cash within the first couple of minutes.
To look at, Paul was tall, wiry, with bad teeth. There was always a copy of the Racing Post sticking out of his pocket. He liked to play the horses. He was from Middlesbrough, breaking the Geordie stranglehold on such matters. He would easily fit into The Wheel as the gambler.
He wouldn’t be the Southern Gentlemen type, though, plying his trade on the Mississippi river boats, upholding the code of chivalry when it came to the ladies. No, he’d be the sleazy, cocky type who’d taunt his quarry into betting their last few dollars on four kings, whilst he had so many aces up his sleeve, he looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
First call was fish and chips. The women took to the cafés, with their buttered bread, washed down with and pots of tea. The blokes descended on one particular chip shop. It served its fish in a crunchy golden batter which was generally held, at least by us, to be the best in Scarborough. We ate ‘al fresco’, sitting on bollards or propped up against walls. You cannot beat Scarborough fish and chips eaten in the open air.
After playing some of the arcades, the consensus was to head off to the pub. It wasn’t on the sea front. It wasn’t even an interesting period pub. It was a dive down a backstreet. As the ale flowed, I restricted myself to two pints. When they decided to move on, it was time for me to head back to Hull. A long journey for such a short time, perhaps. It was still worth it.
This was effectively the end of the first year. As our group broke up for the summer, my mind turned to going home; picking up with my circle of friends, if they were still around. I hadn’t made it home as often as I’d expected. I was having too much fun.
I soon picked up with Alan and Linda. They were still unmarried at this point so money was no object. This meant a night out drinking was exactly that. Alan’s job paid top dollar. As they had no significant outgoings, the good times rolled.
We slipped easily into our usual routine. Friday and Saturday nights were spent in the Palfreys, drinking ourselves into a state of oblivion. I’d drive over to Wakefield at least three times during the week, including Sunday morning for basketball. However, this summer was to bring me more than I’d bargained for. During one of our sessions in the Palfreys, I fell for one of the barmaids. We flirted outrageously. If she wasn’t working on the nights I went in, I’d be crestfallen. I found myself wanting to run into her every time I left the house, to catch sight of her as I drove off somewhere. It happened once. I was coming back from a lunchtime beer with Alan when our paths crossed. She was pushing a buggy with her two daughters in it. Yes, she had kids. She was also married. Why on earth did I want to get involved with her? I was besotted with her, that’s why.
She was tall, slim, with an afro hairstyle – which was popular at the time. She also had a gap in between her two front teeth which, for some reason, I found incredibly attractive. This was all very well, except I wasn’t the type to become involved with a married woman and bugger the consequences. I preferred the old-fashioned way. Boy meets girl. Girl becomes boy’s girlfriend. Boy and girl have sex. Boy and girl separate. Oh all right, they get engaged, married, and live happily ever after – satisfied? The carrot for me in this potential relationship was that I was assured that their marriage was on the rocks. It was only a matter of time before her husband moved on. That wasn’t a problem for me. I was happy to wait.
In the meantime, Alan engineered a date between the four of us. Although it was a Saturday night we kept out of town. We picked her up in a taxi at 8pm. The first thing that struck me was how she was dressed. I expected a smarter version of what she wore in the pub, jeans, shoes, top etc. She had on the tightest pair of jeans you could imagine, adorned with elaborate suede cowgirl boots, which matched her equally elaborate suede cowgirl jacket. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. Even though I didn’t like the outfit, that wasn’t the problem. We were having a clandestine date, which called for discretion along with the ability to blend in. She might as well have walked around in a sandwich board announcing, “I’m having an affair with this bloke,” written in large letters.
Despite this, the evening went well. Before you could say “Last orders” we were in a taxi heading home. As we dropped her off, she invited us in for coffee. As soon as we were in the house, Alan and Linda said they were off, leaving us together alone. Well alone as you can be with two small children in the house. I’d transferred onto the settee when, as we finished our coffee, she leant back, her head on one arm of the settee, and said, “Do what you like to me.” This was the last thing I expected her to say. I thought we’d work our way round to it slowly. Fortunately, lust overtook any moral dilemma I may have felt. It didn’t exactly run smoothly. In fact it could have been a scene straight out of a ‘Carry On’ film. As soon as I’d removed part of her clothing, one of her children would start crying or making a noise, at which point she’d put her clothes back on and run upstairs. When she came back she’d remove the items she’d put on and resume her place on the settee. When it came to her jeans I really struggled. They were so tight I swear they were sprayed on. Eventually, she stood up and announced, in a very annoyed voice, “You’re hopeless. I’ll do it myself!” My abiding memory of her was her breasts. She didn’t have any. At least when she laid on her back. The question you really want answered is; did I take the catheter out or leave it in? I’m afraid I did neither. This wasn’t the time or place to try it out the first time.
It was around 2am when I left for home. I didn’t live very far from her, though I felt a little exposed pushing through the streets at that time of night. I needn’t have worried as there was no sign of anyone else.
Shortly afterwards, I was back at Needler looking forward to the second year. I’d fully intended not to say a word about the affair to anyone. Once I was back with my mates I couldn’t help myself. In my mind, I was made to be the other man. No responsibilities, just the opportunity to enjoy a relationship as and when it suited me. What could be better? Her husband would soon be on his way, then the field would be clear. If he didn’t go, that was okay too. What could possibly go wrong? Basically, my mistake was to only consider my own selfish needs. It never occurred to me she might have plans of her own.
On my return to Needler in October 1975, we had the usual elections of Hall President etc. This year, that most coveted of positions, Keeper of the Keys, was awarded to our own Hugh Gullick. Undoubtedly the right man for the job, it was a position he would stamp with his unique qualities, whilst upholding the position to its highest traditions.
A new year brought a new influx of Freshers, some of whom would be lucky enough to be taken under our collective wing. Kev Denham and Jeff Hydari (Geordies) were two of them. In fact they were the only two. Kevin’s abiding memory of me was on his first visits to The Lawns together. I’d had quite a bit to drink when I had an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. The sort I got just before I threw up. I had, what I thought, was a brilliantly simple solution. I’d vomit into the glass I’d drank my last pint from. After which I passed it to Kevin to put to one side. He thought this was ‘pure class’. As I recall, the chap collecting the glasses didn’t share his view, loudly expressing his disgust. Really. Some people. I thought this would be an appropriate time to leave him to his remonstrations.
Jeff drifted out of our group when he started seeing a local girl. And I do mean girl as she was still at school. Kevin, on the other hand, stayed unattached. Consequently, he was a regular member of our happy band of brothers. He was a biologist who enjoyed nothing more than experimenting on live animals. His description of how they killed frogs will live with me forever. Kevin, like Ed Reagan, was another glass half empty man. Even when talking about his beloved Newcastle United, he’d concentrate on their failings. He was a slightly built chap on the small side, with a Zapata moustache. He’d have made a perfect prospector, earning his place in The Wheel.
Wearing his hat with the front of the brim turned upwards, check shirt, leather waistcoat, jeans – all dirty from prospecting, he’d regale anyone about how, one day, he’d strike paydirt – as opposed to just dirt. Few bothered to listen. At least the barfly was always on hand to offer his opinion.
One day, when hubby wasn’t around, my girlfriend persuaded her sister to look after the children for the afternoon, then caught the train to Hull. I crammed her into the Noddy, for the journey back to Needler. Thinking we’d be indulging in a little afternoon delight, I’d decided to take the catheter out. Now I was back on home territory it seemed the best option. Unfortunately, for me at any rate, she wanted to discuss her and the children moving to Hull with a view to setting up home with me! I was dumbfounded. Regardless of the practical problems, such as finding somewhere accessible for me, I didn’t want to play happy families yet. I’d still two years left to do on my degree, after which I’d be looking for a job.
Looking back, I think she was using me just as much as I’d intended using her. Maybe hubby had no intention of moving out. Maybe he wasn’t even aware that his wife wanted out, though that was unlikely. I dropped her back at the station. On the way to her train, I promised to give it some thought. All the time my brain was screaming to be let out, leaving my body to fend for itself. My decision to end the affair came from an unexpected source.
A few days later a got a phone call. It was a bloke in an almost manic voice saying, “Have you been seeing my wife?” My mouth dried as my heart sank into my boots.
“No, no I haven’t,” I lied in as much of a normal voice as I could muster. The voice began laughing,
“It’s me Trev,” he said. “Ed, Ed Tuohey.” Relief spread through every fibre of my body as Ed was one of our gang. “I was just having you on.” On, on what? The end of a very hot toasting fork being roasted alive, at least that’s what it felt like.
My only thought was, “You’re out of your depth son, get out now!”
How do you let your lady down with gentle sensitivity? Take her out for a meal in a classy restaurant, telling her as we sipped our desert wine? Take her for a walk in the park, wrapped up against the Autumn winds, breaking it to her as we warmed our hands on a hot mug of cocoa? Or take the coward’s way out by putting it in a letter? I sent the letter via Alan, asking him to pass it to her discretely. It was like having a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I never heard anything more from her. I knew I’d have to face her when I went home for Christmas. Since that was weeks away, I soon forgot about it.
The second year of the course brought further choices, these would be the subjects we would study through to our finals. During the information session about each course, we were introduced to Professor Cino. He would be bringing a new subject to the curriculum, Econometrics, a mathematical approach to Economics. “That’s for me!”, I thought, as I’d always considered maths to be one of my strongest subjects. Howie and Stuart signed up to it too. Whilst I wouldn’t say it was a mistake, I would say that I couldn’t afford to miss a single tutorial. I was definitely hanging on to Prof Cino’s coattails at times. It was the toughest course I’d ever done, testing my so-called maths skills to the limit. Strangely enough Stuart, who I said wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, took to it like a footballer to a lingerie model. He loved it, saying this was what he’d like to do in the future. Howie and I were open mouthed. Of all the courses he could have set his sights on, this was the last one we would have expected him to choose. He was the same Stuart as always, asking questions until we would have happily formed a queue to shove our text books down his throat. Or was he the smart one, constantly interrupting until he got the answer he was looking for? He still put in the hours of study. He was a man on a mission. Nothing would get in his way.
Howie and I were no strangers to the library ourselves, though we’d always make time for a beer or two. The Librarian of the Brynmor Jones, was renowned poet Philip Larkin. I wouldn’t have known him from a hole in the ground. I suppose I was something of a cultural desert. Listening to classical music just left me cold. I found Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I’d studied for ‘O’ Level English Literature, painful. Particularly the black and white film version we were dragged off to see. The thought of reading a classic novel like Jane Eyre, was beyond the pale. Dickens was miserable enough for me. So what did that make me? Why, a typical red brick University student of course, and proud of it!
At Sheffield, I’d seen Adrian Henry reading from his book of poems, Tonight at Noon. He was one of a group of poets who went under the umbrella title of the Liverpool Poets. They included Roger McGough, who’d had chart success in the 60’s as one of the Scaffold with songs like, Lilly the Pink. I’d enjoyed their sort of poetry. If I’d taken the time, I think I’d have enjoyed Philip Larkin’s too. I really like, ‘This be the verse’, the opening line being:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”
He was apparently a bit of a lad when it came to women, but not a happy soul, by all accounts.
The end of the first term came quickly. Once I was home, I decided I needed to do something with my hair. My sister-in-law, Janet, recommended a mobile hairdresser; the woman she used. She was due at Janet’s that week. I decided to pop along. I told her I fancied having slightly wavy hair, which was popular with lots of bands I followed. She said, “No problem,” as she got to work. I waited in anticipation for the final curler to be removed, revealing the new me, rock god. What I got was a head of hair with very, very tight curls. I was gobsmacked. “What do you think?” she asked.
“It’s a little curlier than I was expecting,” I managed to say without sounding too distressed.
“Oh they’ll loosen off in time.”
“How long might that be?” I said, crossing my fingers in the hope she’d say a day or two.
“Well it varies. I’d give it four or five weeks.”
As she left, the only thought on my mind was, “What the hell am I going to do with this abomination on my head.” I was devastated. I felt sick, particularly that a hairdresser could think that this was all right for a man.
I showed it to Mum and Dad, who sympathized with me, even though they didn’t really grasp the significance of my predicament. As I couldn’t do anything to change it, there was only one thing I could do; I would have to wear a hat. I was wearing my brown canvas hat when I finally came face to face with my former adulterous partner. Alan, Linda and I, were in the Palfreys back room. It was one of the few nights they had a band on. Although she was working, she sat down with us anyway. “Why?” she asked not unreasonably. I went over my reasons, or as much as I could without upsetting her more than I had already. She didn’t show any emotion saying, “Alright,” then went back to work. I didn’t see her much after that. In fact, within a shamefully short space of time, I didn’t think of her at all.
Our course had approximately ninety students, half of whom were studying accountancy. I couldn’t think of anything more boring, then again I had no idea what I was going to do when the course finished. I’d realized early on that I wasn’t nearly good enough to become an Economist.
If you studied French, English or Geography say, there was a better than even chance you’d end up teaching. Another profession that sent cold shivers down my spine. Why anyone would want to stand in front of 30 teenagers, most of whom were marking time till they could leave, was beyond me.
All this was a long way off. For now it was the same old routine. Not that Howie and I were joined at the hip. We’d often go our separate ways. Sometimes I’d meet up with one of the others from Needler for a coffee or lunch. On one occasion, I was queueing in the refectory for lunch with John Patterson when I recognized a woman I knew further up the line. I thought a good way of attracting her attention was to slap her on the bum. Except that it wasn’t her. I had to eat several slices of humble pie to placate her. I decided to drop that specific method of attracting people’s attention in favour of more traditional methods, such as calling out their names, or at most, touching them lightly on the arm.
A bizarre episode, much enjoyed by my erstwhile buddies, occurred when I ordered a taxi from the Keys. I told them my name, which the taxi driver must have passed onto the landlord when he arrived. The landlord bellowed across a full pub, “Taxi for Mr Merchman. Woody where are you?” Woody Merchman? From that moment until the end of the year, I was Woody Merchman. It had that ring of Spartacus about it, where several people stood up declaring, “No, I’m Woody”. It would have been a fitting end to this anecdote. Except it never happened.
At the beginning of term, Rob Lynch was full of his plan to make us all a fortune. It involved race horses, of course. Or, to be more precise, one horse called Woodsome, which a relative of his had bought. The trainer reckoned he was a shoe in, (or should that be a horse shoe in) for the 1000 or 2000 guineas. Rob was keen to bet on it now, as he was sure the odds would tumble once it started winning races leading up to the big day in May. Known as ante-post betting, it could be very lucrative if the odds were long. Woodsome’s odds weren’t that great, even though she hadn’t been raced. It was with understandable reluctance that we stumped up the cash.
We were right to be sceptical. Woodsome’s progress was consistent – consistently poor. Although she may have failed to set the racing world alight over here, there were a couple of chefs in France who were showing a keen interest in her. Undaunted, Rob told us to hang on in there as he’d heard from the trainer that she’d never been in better condition. She was due to run at Pontefract, just a short trip up the M62. We all lumped onto her. Rob and Paul Paccito travelled to Pontefract, convinced this would be her time. Unfortunately it was the same old story. It didn’t win, or come second, or even third. Woodsome would have been better named Somewood. Apart from bombarding Rob with scorn, it was the last time Woodsome’s name was mentioned.
The final nail in my horse racing coffin came at Beverley Races. There was quite a group of us who went, some betting more heavily than others. As something of a mug punter, I was one of those who was losing. I had a fellow loser in Paul Paccito. We came to the last race both down £5, which was a lot of money for a student to lose. We decided to try and retrieve the status quo by betting a fiver, in the last race, on the even money favourite. Now, the thing about Beverley is that its last three furlongs are all uphill. This could seriously affect the outcome of a race. Our horse turned into the final straight leading by three lengths. We were feeling pretty smug, when a chasing horse started to eat into our horse’s lead. As they crossed the line, the chasing horse took the race by a nose. We hung about for the official verdict, just in case the other jockey was disqualified. He wasn’t. We’d each lost £10. We were gutted. Paul took a more philosophical view of the situation. To him, losing was all part of gambling. To me it was £10. £10 I could ill afford to lose. Not even a couple of beers at Nellie’s could pick up my mood. At least it amused the rest of the group.
June ’76 was one of the hottest on record. It was overwhelmingly hot and the nights weren’t much cooler than the days. Incessant heat coupled with lack of sleep were a recipe for short tempers and fractious behaviour. It was also exam time, which didn’t help. I’d dropped lucky this year. When I took my first year exams I sat with everyone else in the gym. It wasn’t easy, as I couldn’t fit the chair under the desk. I was located at the back of the hall, which made it difficult to manoeuvre into position. This wasn’t a massive hindrance so I didn’t make an issue of it. However, it must have been noticed by the invigilators, as I was offered to take my future exams in the Health Centre. I jumped at the chance, particularly because of the heat. I borrowed someone’s office with a nice large fan. Window opened, cup of tea on the desk; I was ready to go. All in all, it was a very positive experience, made more so by hearing how bad it was for the others, slowly being boiled alive in the gymnasium.
The remaining time, until the end of term, was spent lazing in the sun, often in beer gardens. Once the results were published, it was time to go home. Friends drifted off in one’s and two’s with the usual, “See you next year.” Hugh and I stuck it out until there were few people left, then it was our turn to go.
It wasn’t until the late 90’s I learned of developments in assisting male erections. One of these is an injection of one or more drugs into the penis. This produces a hard erection that can last for one to two hours. Some years later I found out that these had been superseded by oral stimulants like Viagra. How long these stimulants had been around I’d no idea. It’s the sort of thing I only became aware of when I was an in-patient in hospital – and, for around 30 years, I’d been lucky enough to escape this.
Our third year brought about some changes for our group. Changes we’d not had before. We’d lost Jim Schickle, Mick Cuthbert and Rob Lynch, three of our main stalwarts. Plus Hugh had left Needler to live in private rented accommodation with, amongst others, Steve Blackburn. Our depleted resources were added to by one, Tim Casewell. He was an interesting chap as his brother, Fred, had been at Needler the previous three years. But I’d defy anyone to find two more different characters.
Fred was always immaculately turned out in blazer, pressed trousers and black shiny shoes. He also had a penchant for bow ties, of which he appeared to have a never ending supply. His dark hair was always faultless. He was, for all the world, an affluent, upper middle class, sherry drinking, boring student. Tim was none of these things. For a start, he had ginger hair which seemed to have a life of its own. He acted like an average student, dressing in jeans, drinking beer, with more than a passing interest in women. In fact he had continuous, raging hormones. Where Fred was reserved, Tim was audacious.
Year three was finals year. It was also time to think about what work we wanted to do when we left. This rather weighty issue was mostly unspoken during the year, every so often someone would raise it. Most of us would talk in general terms about what we’d like to do. Frankly, as I wasn’t one of those who were heading for accountancy or teaching, I didn’t have a clue. There was an annual event before the end of the final term when employers came to the campus to discuss what they did etc. As they were always on the look out for potential employees, there was a great deal of anticipation when they came to town. For some reason it was called the milk round. I believe it has its origins in logistics, rather than herding students together to milk them dry. All I knew was that it wouldn’t be any use to me. I could operate independently within the set up at Needler, where all my needs were taken care of, whereas I’d be completely at sea if I had to manage on my own. I don’t think I was being over cautious when I decided to look for something nearer home in Doncaster.
All that was still to come. I was more interested in getting back to being a student, with no worries or responsibilities. I had lots of good friends, as was demonstrated one evening when it was decided we’d go down town to one of the nightclubs. When we arrived we found it was upstairs. The bouncers wouldn’t let me in, despite my friends offering to carry me up. I told them to go in without me. I’d come in the Noddy so it wasn’t difficult to get back to Needler. “You’re going nowhere.” I was told. “We’ll find a different club.” I was genuinely touched by this show of camaraderie. True there had been lots of other incidents that lead to changes of plans, or carrying me into places. This was different, at least it was in my eyes. For the whole group to take that decision, without anyone suggesting otherwise, was something very special.
We found another club. Unbelievably it was also upstairs. Expecting to get the same response, one of us asked bouncers if they’d let me in. “No problem,” one said. “You go ahead, we’ll carry him up.”
“Cheers lads. Thanks a lot.” Rang out from us all.
Once in the club it was a bonus to find they had a band on. The Zoot Money Big Roll Band. Zoot Money? I thought he’d died years ago. The man himself came onto the stage in a stove pipe hat, sat at a piano, then ran through all his hits. None of which anyone knew because he hadn’t had any. I was taken by his guitar player, feeling that he could do so much better for himself than playing with Mr Money. I took notice of his name in the programme, it was Andy Summers. Within 18 months he was playing with The Police.
Before I started my final year I ran into an old mate, John Magna. John was a spinal injury as well, although he’d been to Lodge Moore’s spinal unit in Sheffield. He told me he went to all Donny Rovers home games – for free! As free was my favourite price, I asked for more info. All you did was turn up to the ground, inappropriately named Belle View, half an hour before kick off. When they opened up a gate at one corner of the ground, you backed your Noddy along the touchline – on the fans side not the players – parking tight up to the small wall. At the start of the season I was there.
It was something I did regularly until January 1977. Travelling back home on Friday evening for the game on Saturday. Returning to Hull on Saturday night, or Sunday if Alan was around. One Friday afternoon I arrived home as usual. It wasn’t until I said I was going to my room that Mum said, “You can’t. Granddad’s using it. He’s had a fall so we thought it would be better if he stayed with us for a few days.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before I came home?” I was really annoyed.
“Because you wouldn’t have come home if we had,” she replied.
Bearing in mind we weren’t a touchy feely family, this revelation should have melted my heart. It didn’t. I was so angry that they’d deliberately not told me, I returned to Hull straight away. Was this the right reaction? Would I do the same to my children? No, I wouldn’t. However much I wanted to see them.
That wasn’t the reason I stopped going to Rovers games. One extremely cold, Saturday afternoon I was watching another dismal Rovers performance, when I realized my breath was freezing on the inside of the windows. I had to scrape away the frozen condensation to see out of them. That was it. I’d seen thirteen games, none of which Rovers had won, now I was freezing my bollocks off whilst de-icing the inside of my windows. No team was worth that.
Back in my sporting world, I was still wasting my time following the basketball team around. All this was to change towards the end of 1976, when I was asked to become involved in a new sport. Ron Nichols, who up until then had been the manager of the UK’s Paralympic Weightlifting Team, had seen Air Weapons demonstrated at the 1976 games in Toronto, Canada. Pistols and rifles shooting pellets over a distance of 10 metres into paper targets. What had attracted him to it was that he could see quadriplegics (those with paralysis in all limbs), as well as paraplegics (those without paralysis in their arms), would be able to take part. At that time there were only a limited number of sports quads could take part in.
He wanted us to put on a demonstration at the International Stoke Mandeville Games in 1977, with a view to getting it accepted as a Paralympic sport. He had a few others in mind, one being Carl Hepple. His basketball prowess, whilst still formidable, wasn’t quite what it used to be. Ron felt he would be up for the challenge of something new, which he was. From that chat we gathered one or two others together to look at it seriously. The only practical place to try it out was in the Spinal Unit Gym. We started by putting pellet catchers, which also held the paper targets, onto archery targets, in case we were more Benny Hill than Bill Hickok.
After that, things escalated rapidly. We were all experts in no time at all. Not in our scores, more practice was needed there. We were experts in which were the best guns, what jackets to wear, along with a whole host of paraphernalia associated with the sport. What we were sold – which we in turn sold to others – was the idea that this was a cheap sport. All you needed to be on your way to a gold medal was a gun and a tin of pellets. What a con. If you fancied yourself as a contender, you needed a bank balance as healthy as your ambitions.
All too soon we were in the throws of final exams. Drinking was relegated to the last hour. There were a lot of concerned looking faces wherever you went. Some were positively horrified, as they realised it was too late to do all the work they hadn’t done during the year. I felt okay about them. I’d done more than enough during the year to pass; now it was just a case of remembering it all. Since my memory hadn’t miraculously turned into an academic sponge, I was back to condensing the salient points into sides of A4, then trying to memorize them.
1977 also coincided with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. On Tuesday, 7 June 1977, everybody got a day off to celebrate her 25 years accession to the throne. Needless to say we didn’t have a street party, or any other tea and bun related event. Apart from a few more beers than usual, we did nothing to celebrate her quarter of a century as our reigning monarch. Then again we were students, what else would you expect?
When judgement day finally arrived, I fought my way to the results which were pinned on the notice board. I started at the 1st’s, more in hope than expectation. No, I wasn’t there. Next the 2:1’s. Nope, not there either. A slight wave of panic began to grow in the pit of my stomach as I moved to the 2:2 results. Thankfully I was there, along with 90% of our year. Howie was also on the 2:2 list, which just left Stuart. He wasn’t on the 2:2 list, or the thirds or the pass list. A closer inspection of the 2:1’s revealed all. He’d only gone and done it! All those questions, all that extra studying, all that dedication. It had all paid off. When we finally caught up with him he had the look of a relieved man. He was, well, modest as he thanked us for congratulations. For the first time I could recall, he looked relaxed. He’d already sorted himself a Masters course at Hull. He was living his dream. I couldn’t help feeling that with a little more application, a little more effort, a little more… I’d got what I deserved. A perfectly respectable, middle of the road degree. I could put BSc(Econ) after my name when only five years before I’d been booted off a Diploma course at a Polytechnic. Now was not the time to dwell on what might have been. Now was the time to celebrate.
Oh yes. At some point before the exams, I’d landed a job. I’m not ashamed to say that it was a 30 year old piece of legislation that clinched it for me. My Disabled Resettlement Officer, secured me two interviews using the quota system, established by the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. One was with the Coal Board, the other was with the Doncaster Council. All I had to do was turn up to the interviews, answer the questions, don’t do anything stupid, and the job(s) was mine. In both cases there was no formal interview, just a chat with someone from personnel. The Coal Board offered me £2k a year, and the Council £3k. I accepted the Council’s offer.
Howie had also landed a job. He was starting on 1st August, a week after the Degree Ceremony. As he said, the sooner he started working the sooner he got some money in his pocket. It seemed a sensible approach to me, so I decided to do the same. It did, of course, mean the end of my flowing locks. When the time finally came, I wiped a small tear from my eye and told the barber I didn’t need anything for the weekend.
The 1977 National Games were held shortly after the exam results were published. Ron had secured a marquee which we laid out with tables, targets, pistols and rifles. Rifle shooting had three disciplines, standing, kneeling and prone, none of which leant themselves easily to firing from a wheelchair. We’d decided early on that standing would simply be holding the rifle at chest height without any support. The other two positions were more problematic. Our solution was to use a table across the chair at stomach level. Kneeling would be one elbow on the table and prone, both elbows. We then set about encouraging as many people, officials or athletes, to try it out for themselves, whilst bending their ears about how wonderful it was. It worked better than we’d hoped. By the end of the week we were given the green light to develop it as an international sport.
One of those interested was Gerry Mills. Until then he’d only ever been interested in weightlifting. He’d been GB heavyweight champion for some years. He decided he’d have a go at the pistol. I thought he was wasting his time. The gun was dwarfed in his big hand. I fully expected him to spray his shots all over the place. I offered him a few nuggets of advice I’d gleaned from my long career in shooting. He nodded out of respect as much as anything, before aiming the pistol at the target, posting 90 out of 100 from his first ever ten shots. I was crestfallen. I’d never been within a sniff of a score like that. “I think I could get into this,” he said. He soon became equally as proficient in rifle. He also became an integral part of our fledgling organization.
At the Degree Ceremony Phil Gartside, another wheelchair user I’d got to know over the years, and I were lifted onto the stage. We were parked at the side the students walked up to collect their degrees. When it came to our turn we collected our degrees, then wheeled to the other side of the stage. Maybe I was naïve expecting something uplifting from the ceremony, because all it felt like was a queue.
By the time we were lifted back down, we were at the back of the queue for the formal photo. True, they were a bit cheesy, destined to reside on parents sideboards, or office desks. I’d have liked to have had one all the same. I was conscious that Mum and Dad were waiting for me somewhere, not knowing where I was. I decided to leave the queue, joining them outside. My only record of the occasion was a photo of me, taken with them and Howie. I passed it off as unimportant. I had my degree; that was the important thing. Even the certificate was disappointing. It was a low key affair lacking in any heraldic type designs. It simply said I was a graduate of the University of Hull.
We went back to the University for a departmental social function, which was mainly cheese on sticks with glasses of wine. That was it. The end of three years of working, socialising, growing as adults. All that was now confined to memories as we headed to our next life phase – work. At least the weather was pleasant.
In 1978 I was told Rob Lynch, our hard drinking, Newcastle loving friend, was dead. He’d stopped on in Hull, getting a job with a Law firm. One night he came home after a heavy session and put a chip pan on. He must have fallen asleep when it caught fire. I often think of him and wish he was still with us.
On Monday, 1st August 1977, I reported for my first day of work. The job didn’t have a title as such, all I knew was that it concerned coordinating jobs that involved Planners, Engineers and Public Works. When the Personnel Officer explained the bones of the job, it seemed to make perfect sense. The idea was to coordinate capital works – which could be anything from building industrial estates to public toilets – so that schemes moved seamlessly from Planners to Engineers to Public works, thereby ensuring work was done on time and to cost. All these schemes fell within the budget of the directorate we worked for, the Directorate of Technical Services. The section, called Central Unit, was within the Engineering Department. My boss was a chap called Roger Wilson.
I arrived at 8.20am, the official start time being 8.30am. Roger wasn’t there. Our office was shared with the two departmental typists, both called Ruth. I put a few things in my drawer then chatted to the Ruths. Roger, I was informed, was in a meeting. Roger, I quickly learned, spent a lot of time in meetings. He came in at around 11am. He asked me what I knew about the job, I repeated what the Personnel Officer had said. Turned out it was more of a vision, his vision, than what was actually happening. Technical Services also included the Council’s Architect’s Department who, as they worked almost exclusively on Council housing, were off limits to us – for now. At least that was Roger’s view.
We were answerable to the Director, he was Roger’s line manager, and every memo had to go out in his name. This meant they all had to be seen by him. I hadn’t met Peter Greaves, or PG as he was more commonly known. As his office was at the other side of town, I doubted if I ever would.
Our starting point was General Improvement Areas (GIAs). These were low level works that, whilst they cost little, had visible benefits for residents on the receiving end. They were usually carried out in the less affluent areas such as Hexthorpe and Bentley. A typical scheme would be to introduce traffic calming measures, parking bays – including residents parking schemes if necessary – blocking off one end of the street if possible, with planting to bring some colour to the area giving it a lift. Planning did the designs, Engineers turned them into drawings that Public Works could use to carry out the works. My role was to take the important parts of the scheme, such as when the designs would be started/finished, then turn them into into bar charts, highlighting the key dates for each scheme. Fairly straightforward you’d have thought. I certainly did. Roger certainly did. Those involved in each of the stages did too. Unfortunately, when the time came to put it into action, things didn’t quite run as smoothly as I’d expected.
The Engineers Department was located above the Frenchgate Shopping Centre. As the car park was on the roof of the Centre, the Frenchgate managers had agreed to create a disabled parking space for me. They couldn’t put my name on it because it was a shoppers car park. Although as I was there before 8.30am, the likelihood that someone else would park in it was nil. This, once we’d ousted certain staff members who were using it, was the case. From here it was a flat run into the building, then up in the lift. Every so often we had fire drills. As the lifts couldn’t be used, that meant I’d need to be carried out by my colleagues. I thought this would be a bone of contention, brought on by a spate of hitherto unknown bad backs. Nothing could have been further from the truth. They were queueing up to help me. They settled on one person at each corner of the wheelchair, as being the easiest for the stairs. After they picked me up, they carried me to the roof entrance like some Egyptian Queen. Perhaps that should have read Roman Emperor.
I’d been employed as a Graduate Trainee, which required me to obtain a professional qualification. The course was one day a week at Leeds Polytechnic, for which I was given day release with pay. The qualification was the Institute of Professional Secretaries and Administrators. I’d had enough of studying to last me a lifetime, so I said I’d rather leave it till next year. It was clear from the response I got that this was a not an option. Chatting to my new course colleagues, it became clear that only the public sector employees got the time off with pay as of right. Those in the private sector had a myriad of arrangements. I didn’t moan about the course after that, even though it wasn’t aimed at the public sector. We studied profit and loss accounting, for example, yet there was no such thing in the Council. Sales didn’t exist in my world. We received money from the rates, topped up by grants from various sources including Central Government, which we spent in ways we were legally empowered to do. On the course, the law was all Company Law. The Secretarial part of the course was, unsurprisingly, all to do with the legal duties of a Company Secretary. (I know what you’re thinking but there wasn’t a typewriter in sight.)
I was being paid to do a course that would give me a professional qualification, even though it was useless to the Council. Personally, this wasn’t the really important part, as each year I passed my exams entitled me to move up a grade. Not an increment, a whole grade. This was serious money. I’d started on AP5 (Administrative and Professional Grade 5), a grade many staff aspired to. After three years I was on SO2 (Senior Officer Grade 2), a very well paid grade.
As a trainee, I was also required to spend time, usually a month, in different departments within the Directorate. I was placed with low paid staff, doing such work as organising meals on wheels, to extremely well paid staff, like those in the Planning and Building Control Department. I even had a stint with the Refuse Section – the bin men. Their day started with a mug of tea in the most dilapidated office I’d ever seen. When they went on their rounds we, the manager and I, stayed there. He’d drawn up some plans to improve the working of the section. He passed them to me and said, “See what you make of them. Let me know if you think they can be improved.” I don’t know who he thought I was, or what power I had within the Council, but if he expected me to take them to his Chief Officer and tell him to implement them, he was sadly mistaken. Fortunately I was only there a week, although it was one of the longest weeks I’d had to endure.
At the end of my placements, I could honestly say that I’d been given a unique insight into the workings of one of the largest Directorates in the Council. Some of it, the time I’d spent with the departments I would be working with in the future, was very beneficial. The other placements were a complete waste of time. “What,” I wondered, “was the point of it all?”
I realized I’d been shoe-horned into this post. After years in Local Government I’m no stranger to posts being included in budgets which, although thought to be a great idea, never have the money available to fill them. Consequently they languish for years on paper only. Then it’s agreed to release it for me. There’s a hasty discussion about what they’re going to do with me. A section was quickly found; a program of short term secondments are thrown together, leaving only a professional qualification to decide upon. That was the most mysterious choice of all. Then again, maybe the original plan was to take on some high flier in one of the technical disciplines, the professional qualification relating to it. Only I come along with no technical skills, and a degree in Economics. I took Alfred Lord Tennyson’s view, when he almost said, “Ours not to reason why.” Taken from probably his most famous poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, he actually said, “Theirs not to reason why.” Though why let a little pedantry get in the way of a good story. Or in this case, my story.
One achievement I did manage during my time there, was to pass my driving test in December 1977. I’d bought a basic, 2 door, automatic, Ford Escort, which I’d had fitted with hand controls. After taking a few lessons to brush up on my technique, I was ready for my test. I’d driven the Noddy for five and a half years, so I was road savvy. I passed first time, with the only hitch being travelling at 30mph in a 40mph zone. “What’s the maximum speed on this road?”, asked the examiner.
“40,” I said.
“Then drive at 40!”
I drove at 40.
The shooting took a massive step forward in 1978. Stoke Mandeville gave us one of the huts, which had previously been used for accommodation, to use as a dedicated shooting range. Ron, along with his wife Margaret, spent every spare moment transforming it into a shooting range. They had the help of their friends Tony and Joan, who lived in Aylesbury, as well as John Hepptenstall, a friend of ours from College Grove. By the time they’d finished it was a complete revelation. There were individual booths, electric target changers, individual spotlights over each target. Not only was it as good as anywhere in the country, it was ready for the International Games later in the year.
I didn’t make the team, so it took me completely by surprise when I heard there were a number of countries who already had highly proficient competitors. I expected it to be a rag bag of people trying it for the first time. Nations such as Switzerland, Austria and Germany, sent some excellent shooters. Far from cleaning up, we were lucky to come away with anything. More importantly, this spread of top quality competitors sealed its place on the international stage.
Ron may never get the recognition he deserves. Even his British Empire Medal (BEM) is the lowest of all the awards. Of course he had help and support from many others but, without his drive and enthusiasm, I’m convinced air weapons wouldn’t have developed into an international sport as quickly as it did – if at all.
Around the same time as all this was happening, a sea change was taking place in the way individual sports were organized. Each was to become an autonomous body within the umbrella of Stoke Mandeville. We formed a committee with Ron as Chair, myself as Secretary, along with Gerry, Carl and others from different clubs. All, with the exception of Ron, were disabled. Our task was to come up with a constitution. First of all we needed a name, settling on the snappily titled, British Paraplegic Shooting Association. Well it did what it said…
In the spirit of a true innovator, I got hold of another constitution using it as a basis for ours. It was at this point I saw a different side to Gerry. I’d always known him as something of a hard case, someone you didn’t get on the wrong side of if you had any sense. He always told people he was a roofer when he had his accident. An alternative version says he was on the roof nicking the lead. He argued coherently that the committee should have a majority of disabled people. This was a fairly radical concept at the time. All the organizations I could think of were dominated by non-disabled people. This was different. This was a single issue group, with lots of active members to draw on. It was agreed unanimously. The rest of the constitution was written with that concept at its heart. That simple notion was to play a major part in my future working life.
Over the early days of the BPSA I got to know Gerry much better. Not only did he have a sharp brain, he had an unusual sense of humour. Whilst waiting for our beers to be pulled one time, he looked over his chair, turned to me saying, “I think I’ll get one of these for myself.” Telling the barman, “It’s not mine. I’m just looking after it for a friend.” On one occasion I was the unsuspecting target of one if his jokes. We were chatting to couple of attractive young ladies when I had to go to the toilet. When I returned they were nowhere to be seen.
“Where’ve they gone?”, I asked.
“I told them you were an axe murder out on license.”
“You told them what!”
“I told them it was all a misunderstanding. You meant to kill your wife, but killed your girlfriend by mistake.”
The jewel in the crown of his quirky quips, as far as I was concerned anyway, was when someone asked him for something he didn’t have, such as a cigarette lighter. As a life long non-smoker, rather than say “No”, he’d inevitably reply, “No, but I’ve got a picture of a dead horse.” I loved it, never tiring of the look on the questioner’s face as they decided what to do next. I think if it wasn’t for Gerry’s size he might have got a mouthful back. Curiously, no one ever asked to see the photo.
To complement our new association we decided we needed a logo to use on letter heads etc. A competition was held with the fantastic prize of a T shirt, complete with the winner’s logo. I told Rich about it. He was roughing out idea’s before I’d finished telling him. This was what he was born to do, spending every spare minute, plus some of the Council’s, working on it. When he was happy with his creation he showed it to me. It was superb. It was a clever design with the silhouette of a rifle inside a pistol, all in striking red, black and white. Rich won it easily. He was definitely wasted in the Council.
By now I’d left other sports behind, concentrating my efforts on shooting. Ron, Gerry, Carl and I would be away every few weeks at shoots around the country. At first there were complaints that we had an advantage because we were sitting down. Gerry told them he had a lump hammer in his car. If they thought we were gaining an advantage, he’d happily even things up by breaking their spines. He was joking of course. At least I think he was.
After about 18 months, Central Unit was moved to an office, one door down from PG’s. I finally got to meet the man, finding him to be a very knowledgeable, likeable chap. Not what I was expecting at all. The building, Scarborough House, was a temporary affair which had stood there far longer than originally intended. It was a single storey, wooden building which, I was pleased to see, had a toilet adapted to specification. Given the number of architects in the building, there would have been some very red faces if it hadn’t been.
I expected that Scarborough House would have key sections, central to the working of the Directorate. This was not the case. It was home to a real mish-mash of services. There was the Directorate’s Finance Section, that made sense; Public Works Management, fair enough; Public Works Payroll Section – could have been anywhere; Architects, though not the management team; finally, the Car Parks and Public Toilets section. Why they were here made no sense at all. It consisted of three people, all brothers. Their office, not much bigger than a broom cupboard, was next to ours. You’d never guess they were brothers from their looks. George, the eldest, was in charge. He was a tall, large bloke prone to blowing his stack, usually at his two brothers. Les, the middle one, looked like a spiv from the forties. He bore more than a passing resemblance to George Cole’s character Flash Harry, in the classic ‘St Trinian’s’ films. The youngest was shorter than the other two. He was the classic no responsibilities, no stress, every night in the pub type of bloke. He had a lot of skin for his head, complemented by a huge beer belly.
Their day always started the same. George was always in first. We’d say hello as we passed in the corridor. That is until one day I asked him how he was. Normally, people would reply, “I’m fine thanks,” enquire about your health, then move on. Not George. He gave me a thread to needle description of every ache and pain in his body. Half way through I’d lost the will to live. I was thinking of gnawing my leg off to keep awake when he suddenly said, “I don’t let it get me down though.” With that, he headed to his office. From that moment on, I’d check the corridor before making a move.
Central Unit may not have been involved in the work of the Architects in Scarborough House. However, in a rare act of serendipity, they had an active air weapons shooting club. It was based in one of some empty industrial units, near the racecourse, which were due to be demolished. The Council let them use it at no cost. It was only five minutes drive from work and they’d be down there two evenings a week. Sundays as well, if anyone was interested. I was soon joining them. They had some very good shooters too. I organized a couple of competitions between them and Pinders at this range. I can’t remember who won. It wasn’t relevant. Seeing how they’d adapted this dilapidated unit, sowed the seed of an idea that we might be able to do something similar.
At work, the coming months brought much of the same. Roger going off to meetings whilst I’d stay in the office finding things to do. Frankly if it wasn’t for the course and the placements, I’d have struggled to do anything. Okay, I was going to the occasional meeting with those responsible for putting the schemes together. They were only ever with officers from one of the departments, not all of them together. These meetings tended to be tales of woe as to why they couldn’t stay on programme; usually involving one, or both, of the others being at fault. All agreed on one thing, the real villains were the Public Works’ workforce. They were, in their opinion, made up of those who couldn’t cut it in the private sector, either because they were lazy, or too old. Working for the Council was, as far as they were concerned, an easy option. With that, they’d absolved themselves of any responsibilities, passing the buck to the one group who were never asked their views. Those that did the work.
Even though we did manage to make some progress with General Improvement Areas, Roger felt it was time to turn our efforts to something else. He chose Industrial Estates. In terms of development, this was an area of work firmly within our Directorate’s budget. There was one rather formidable fly in the ointment – Barbara Bentley. On paper, she was responsible for marketing/sales of industrial land to companies. In practice, she called the shots, including what land was to be developed by when. Whilst this may seem to be perfectly logical, it actually led to small parcels of land being developed all over the district without any strategic planning at all. Our staff meekly went along with her wishes. The main reason being she worked for the Chief Executive, whom she wasn’t averse to using if she felt it necessary. Like someone telling her what she should and shouldn’t be doing. Roger went to meet her. He came back empty handed. He met with her a few more times, always with the same result. I was beginning to wonder what Roger actually did to justify his salary.
In 1980, Roger got another job. Somehow he’d landed the job of Chief Engineer with a London Borough. No one was more surprised than me. It’s not that he didn’t know his stuff as an Engineer, it was just that he hadn’t done any in the three years I’d been there.
With Roger gone, I became concerned about my own position. After all, if the Unit had been considered a failure, then this was the ideal time to scrap it. As it turned out, Roger’s leaving was the making of the Unit. After a while of bumbling about, not knowing what I was supposed to be doing, I was informed that I’d be joined by four people, including a Chief Officer. They’d been working on the Community Land Act, which gave Councils the power to sell off parcels of land, that they no longer needed, to developers. The four people who were to join me had been particularly successful at it. However, the Thatcher Government had overturned the Act, so their jobs had gone. Maybe things were taking a turn for the better.
The four people joining Central Unit were Dave Brewster, the Chief Officer, Chris Taylor, a Planning Officer, Mike Worker, also a Planning Officer, and Rich Hibbard, a graphic designer. I thought we’d got on pretty well after our first meeting. What I hadn’t foreseen was how enduring my friendship with Rich and Chris would become.
Rich was above average height, of medium build, lived in his family home in Rotherham and had one distinctive feature. Early Male Pattern Baldness. He hated it, as most blokes would. To get it in your early twenties, well that was the pits. He did have a well trimmed beard, even if it was a little ginger. His great passion, after Sheffield Wednesday, was the world of graphic design. I remember him telling me about the design of boxes. My initial reaction was probably the same as yours, noooooo. I listened, initially out of politeness, then with genuine interest. From that moment on, every time I had to fight my way through a carton containing the goodies I wanted within, I couldn’t help feeling – which prat thought this was a good design for a box.
Chris – tall, thin, walked with a slight stoop – hailed from Walsall and had a distinctive Black Country accent. As he didn’t drive, he commuted from Retford, where he lived, by train. Rail travel, as I later found out, was something he was passionate about. He’d go to places just because it was a train journey he fancied taking. He was a completely different character to anyone I’d ever met before. He was almost entirely driven by his socialist beliefs. An active member of the Labour Party, he could argue his corner with the best. As most people’s knowledge of party politics was only skin deep, he’d eat them up and spit them out. He did have a lighter side to him. He loved his sport, whether it was football, cricket or rugby union. He also liked a laugh, although the more politically based it was, the funnier he found it. On one occasion, he was at the centre of an embarrassing situation that made the rest of us laugh for days.
He was in discussion with one of the Building Control Officers about a plot of land we wanted to buy for an industrial estate. The officer had an unfortunate speech impediment. He couldn’t make the ‘u’ sound – ‘you’, phonetically speaking. It so happened that the landowner was called Hughes, who the officer called Hoos – as in whose. In the opening exchange, the officer referred to Mr Hoos. The first time Chris spoke, he found himself referring to him as Mr Hoos too. Realising his mistake with horror, he decided he couldn’t begin calling him Mr Hughes, as it would seem like he was taking the piss. Instead, he carried on calling him Mr Hoos for the rest of the meeting. He dreaded having to speak to that officer after that.
As Rich and I were both Labour supporters, we learned a lot from Chris. He was instrumental in setting up a Workplace Labour Party. I tried joining the Party but, for some reason, I heard nothing about my application. The workplace party was a way I could feel involved. We met once a month, usually with a guest speaker. On one occasion we had George Mudie, Leader of Leeds City of Council. He was inspirational, particularly when talking about how he would resist any attacks by Thatcher’s Government, including not making any redundancies. The following day we were talking about his presentation. We were comparing his attitude with our own leadership’s. We wishing he could be our leader. There was something prophetic about this desire.
There was one amongst us who didn’t share Chris’s values, Mike Worker. I’d known Mike from my Massarella ice cream days. He was always very aware of his appearance back then. Now designer suits augmented his image along with flash cars, even if they were second hand. He was a true blue Tory who lived in Bessacarr. This was the place to live in Doncaster if you were an upwardly mobile young man, which is definitely how Mike saw himself. It was always entertaining when Chris challenged Mike after he’d made some outrageous remark. Chris was like the proverbial dog with a bone. He would pick holes in Mike’s argument, not letting up until Mike ended it by leaving for an appointment somewhere, or a lunch date with someone.
Dave was more of a mystery to me. He spent a lot of time tying up loose ends from their previous work, which meant I didn’t see much of him in the first few months. He was held in high regard by the others. When he did eventually join us, it wasn’t difficult to see why. We really began motoring as a Unit, chalking up several projects delivered on time, at the cost quoted - more or less. None more so than Doncaster Carr. Carr being an old Norse term meaning marshy woodland or shrubland. Earmarked for industrial purposes, the Carr was unstable without tonnes of fill material to fix it. I’d found out that there were 100% grants from Europe available to fill in this area, making it suitable to build on. Trouble was, we only had six weeks before the grant came to an end. Within days we had lorries working round the clock filling it up. It was lucky there were no houses nearby. Well not many anyway. We spent/saved the Council hundreds of thousands of pounds. All done without a thought of Barbara Bentley. The following year she was letting sites on it. Justice had been done.
At home, I’d settled into a routine with Mum and Dad. Each evening, we’d have a short debate about whether or not we should get something alcoholic to drink, after which Dad went round to the local off license. Dad and I had acquired a taste for Newcastle Brown, whilst Mum stuck to her Barley Wines. People used to label some beers ‘fighting beers’, Tetley’s being one. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Barley Wine was the real deal. Mum and Dad would sit on the settee, Mum with her legs up on Dad’s lap. About her third Barley Wine it began. People on the TV, neighbours, family; nobody was safe from her views on them. They began at irritation, rising steadily through displeasure, finishing in anger. Whereupon she’d fall asleep for the rest of the evening. She had no recognition of what she’d said the day after. It made Dad and me laugh anyway.
As a train driver, Dad’s shifts were unlike anyone else’s. If for example, he was on from 6am till 2pm, that didn’t mean those were the hours he actually worked. It meant he could start at any time between them. Not only that, he may have to be away longer than his 8 hours. This was because he didn’t always take a train to a destination then bring it, or another one, back. He may return on another one or, ridiculous as it may sound, in one of LNER’s vans. LNER being London North Eastern Railways. Of course this system also meant he could be home earlier than his eight hours. When that happened in the evening, it was a cause for celebration. It was better than Santa arriving on Christmas Day.
The pay for drivers was calculated in an unusual way. The mileage driven was taken into account. As Dad was an experienced driver, he often took trains down to Kings Cross in London. This was the biggie in terms of mileage. A few of those a week boosted his wages considerably.
As New Year 1981 began, I made a resolution to stop looking for love. This wasn’t one of those pathetic, head in the hands sobbing, nobody loves me jobs. I was 28 not 18. I’d decided that there was no special someone for me. Since the short lived adulterous affair 6 years ago, I’d not had a date let alone a relationship. That’s not entirely true. In 1978, the year after I graduated, I took a girl out who was in the year below us. I picked her up in the Escort, then drove up the east coast. We had lunch just outside of Scarborough before returning to Hull. I don’t think it was the poor weather which blighted the day I had in mind, when she thanked me for taking her out before turning down my suggestion of a further date. I should have known nothing would come of it. She wasn’t even a brunette.
Looking back, I don’t think I moved in the circles where I could meet women. My mates were essentially drinking buddies. The ability to drink copious amounts of beer doesn’t make you attractive to women. I’d seen disabled women I fancied. One in particular was Irene Novaks. I used to see her regularly as we competed at regional and national games. She was a top athlete. I wasn’t, thereby hot wiring straight into the ‘she’s too good for you’ part of my brain.
No, I would put all thoughts of love behind me. I’d put my efforts into shooting and my pottery course. I’d enjoyed working with clay at school. In fact I’d passed an ‘O’ Level in ‘Craft, Design and Practice (Sculpture)’. I’d always hankered after going back to it when I spotted an adult pottery class advertised the previous September. It wasn’t a course where we were told what to do. We were shown different techniques, then left to create our own masterpieces. The only part of the course I couldn’t do was throw pots on a potters wheel, which, let’s face it, was a bit of a drawback on a pottery course. I thought I’d cracked it when I found a place that sold electric wheels. My plan was to buy a new shed, put an electric wheel in it and throw pots at home. It was a brilliant plan destined never to get off the ground.
As far as the shooting was concerned, I wasn’t progressing as quickly as I’d hoped. Though with Ron, Gerry and Carl there was always plenty of banter. Every Sunday morning we went to College Grove Sports Club. The club was home to the Wakefield Rugby Union team. It also had active Bowls, Tennis and Squash Clubs. What we were there for though, was their shooting range. It was a full bore, live ammunition range, underneath the car park. As no one used it as such on Sunday mornings, they allowed us to utilize it for free. The only stipulation was that a club member attended. The member who usually came was into his shooting in a big way. He collected old firearms, making a tidy income hiring them to TV companies filming period dramas.
We often stayed on to watch the live ammo shooters. We were offered the opportunity to have a go on more than one occasion. I tried it once but the kick back on the pistol after pulling the trigger was incredible, throwing my arm way up in the air. I can’t even remember if I hit the target with any of my six shots. There was something about holding a weapon that had the power to kill someone that made me feel uncomfortable. It just wasn’t for me. Whether we stayed back or not, we always adjourned to the bar for a beer or two. March 1st, 1981 wasn’t any different.
College Grove Clubhouse was split into two areas. One was the lounge complete with carpet, tables and chairs. The other side, the one we drank in, was floorboards and a pool table. On this occasion there were four young children playing on the pool table, which was irritating as we normally had the place to ourselves. Not that it affected our normal routine. Ron would leave after the first pint, Carl after the second, whilst Gerry and I would often stop for a third.
The configuration of the clubhouse meant that we all used the same bar; a partition with a door separating the two. I was aware that there were people sitting at the bar in the lounge, but I couldn’t see them properly. So few people drank in the clubhouse on Sunday lunch, I didn’t know why they bothered opening it at all. Two regulars who did were a puzzle. One was very posh, the other very working-class. These two men spent the entire time glued to the one arm bandit machine. Standing there for hours pushing money into it, this odd couple had found common ground over a gaming machine.
At one point Alan, the club steward, leant over the bar and said to me “There’s a young lady through here who’d like to buy you a drink.”
I think I replied something along the lines of, “Oh Alan. You are such a Jester.” Or it might have been, “Piss off Alan.” Whatever it was, I returned to our usual topic of scores, including scores we were aiming to shoot (no pun intended).
Ron and Carl had gone when Alan burst through the connecting door, grabbed the back of my chair pushing me into the lounge. Sitting at the bar was an attractive blonde haired woman, a chap wearing a cloth cap and a young, quiet woman.
“Where is she?”, said Alan.
“Oh she’s away to the toilet,” said the blonde in a Geordie accent.
“Ah, she left’as soon as you went’through t’doo-ar,” the cloth capped one added in distinctive Barnsley.
Gerry had joined me by now. Alan pulled us a pint apiece while we waited for her return. We soon found out her name was Denise. Her friends were Kathy, Nigel and Karen. Not surprisingly the four children were theirs. Kathy had two girls, Denise one of each. Nigel was just a friend, though I suspect he’d liked to have been more. I’m not sure how Karen fitted into their group.
“What are you doing in this empty, lifeless, mausoleum of a building,” I asked.
“It’s one of the few places that allow children in,” said Kathy. “No one wants to know when you’ve got kids.” They’d even taken out life membership so that they’d always have somewhere to go.
When Denise returned I said something like, “Hello, my name’s Trevor and this is Gerry.” What a smooth operator, followed nonchalantly by asking, “Why did you run away?”
“I got scared when Alan went to fetch you,” she said. She was a beautiful woman who, you will not be surprised, was a small brunette. Her hands were shaking as she lit up a cigarette. “Sorry,” she said. “Alan had been saying he was going to get you to come through. I thought he was joking. It came as a shock when he did.”
“It came as a bit of a shock to me too.”
We made some small talk with Kathy, as Gerry was having some verbal sport with Nigel, whose nickname was Flat Cap Nigel. Ah, the wit of Barnsley folk. Nigel was complaining about his knee hurting. Gerry was egging him on.
“I’d get it seen by a doctor if I were you,” said Gerry.
“Does tha think so?”
“Oh definitely,” continued Gerry. “You can’t be too careful with knees.”
All this time Denise said very little. I was beginning to wonder what was the point of us meeting like this. It didn’t seem like it was the start of a possible romance. I definitely wasn’t expecting anything long term. As far as the end of the afternoon would be a bonus.
Then, as we were preparing to leave, things took an unexpected turn for the better. Denise said she was roasting a chicken. “Would you like to join us?”, she asked. Though it had been in the oven so long she said that, “It will be more like a sparrow’s kneecap.”
Gerry said he wasn’t in any hurry to go home, I had nothing to rush back for either, so we accepted her invitation. All ten of us went back to Denise’s house, which turned out to be a terrace. There was no chance of getting in through the front door because of the steps. Fortunately, there was a narrow path that lead to the back of her property. With a bit of pushing and pulling we were in.
Nigel and Karen took the children to play with something in the front room, leaving Gerry and me in the back room. We’d cracked open a couple of bottles of wine we’d bought from the club. Kathy was in the kitchen with Denise, although she joined us occasionally. Denise, on the other hand, seemed to be spending all her time in there. It was as if she was hiding. Eventually the chicken dinner appeared. Denise was right. It was a sparrow’s kneecap.
As the afternoon dwindled away, we suddenly realized it was 6.30pm, which meant the clubhouse would be open in half an hour. Just after 7pm, we were back at the bar we’d occupied earlier. I don’t think the kids were too impressed. Unfortunately for them, they were still young enough to be told what to do.
I spent a lot of time talking to Denise as she knelt down to speak to me. I thought it was because she was being sensitive, so we could see each other eye to eye so to speak. She said later it was because, “I wanted to look at your angelic face.” Well who could blame her. To be honest, it was a little unsettling given that we’d only met a few hours before. As the evening wore on I began to warm to her more. It wasn’t the sort of feeling that I was falling in love with her. It was more of a case that here was a woman who, for some unfathomable reason, seemed to have fallen in love with me before we’d met. I knew I wanted to see her again. We had a kiss or two before last orders were called.
“Can I see you next week?”, I asked.
“No, but you can in two weeks”.
“Oh, why’s that?”
“I can’t tell you,” she replied sheepishly. To me this meant only one thing. I asked her if she was married.
“No,” she said. Though she still wouldn’t tell me why she could see me only every other weekend.
It was at this time Kathy insisted she would take Denise’s children, Debbie and Daniel, home with her, so that we could be together for the night. Subtlety wasn’t one of Kathy’s strong points. I didn’t go back with Denise because the toilet was upstairs. I also had work in the morning. I’d no option; I’d have to drive home knowing my alcohol level was way over the legal limit. As it was late Sunday night, there was little traffic about. I realized how lucky I’d been when I parked the car at home.
The following day I was not at my best. However, it was a day when I could hide out of the way work-wise. Unfortunately it didn’t help me with my immediate problem. Do I continue to develop my relationship with Denise who, I was convinced, was married? Or do I, as all my senses were telling me, stop it now? She also had two children, which definitely didn’t make her any more attractive. I wasn’t even sure how strong my feelings for her were. In the end I decided to give Sunday morning’s a miss, at least the ones I knew she could be there. Okay, the cynics might say I ran away (again), to which I’d remind them of Oscar Wilde’s view of cynics in Lady Windermere’s Fan. “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I rest my case.
1981 was probably my best year at work. The United Nations had declared it to be the International Year of Disabled People (IYDP). The year before I’d put it to David that we should be doing something to mark the year. I’d suggested making some of Council’s buildings accessible. As well as being within the Council’s remit, it would be a practical and visible improvement for disabled people. David took it to PG’s Management Team, all of whom supported it. In 1981’s budget there it was, with a budget of £50k! I was delighted. On top of this I was given the job of making it happen. Right from prioritising the buildings to be included in the programme, through to ensuring the works were carried out.
There was no legislation requiring Local Authorities to carry out these works. The Chronically Sick and Disabled People’s Act 1970, only placed a duty to make provision of such facilities. Whilst considered ground breaking at the time, it was essentially toothless when it came to getting things done. Nevertheless it spawned guidance on various access issues, such as ramp gradients, toilet design etc. which were later incorporated into Part M of the Building Regulations. The advantage of this meant that I could work directly with Public Works, rather than involve Planning or Engineers.
The first three buildings were easy: The Museum, Civic Theatre and Swimming Baths. The Museum only needed a ramp. The Civic Theatre already had wheelchair access, though no designated wheelchair spaces or accessible toilet. We also installed an induction loop in the theatre. This is a wire laid around a room which, when attached to an amplifier, creates a magnetic field within the loop. Anyone with a hearing aid could pick up sounds fed through the amplifier if they switched it to the coil inside.
The Swimming Baths was the most expensive as well as the most problematic. To start with there was only just enough room to physically fit the ramp in. Once inside it needed an accessible changing room, accessible toilet and pool hoist.
The irony of this scheme was that I had to work with George and his brothers. I’d identified, through personal experience, that there was a lack of accessible public toilets. The reluctance to build any was a security issue. Their larger size, along with them being for use by only one person, made them favourites with working girls – that’s prostitutes, to readers over fifty. Fortunately, the Royal Association of Disabled Rights (RADAR), had introduced the National Key Scheme for disabled persons toilets. This was a key that fitted every accessible toilet throughout the country which were fitted with compatible locks. The keys were only available through reputable outlets such as Social Services, thereby giving the green light for the scheme to go ahead. Hats off to George, he was the most empathetic and enthusiastic of all the officers I dealt with.
On Saturday 16th May, it was Pinderfields Sports Day. We set up the shooting range in the gymnasium. The only drawback was that it was en route from the ward to the outside events. To be fair, the few people using it were respectfully quiet. When we shot pistol, we sat sideways on to the targets. As I reloaded, I faced the door that led to the outside.
During one of these reloading sessions I saw a very, very, drop dead gorgeous woman peeking round the door. When the faces of two small children also peeked too, the penny dropped. It was Denise with Debbie and Dan. She was a vision, standing there with her beautiful dark brown hair in a style reminiscent of Mary Quant. Her slim figure was adorned by a red top and cream trousers. The way she looked, she could have stepped straight off a catwalk. One of those women you drooled over, but was always out of reach. When we made eye contact, she smiled. I felt my heart drop into my stomach.
After I’d finished my shoot, I went over to speak to her. We chatted for a while before going to look at the outside events. In the evening we always had a disco with food, usually pie and peas, complete with an abundance of alcohol. I don’t know why I didn’t ask her along. There was still this every other weekend business. Even so, if I could have kicked myself I would have – hard.
Thankfully she came with two of her friends, Eric and Sheila. I was sitting at a table with Steve Donnelly and his wife Lynn. Steve, one of our basketball team who actually played, was someone who enjoyed a joke; especially if it was at the expense of somebody else. Tonight it was me. As soon as he saw her he started giving me grief. Between the two of them, they shamed me into going over to speak to her. There were no tables free so she sat on the end of a bench. We were far too close to the DJ to have any sort of conversation. I suggested we went for a drive, the plan being to park up somewhere discrete where we could talk. She said okay, except that there was a problem. She couldn’t leave her car there overnight. Eric came to the rescue, agreeing to drive it home for her. It was only later that I learned Eric hadn’t passed his test. Denise thought he was having lessons so it would be good experience for him. Of course it would. Asking someone who – hadn’t passed their test, wasn’t familiar with her car, wasn’t insured, as well as being over the limit – to drive your car home was a cracking idea.
We drove out of Wakefield looking for somewhere romantic to park up. This time I felt excited, not apprehensive as I had ten weeks earlier. Fifteen minutes later we found the perfect place, Rothwell Sports Centre car park. Hidden amongst the other cars, bathed in orange lighting used for security purposes, we spent a couple of hours talking, kissing and talking again. She told me why she could only meet me every other weekend. It wasn’t a husband, she’d divorced him some years before. It was the man she’d left him for. He was exceptionally charming, which Denise found irresistible. Behind closed doors though he changed. Quizzing where she’d been, demanding to know with whom. She’d been knocked about plenty, including having a meat cleaver held at her throat. She’d even held a knife ready to stab him in the back whilst he was asleep in front of the fire. Thankfully she couldn’t go through with it. People were quick to give her advice, like why didn’t she get out of it, show him the door or get the police? The trouble is you don’t know how someone like that will react. He wasn’t the type to sign up for an anger management course, and he wasn’t interested in what Denise thought or felt. He was only interested in controlling her. Why could she only meet me every other weekend? Well he was married of course, spending the other weekend with his family. He did have one thing, which I can’t exactly say was a redeeming feature, he was good with children and this was important to Denise.
Denise told me about herself. She was thirty six, had two children, twelve year old Debbie and Daniel, who was ten. She’d worked at her mother’s hairdressing salon since she was fifteen. Her mother, Muriel Hampshire, was a top hairdresser in her day. The first woman to be picked to represent the GB Hairdressing Team. Both Denise, and her sister Karen, had worked for her, taking part in hairdressing competitions. Whilst they always acquitted themselves well, they never reached the heights of their mum. Karen had already left the business by the time I met Denise, leaving her to take over the running of the salon as her mum wound down to retirement. Whilst she enjoyed the job, she hated the idea of running the business. What she would have liked to do instead was be a nurse, though she realised that was a dream that would never be fulfilled. Instead she did voluntary work on one of the wards at Pinderfields when she could. Can you guess where? Wrong, it was Coronary Care.
She’d lived in Staincross, near Barnsley, at one time which is where she’d met her friend Kathy, who was now also divorced. They got together at every opportunity changing from responsible, working mothers, into outrageous party animals. They could drink – a lot. Denise claimed she had succeeded in the ultimate drinkers challenge; the yard of ale. Two and a half pints all down in one. At last, I’d found someone who had ’the ability to drink lots of beer’ on their list of perfect men. All those years I’d put into, well let’s call it my favourite hobby, had finally paid off. I could see myself falling for this woman.
Staincross was also the place Denise and Kathy played matchmaker with Eric and Sheila. Eric was an ex-miner who’d lost his first wife to cancer. He was Head Gardner at Pinderfields when I knew him. Sheila, or Auntie Sheila, as Denise called her, was a very close friend of the family, not really her aunt. She’d divorced her husband some years before. After Denise and Kathy had brought them together it wasn’t too long before they were partners, then married.
The lengths Denise had gone to find out about me was something else. She wanted to know what it would be like to be my partner. “I contacted some nurses I know to find out what would be involved in living with a quadriplegic,” she said. “One warned me off getting involved with you because of the difficulties in caring for someone with a spinal injury. I decided I could handle them anyway.” She’d even got a copper friend to find out where I lived. When she told me the phone number it was my brother’s! She told me she’d been to the Sports Club every other Sunday, quizzing Gerry where I was. He’d just shrug his shoulders saying he’d no idea. He’d not told me either, not even in fun. I thought this was the mark of a good friend.
She’d gone to all this trouble because she’d fallen in love with me the instant she saw me at the other side of the bar, all that time ago. Nothing could have illustrated this more than when she told me she hadn’t vacuumed the carpet for a week after we were there, because the tyre tracks were a memory of me. The only reason she finally swept them away was because the boyfriend was due for his weekend. I was beginning to think I’d got a stalker until she said, “Turning up to tonight was the last time I was going to try to get together with you. If you hadn’t been interested, then I’d have given up.”
When we’d finished talking we agreed to meet again, the following day. Not only was I sober this time when I drove home, I felt elated. Any fears I’d had over the past weeks had been buried for good. For all those who are thinking, “Well did you or didn’t you?” Certainly not. I may not be a gentleman but I do have some integrity.
Sunday afternoon I picked her up, my stomach churning. That feeling you get on a first date isn’t the prerogative of teenagers. Those of us have been out of the dating game for a number of years are susceptible too. I asked her where she’d like to go. “Anywhere,” she said, “I don’t mind.” However, I was determined to give her an afternoon that she could look back on with a smile on her face. It was no contest, it had to be the Dales. The easiest way to get to them was through the centre of Leeds, which was relatively traffic free on Sundays. We were getting along great. In fact we were talking so much I ran through a set of red lights. In my defence it was a tricky junction. After I drove through the second set of lights though, we agreed I should concentrate on the driving for a while, or there wouldn’t be second date.
We drove to Bolton Abbey, stopping off at the Devonshire Arms for a bite to eat. It was during the meal she told me she’d lost 10lbs during the ten weeks since we’d first met. Believe me she didn’t need to lose 1lb let alone 10lbs. She asked me how I managed to cross my legs if I was paralysed. A fair enough question as it was something I did regularly. “There’s no trickery involved,” I said, “I pick up my left leg and put it over my right.”
We parked up near the river, still talking. We decided we’d give it a go. Even if it only lasted six weeks, then we’d make sure we’d have six good weeks together. Of course, this meant telling the boyfriend. “I’ve no idea how he’s going take it.” she said.
“I’ll be there to back you up,” I offered.
“I’d rather do it myself.”
You’ll be relieved to know we drove home without incident. I was chuffed the afternoon had gone so well. When we got back to her house I said how lovely the Dales were. “Which part did you like best?” I asked her.
“I’ve no idea,” she replied, “I was too busy looking at your beautiful face.” I think if we’d stayed in the car outside her house she’d have been perfectly happy. As I drove home, I thought the ten weeks I’d hidden were ten weeks lost.
The following week I was going to Sweden with Rich Hibbard and a couple of his mates. The timing couldn’t have been worse given my budding romance with Denise. She made a hastily arranged child free break to Dieppe with Kathy whilst I was away.
Rich had sold me on the idea as Sweden was known to be light years ahead of most countries when it came to providing facilities for disabled people. I’d only been abroad once before. That was to Majorca with my parents when I was 15. This was different. I was disabled. What if the hotels didn’t have facilities I needed? By that I meant toilet facilities. Toilets ruled my life when I was travelling away from home. I told Gerry my fears. He said, “What would you do if it happened in this country?”
“I’d cope somehow.”
“There’s your answer. You’ll cope somehow.”
We drove down to Felixstowe on the Friday, or rather I drove down to Felixstowe as it was my car we were crammed into. I don’t know how we did it. Four lads with all our gear and a wheelchair. At the start of the journey, we couldn’t contain ourselves. Every joke or witty remark was hilarious, no matter how feeble it was. Every jibe at one another was received in the same way. I’d brought plenty of music tapes along and we sang along with each track. By now Prog Rock was a distant memory, Punk Rock had seen to that. Yet even that genre had died and, out of its embers, arose the New Romantics with bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. They didn’t appeal to me at all so I stuck to soft rock of bands like The Eagles, individual artists such as Joan Armatrading and Van Morrison, and not-really-punk-rock bands such as Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions. But Felixstowe is a long way from South Yorkshire, with few decent roads once we’d left the A1. Our jolly banter soon turned into silence, with the occasional, “How much further is it?” The adult version of that children’s classic, “Are we nearly there yet?”
Eventually we arrived in Felixstowe. Our spirits rose at the sight of our large, Tor Line ship. I parked the car, we grabbed our stuff and headed for passport control. Our bags were taken from us. “They’ll be taken to your cabins.” we were told. Brilliant, no humping them up the gang plank. After a further wait of couple of hours we were allowed to board.
Once on board we were on our way to suss out the ship, in particular the duty free shop. It was heaving, which we expected, although we couldn’t understand why the Swedes were buying beer. You could only take six cans, so why bother. We stuck with the spirits. After all, how much more expensive could beer be on the mainland? Well that question was quickly answered when we arrived at our first hotel. The price of a pint was £2! We’d only been paying 49p at home. It was tough to swallow at that price (pun, sadly, intended). We decided that drinking was an integral part of enjoying our holiday. Consequently we paid up without whinging, however expensive it was. Sweden, we were told, had had a big problem with alcoholism, hence the price of alcohol. State run off licenses were the only places you could buy alcohol legally, though our searches for them proved fruitless.
As I was the one who needed the facilities to be right, it was left to me to book the hotels. We were travelling from Gothenburg to Stockholm, stopping at Nykoping on the way. I decided to use the same hotel chain as it seemed to have the facilities I required. Fortunately, everything written about them was true. Not only the hotels either. From taxis, to parks and gardens. Everywhere was accessible. There were even dropped kerbs at road junctions.
In Stockholm I saw a chap wheeling into the back of a minibus. It had some writing on the side, although as it was in Swedish we didn’t know what it said. We asked somebody. This wasn’t as daft as it sounds since almost everyone spoke English. It was like a bus service for disabled people, we were told. You rang it up, it came to your house, took you into the city centre. Then, when you were ready, it took you home again. I think if it wasn’t for the price of the beer, I could have happily lived in Stockholm.
We stayed there for four days, each day bringing a new experience. On our first night we went to the hotel bar expecting to have the place to ourselves. We’d found ourselves drinking alone in the two previous hotels we stayed in. On this occasion there were two young chaps, scruffily dressed, sharing a bottle of whiskey. It must have cost them a small fortune. We were talking to them before too long. Both spoke some English, one more so than the other. Turned out they were Norwegian fishermen looking for work in Sweden. Their fishing grounds were frozen, even in May, so they’d come south hoping to find work until the thaw set in at home. We asked them why they were drinking whiskey when it was so expensive. Their reply took us all aback, “Because it’s so much cheaper than at home.” Norway was tackling its alcoholism in the same way as Sweden, except they’d put the prices up even higher. I made a mental note to give Norway a wide berth in any future holiday plans.
On our second day we’d found out that there was a big athletics meet on that night. More to the point, Seb Coe was over for it. Rumour was, he was going for a World record in the 1500 metres. Now Seb was a big hero of ours, as he hailed from Sheffield. This was something not to be missed. We got directions from the receptionist, leaving early to make sure we found the stadium in good time. We found it straight away, which meant we had a lot of time to kill. As there was no pub to retreat to, we had no option. We hung around, looking at our watches every few minutes, until it opened. When we were finally allowed in we were taken to an area specifically for wheelchair users. Normally this is bad news, as it usually meant being stuck at the back of the stadium, miles from the action. Not this time. We were level with the first tier of seats above ground level, giving us an excellent view of all of the track, right behind where the athletes took off their track suits. We were enjoying the various events when, suddenly, there he was. The man himself, Seb. No further from us than 20 metres. We had a hurried conversation as to whether we should shout something suitable to let him know we were there like, “Ay up Seb. Give it to them for South Yorkshire!” How could that fail to inspire him to break that World record? We’ll never know because we bottled it, keeping our mouths shut. He won the race comfortably. Unfortunately, the existing World record remained unbroken.
On our last evening we were determined to find a real bar, with people in it. We asked a taxi driver to take us to one. He dropped us off somewhere in the city. As we couldn’t see a bar anywhere, we went looking for one. Even though the streets were deserted, we soon became aware that our aimless wandering had taken us into a seedy area. Or at least what passed for a seedy area in Sweden. We realized this when we came across a bloke slumped on the floor, drunk, clutching a bottle of wine. How he managed to afford to get in that state we’ll never know. We thought it best to head back to where we’d been dropped off. We had better luck this time. The pub was more like a club, complete with a DJ, disco lights, low ambient lighting; it was a cracking place. We’d just finished our first drink when I discovered my drainage bag had sprung a leak. I told the others. They were less than enthusiastic about going back to the hotel so I could change it. I couldn’t blame them, it had taken us a week to find. Unfortunately it meant I spent all night with a wet trouser leg. Worse still, my shoe was slowly filling up with urine. It was difficult to really enjoy the evening when each time I went for an empty, I left a trail of urine behind me.
I don’t want to give the impression we were like vampires, only appearing when the sun went down. We did the whole tourist bit during the days. In fact the weather was beautiful, with bright sunshine in the 70’s. There was also a great incentive to getting up in the morning – breakfast, which was included in the price of the rooms. In most of the hotels you were left to help yourself to whatever you wanted. There was no cooked breakfast of course, it was all cold meats, cheeses, yogurts etc. with an assortment of breads. This was ideal for us. We’d stuff ourselves with belt loosening portions, then take a sandwich or two with us for lunch.
Like all holidays, it was over too soon. On the ship heading back to Felixstowe, apart from the duty free alcohol, I was on the lookout for a present for Denise. I settled on a tight linked necklace, made from Swedish silver. The best silver in the world. At least that’s what it said on the card.
On the drive home my thoughts were focused on Denise. I really hoped she’d like the necklace. I had a good feeling about us and didn’t want to mess it up by giving her a shabby present.
Back in Wakefield I presented my best-silver-in-the-world necklace. I was overwhelmed by the reception it got. She loved it. Said she’d never seen another like it. Couldn’t put it on quick enough, vowing never to take it off. I was taken aback. Whilst I thought it was a lovely piece, it didn’t strike me as being worthy of such a reaction. True to her word, she wore it all the time, as in never taking it off – ever. She’d wash, even bathe with it on. No matter if she was dressed casually, or going out for the night, the necklace was always there.
I asked how it had gone with the boyfriend. “He didn’t seem too bothered,” she said. “I think he’d already got a replacement for me lined up.” I’m not sure who was the most relieved. I suspect it was Denise.
I’d told Mum and Dad about Denise. They’d even met. However, it took me a while to tell them about her children. I knew Mum wouldn’t be pleased. She wasn’t the type of person who welcomed anyone into her world. Since Malc had left, that was reserved for Dad and me. She’d fallen out with her brother before I was born. Since he was persona non grata, I never found out why. Mum seemed to be good at falling out with people. Or if not falling out with them, ensuring they didn’t feel welcome.
The announcement went better than I expected, in as much as she didn’t throw a wobbler. Not that she opened the champagne either. It was more like, “Does she? You must bring them over sometime.” Though the tone of her voice didn’t sound enthusiastic.
After I told Denise what she’d said, we arranged a date to see them with Deb and Dan. Dad, as ever, took Mum’s lead; whilst she didn’t exactly ignore them, she did little to interact with them either. We never took them over again.
The days turned into weeks. I was falling in love with her more and more as each day passed. I was so proud to be with her, especially at club events where I could indulge in a little one-upmanship. It was like having a trophy girlfriend. The sort who’d normally be seen on the arm of the rich and famous. So what was she doing with me? And why hadn’t I had that thunderbolt moment like Denise had?
By now we’d moved on from six weeks to six months when the moment arrived. We were alone one weekend (Deb and Dan were at their dad’s) just chatting, when I said something that upset her so much that she said, “If that’s what you think, then I want to end it now.” I was shocked. It felt as if I’d been plugged into the National Grid with several thousand volts shoved through me. I panicked, I apologized, pleading with her not to finish what we had. Fortunately, she dried her eyes saying she’d give me another chance.
Another chance were not the words I wanted to hear. I was hoping for something a bit more committed than that. Yet after all her words of love for me, she’d put me on probation. What did I say that so upset her? I’m afraid that whilst the incident is burnt on my mind, neither I, nor Denise, can remember what it was I said.
The moment passed, the months rolled by. I knew, without a doubt in my mind, I’d found the woman of my dreams. It’s corny but true. When you’re in love, the world seems a much better place. The colour of the flowers are more vibrant, the sky is bluer, even the work colleagues I disliked didn’t seem so bad. Before we realized it, we’d been together a year. We’d stopped setting arbitrary deadlines beginning with six, settling into a steady relationship. I was spending all my spare time in Wakefield, including spending each night there, travelling to work in Doncaster each weekday, where I’d see Mum and Dad at lunchtimes.
One day as we pulled up outside her house, Denise turned to me and said, “When are you going to ask me to marry you?” I was flabbergasted. She’d told me right at the outset of our relationship that she had no intention of getting married again. Being a modern man kind of guy I’d said that wasn’t a problem to me.
“You said you didn’t want to get married,” I reminded her.
“Well I’ve changed my mind.”
“Okay, will you marry me?” What else was I supposed to say. Hardly the most romantic proposal in the world, or the most romantic setting. No candle-lit dinner, no bouquet of flowers. Not even an engagement ring. Getting down on one knee was out of the question. Yet, in an odd sort of way, it summed up our relationship. Nothing had been Mills and Boon about it from day one. However, the best was yet to come.
“Yes I’d love to.” she said. “You’ll have to ask the children if it’s alright by them.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes I am. I need to know they will be happy for us to be a family.”
At least she didn’t ask me to get her dad’s blessing.
I’m sat in the opening of the long, narrow, kitchen. Two small faces are sat on kitchen bar stools looking back at me, bemused by what this was all about. “This is stupid.” I thought to myself. “Whoever heard of a marriage proposal being dependant on the approval of children? I must have been crazy agreeing to it. I mean, it wasn’t as if it was my idea to get married in the first place.”
“I’ve, err, asked your mum to, err, marry me.” I took a big breath. “She says I have to get your permission first.” Two baffled faces stare back at me.
“It’s okay by me,” says Debbie.
“And me,” says Dan. Then adds, “Can we go now?”
“Course,” says a very relieved-faced me.
“Well that went well,” I told Denise with my best lying face.
“Thank you darling,” says the genuinely loving face of my fiancéeé.
As we embrace as betrothed lovers I thought, “I’ll be glad to get rid of all these bloody faces.”
The first thing was to buy the engagement ring. As one of their family friends happened to be a jeweller, at least we knew where to start looking. Denise chose a lovely seven stone gold ring. Four rubies and three diamonds. It was in great condition considering it wasn’t new. Unbeknown to me, Denise bought me an expensive watch. I wore it almost as much as she wore her best-silver-in-the-world necklace. Except I took my watch off to bathe.
This is as good a time as any to mention my relationship with Deb and Dan during this period. I was always expecting one of them to trot out, “You’re not our real Dad,” which of course was true. It would also have been mortally wounding. Yet they never did. There was never an issue about me adopting them either. They still loved their Dad; why shouldn’t they? He hadn’t washed his hands of them or abused them. He saw them regularly once a month. We developed into an ordinary family. They were lovely kids. I couldn’t have chosen two better from the ’Lovely Kids To Take Home’ shop. I did what I could to help them, including running them to things. I couldn’t play football, or other games requiring physical input, which irritated me a lot. I played a bit of table tennis with Dan. I also helped with their homework when I could. I even attended parent-teacher evenings. I ducked out of the tellings-off though. Well Denise was so much more accomplished at it than me. The irony being that on the odd occasion I did raise my voice to them, they remembered for years to come.
I can’t recall my mum and dad’s reaction to the news of our engagement. I expect it was greeted with the usual congratulations. Denise said from day one, “Your Mum doesn’t like me. She thinks I’m a gold digger; looking for a provider for me and the kids.”
“You’re imagining it,” I’d say. Though I had to agree she was never gushing towards her. Then again Mum wasn’t gushing towards anyone. The truth was I didn’t want to believe Mum didn’t like her. It was much later when the weight of evidence became irrefutable, that I saw what Denise had seen from day one. Like Mum always insisting we went to their house to celebrate birthdays etc. She wasn’t pleased if we couldn’t make it, even if it was because of Deb and Dan. In fact she never acknowledged Deb and Dan existed, let alone being a central part of my life. She never sent them cards or presents, for Christmas or birthdays.
We didn’t have a big engagement do, preferring instead to have a family meal at a restaurant on the A1. An odd choice, you might think. It was the only accessible place, roughly between Wakefield and Doncaster, I could think of. I can’t remember the exact date, which is unusual as I know all the other dates which mean something to us. All I remember was that it was in June 1982. The meal was forgettable. In fact if it wasn’t for the few photos we took, I think the whole event would have been forgotten too.
It seemed we’d no sooner bought the engagement ring than we were back choosing our wedding rings. We bought a matching pair of gold rings with a tree bark effect engraved into them. We thought the unusualness of their design signified our love for each other. Our love was deeper, more affectionate, more… well just more than anyone else’s. I know, pass the sick bag.
Friends and work colleagues were made up for me. The wedding present I received from work was overwhelming. Friends were more interested in getting me drunk. They were unsuccessful. My Stag Night consisted of a few beers in Doncaster with my core, post-accident friends. Tame, no, boring, by any standards, let alone a stag do. It’s what I wanted though. Denise’s Hen Night was even more boring, if that was possible.
During this time we, as in Chris, Rich and myself, had decided to switch Trade Unions. We’d all been in NALGO (the National and Local Government Officers union) but were becoming disillusioned with them. We decided to join NUPE (the National Union of Public Employees) instead. NALGO was traditionally a white collared union, NUPE blue collared. Things were changing. NUPE were making a concerted effort to recruit NALGO members. The crunch came when NUPE supported a Nurses action over pay. Our branch of NALGO refused to support them on the grounds that they’d never supported any of our actions. NUPE had put a couple of pickets on the car park entrance to Scarborough House, which we didn’t cross. We learnt later that Ray Ainscough, the Head of Admin and NALGO Chair, had arrived early, parked his car in the street and stepped over the wall so that he didn’t have to cross the picket line.
It was the final straw for us. We all went to see the NUPE rep the day after. Colin Stephenson was a straight talking senior architect, located in our building. As we filled in the application forms, we got round to talking about pensions. I said I wasn’t in the pension scheme as I’d been excluded because of my disability. Colin was incensed. I said I wasn’t bothered about it as I figured I’d work until I was so ill I’d die soon after. It also gave me a little extra in my pay packet each month.
“That’s all very well,” said Colin, “but you’re getting married soon and you’ll have a wife and children to consider. What will happen if you die? She’ll get nothing. In fact if you don’t agree fight it, I won’t let you join NUPE.”
“How am I going to fight it though?”
“We’ll do it together,” he said. “You tell me what happened and I’ll take it up for you. You may have to go in front of the Council’s Personnel Committee. Let’s see what happens.”
We decided to get married in October 1982. As we were paying for it all ourselves, the whole event was low key. Although some last minute cash from both our parents was gratefully received.
I thought it hypocritical of me to be married in church as I had no belief in any religion. As Denise had done the big white wedding thing already, it was down to the Registry Office. We managed to pick a month when Registry Office Staff refused to work on Saturdays. They were taking action over pay to which, as a good Trade Unionist, I said good on them. As someone getting married however, I thought Ahhhhh! Who’s going to come mid week? One further thing which had to be taken into consideration was that the date should be a two or four. Not the second or fourth, though they would qualify too. The digits of the day needed to be added until a single number was left. Denise was a big believer in lucky numbers based on your birthday. Hers was four, as she was born on the fourth. Mine was two, as I was born on the twenty ninth. Since Saturdays were out I looked through the Fridays, more in hope than anything. Yet there it was. The 22nd. Phew, that was lucky. Denise disagreed. To her it was the big man looking after us.
My best man was Steve Spencer. I’d been his best man in 1974 when he married Maddie. We’d buried the hatchet years before. After Mike Weston’s death, it seemed pointless to carry on avoiding each other because of what happened at his party. I no longer held a candle for Maddie either, which made it easier for a reconciliation. My lasting memory of their wedding was Steve and I coming out of the Sun Inn after a couple of pre-ceremony beers; the pub being across the road from the church. There were two steps out which, I decided, I’d show off my wheelchair skills by dropping down on my back wheels. I over did it on the first step falling backwards on the second. It was a toss up as to what was bruised more. My body, or my ego.
Denise’s Matron of Honour was Kathy, the blonde woman who was at that first meeting in College Grove Club, a mere 20 months ago. On the day of the wedding Denise fell asleep in front of the fire, waking up with barely time to get ready. I knew she was the type of person who could fall asleep anywhere, at any time. I just wasn’t expecting her to prove it on this particular day. She looked so beautiful in her blue outfit with the white blouse, escorted by her beloved dad, Syd. I looked pretty good myself in my light grey jacket with bow tie. It was Daniel who stole the show though. Barely coming up to my shoulder, he looked the business in his grey, three piece suit.
Friends and family who attended the ceremony were carefully chosen as there was a limit on numbers. Despite lacking the flamboyant spectacle of a church wedding, its ceremony was very real to us. It was even presided over by one of Denise’s favourite hairdressing clients. After that it was photographs, then on to the place we’d hand picked for our celebrations.
The nuptials were completed in the Vine Tree. It wasn’t some swanky, up-market restaurant. Neither was it a picturesque, country pub catering for a wide range of occasions. The Vine Tree was a good, old-fashioned, pub that didn’t cater for functions because it had no room large enough. True, there was a small room upstairs that could be hired. Apart from lack of access for wheelchairs, it was nowhere near large enough for our requirements. The Vine Tree had, however, been taken over by two enthusiastic lads, Dave and John, both in their twenties. They’d transformed it from a down-at-heel 50’s pub, with a clientèle to match, into one of the most vibrant pubs in Wakefield. It also had the advantage of being at the bottom of the street where Denise lived.
More people were invited to the afternoon Wedding Breakfast (a finger buffet laid out upstairs in the pub). Steve made a delightful hatchet job on me in his Best Man’s speech. I abandoned mine as it became clear the guests were bored with the formalities. Instead, Denise and I posed for the photographer as we cut the cake, after which I announced the buffet was open.
At 6pm anyone who was left out was invited to join us. By 7pm you couldn’t move it was so packed, which is exactly what we’d hoped for. Not for us the sit-down meal with people you didn’t know, followed by the inevitable disco. We wanted people to move around freely, talking to as many other guests as they wanted. I didn’t see Denise all night as we were both in demand. At the end of the night, guests were meant to move on to their homes, hotels or wherever they’d arranged to spend the night. Except that we had a few stragglers. My mum and dad, along with my friend Sue Hardman, had all drunk too much to drive. We decided they could come back with us, as we were spending our first honeymoon night at home. The rest were more difficult. They were my University buddies, who, despite me sending out literature about local hotels, had decided to busk it. Not all of them had ignored my advice. No prizes for guessing those that had. Dave and John saved the day by allowing them to bed down in the bar. One of them, Barfly Steve Blackburn, had acquired cult status with Deb and Dan. I was asked if it was Stevie B (as he was affectionately known) I was phoning, every time I picked up the handset. Fortunately, this line of questioning dried up after three or four years.
On the Saturday morning following the wedding do, my new bride and I were awoken by my mum carrying a tray of toast and marmalade, with an opened, half bottle of champers and two engraved Flutes. “Thank you”, we said in unison, as I made a beeline for the booze. Denise didn’t feel that good. She could only manage a few sips. I, on the other hand, felt terrific, eagerly drinking mine then hers, whilst eating slices of toast and marmalade.
We rose about the same time as Sue, who was full of apologies. Unlike my mum and dad, who saw nothing wrong with sharing their son’s wedding night. We’d booked a matinee performance at Leeds Grand Theatre to see ‘Annie’ (we were into musical theatre at the time). This gave our guests a gentle push to go home. Before setting off for Leeds, we called for a couple of pints at the Vine Tree. There was much banter about the previous night. As we started our second pint I went into a steep decline. I couldn’t finish it off. As luck would have it, Denise perked up, kindly finishing it for me. We set off for Leeds with packed cases in the boot, as after the show we were spending our one and only honeymoon night away from home, in the Garforth Hilton. Garforth being about six miles from Wakefield
I’d arranged for flowers and a bottle of wine to be in the room on our arrival. Neither were there. The surprise blown, I rang reception to be told they’d been informed to hold onto them until they’d heard from me. The best was yet to come though. I’d booked a table in the restaurant for 8pm. As we began to get ready, there came a shell-shocked Denise from the bathroom.
“I’ve forgotten my makeup!” she said with suppressed panic in her voice.
“That’s okay sweetheart,” I said. “You don’t need it. You look as gorgeous as always.”
“You don’t understand. I don’t go anywhere without my makeup on. I don’t even answer the door without it.”
I’d really looked forward to this meal – in the restaurant, not in our room. Fortunately I had a brainwave. This was a reasonable-sized hotel. Guests would leave all manner of things behind, therefore some of these must include make-up. I rang reception. Five minutes later, I was collecting every piece of make-up they had available. There was enough for Denise to be able to cobble something to her satisfaction. We made it to dinner.
After packing our bags the following morning, we drove to our new home. During the months leading up to our wedding, we’d been looking for somewhere to live which was more suitable for my needs. We’d looked all over Wakefield at various properties. What I needed was space to move around. Bungalows were out of the question as they cost too much for the space I required. Not to mention that we had two growing children to think about. Dan was eleven whilst Debs was three weeks short of her fourteenth birthday. At least we had Denise’s house to sell. As is the way of the world, we eventually bought the first house we looked at. It was only a stone’s throw away from where Denise lived already – make that two throws. A large semi, it had a space to build a bathroom downstairs. Denise only received one offer for her house, which was subsequently withdrawn. Then, at the eleventh hour, the buyer decided to go ahead meaning we were able to exchange contracts. The house was ours.
We’d organized the exchange of properties so that we still had Denise’s house for the first week of owning our new one. This took the pressure off moving everything out of one place into the other, on the same day. Denise prided herself as a home-maker. As soon as we arrived back, she started to make things homely. For Deb and Dan. She set to work on their bedrooms, on the basis that your bedroom was like your security blanket. It’s where you retreated to when you needed your own space, as well as sleep. Our bedroom, on the other hand, was a bed in the dining room at the back of the house, complete with a pair of ill fitting curtains.
Throughout that week our friends, Eric and Sheila, helped us decorate. This was the same Eric and Sheila who drove Denise’s car back the night of the sports day social. We had a lot to thank them for. As an incentive, we took them to the Vine Tree after finishing for the day. Not that this was much different to any other night, except that I paid for all the drinks. A paltry recompense for what they’d done for us.
The decorating consisted of painting every wall in the house white. The idea being that it gave us a blank canvas which we could personalize at a later date. It remained a blank canvas for many years.
Life returned to some sort of normality. Deb and Dan went to school, Denise continued hairdressing, whilst I travelled to work in Doncaster. My pension fight turned out to be a push over. The Council agreed to reinstate me without the need for me to attend anything. I didn’t get my six years back automatically though. I could buy them back, although it would mean almost doubling my monthly contributions. I decided I couldn’t afford to take such a hit on my finances. And after all, it was only six years – another bad decision.
There was one further act by Mum that proved Denise was right about her. Within a year or two of our marriage she had the stairlift removed, saying something about it looking unsightly and no longer needed. This meant I had no access to the toilet upstairs. If I needed to go, I had to drive to one of the accessible toilets I’d been responsible for having built, near the Racecourse. On one occasion I didn’t make it in time. I can only think that the motive for removing the lift must have been spite.
On a lighter note, Mum wasn’t pleased that Denise didn’t do any baking. She decided to drop a not-very-subtle hint by giving her a baking dish one Christmas. It held nuts and crisps for years.
Although Denise didn’t stand in the way of my shooting, she would have preferred me to stop, if only because I’d be so miserable after each time I’d been training. She couldn’t understand why I’d want to carry on doing something that brought me so little pleasure. It’s difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t like sport, what it’s like to keep going even when things aren’t running smoothly. To strive harder to reach a goal, no matter how unattainable it may seem. To turn out in all weathers, to do something as meaningless as firing small metal pellets at a piece of paper. Actually, when put like that, neither can I.
In 1983, Ron asked if I’d go down to the international games as a scorer. I jumped at the chance. Okay, it was as staff rather than as a member of the team. The main thing was I was part of the games. When we arrived, we found there wasn’t enough room for all the competitors and officials to stay in the on-site accommodation. Being British we did the decent thing. We stayed in a school that backed onto the stadium. It was a Primary School with absolutely no adaptations. If you were lucky enough to be able to walk a little, you could at least use the toilets. That’s if you could get up from the seats, which were the height of large mushrooms. Beds were fitted into every available space. Those arriving first got the pick of the smaller rooms, which afforded the most privacy. We were in the assembly hall. Mornings were a nightmare as people jostled for space at the tiny sinks. I decided to take myself up to one of the adapted toilets on the site to carry out my ablutions.
Scoring was one of those jobs that needed to be done as accurately as possible. There were always two of us scoring at the same time, in case there were any tricky borderline cases. All in all it was a boring, tiring job that often ran on well into the evening. I really enjoyed the week though. Rubbing shoulders with shooters from other countries. Meeting some of the influential characters who’d got behind Ron’s campaign to get it onto the list of Paralympic sports. Though I think the most enjoyable aspect was the socialising at the end of the day.
Inevitably this meant Gerry, Carl and myself sitting at the bar drinking, whilst chatting to our team mates, or athletes from other countries. As Gerry and Carl had competed in other sports at international level for many years, this was a real mixed bag of people. The most entertaining by far, were the weightlifters from Sweden; including the great Bengt (Porky) Lindberg, who lifted in Gerry’s class. He was as wide as he was tall. He was also the team leader in every sense of the word. They were up for a party every night. Having first-hand experience of their country’s alcohol costs, I fully understood their passion for drinking as much as they possibly could.
Although much of my time was spent on the range, it didn’t stop me seeing some of the other sports. Weightlifting was a must. The track was worth watching, as athletes had started experimenting with the design of their racing chairs. Some of the sports didn’t interest me though, swimming being one of them. It didn’t have that certain something that kept you on the edge of your seat – rather like shooting, where spectators drifted out as quickly as they drifted in. Unsurprisingly, basketball was still the number one spectator sport. I caught some of the games, even though my failure to make it as a player still rankled with me.
The end of the ’83 games meant one thing to the athletes. In twelve months it would be the Paralympics, due to be staged in Champaign, Illinois, USA. As I knew I wasn’t good enough to make the team, I decided to be number one cheerleader for the Pinders members who were. Out of the blue, Ron told me there was to be quadriplegic air pistol event for the first time at the ’84 games. As I was the only one in Britain, I was in the squad. I couldn’t help feeling Ron had pulled some strings behind-the-scenes to get me into the team, as a sort of payback for all the work I’d done over the years. Whatever the reason, all that mattered was that I was on that plane.
The next year was spent training and fund-raising. Denise, Deb, Dan, Eric, Sheila and many others, including some of my friends from Doncaster Council, turned up one Sunday for a sponsored pub crawl. Fancy dress of course. The theme was St Trinians, which gave the men the opportunity to dress up in fish-net stockings and dresses. Something they were all too willing to do, as long as it was in the name of charity of course. The crawl started and finished in the Vine Tree, raising a heap of money. Just as important, everybody had a good time.
Dan, with three of his friends, talked on his CB radio for 15 hours raising £10 towards the funds. It was held in his bedroom, with us supplying the refreshments, and most of the £10.
Having got my visa sorted, I was looking forward to my first Paralympics. My first games abroad. That’s when a hammer blow struck. The Americans couldn’t raise the money to stage the games. Fortunately, the games were saved by the intervention of another country. Unfortunately it was Britain, which meant it would all take place at Stoke Mandeville. Still, a Paralympics is a Paralympics, whether it be in America, Italy, Japan, Mexico or Stoke Mandeville, I kept telling myself. I carried on with this mantra only too well aware it wasn’t true. I did have some good news though. I’d applied for time off with pay as I was representing my country. It had gone in front of the Finance Committee who’d approved it. Not just for the time I was shooting either. They’d agreed to me staying the whole 10 days – with pay. What a wonderful Council Doncaster was.
Down at Stoke Mandeville it was back in the school assembly hall. This time I wouldn’t be doing the scoring, which gave me plenty of time to take in other sports, or relax in the sunshine. When it came time for me to shoot I felt reasonably confident. There were only four of us in the competition, which gave me a better than even chance of coming away with a medal of some description. As expected, the closer we got to the shoot, the more the anxiety began to grip my insides. Shooting, like so many other sports, is won or lost in the head. Of course, good technique is also essential. Good technique, though, could be learnt. Having the ability to clear your head after each shot, treating the next shot as if it were the first, now that was a different matter.
We were given a 10 minute preparation time, when I’d go through the same routine before the first competitive shot is fired. Breathe deeply, relax, bring down my heartbeat. Then look down the range, adjust my shooting glasses, pull my hat firmly onto my head. The glasses resembled those used by opticians. One eye blanked, the other with an adjustable aperture, allowing me to focus only on the target. The hat was similar to an American baseball hat, with long flaps protruding from each side of the peak, to cut down potential distractions by forming a tunnel to my target. Did either work? Or were they just useless pieces of consumerism designed to extract more money from insecure shooters? Who knows? Everyone, from duffers to champs, used them. Next, load the first pellet, rest my arm on the bench, look up, raise the pistol at arm’s length focusing the sights on the target. Then, at the apposite time, squeeze the trigger before calmly bringing the target back on its electric runway. Long before it reached me I could see if it was in or out of the black central area. If it was outside it meant that it was a six or less.
During this time, I could easily put the shot behind me, as these shots didn’t count towards the competition. Once we were underway, a six now became a minor disaster. I couldn’t put it behind me. My internal voice would kick in telling me I was rubbish, I was going to blow it. If it was a ten, it would tell me I was lucky. At the mid point, after a so-so performance, I lay third, not too far behind the chap in second. This was heartening news. I was buoyed up, ready for the second half of the shoot. A silver was within my grasp. It was a disaster. I tightened up, nerves getting to me. The harder I tried, the more wayward my shooting became. At the end of competition, not only hadn’t I overhauled the chap in second place, I’d thrown away third. Fourth out of four. It couldn’t have been any worse. Yes it could, I could have done it at a Paralympics. It was to be the last competition I’d enter.
Central Unit was now an established, respected part of the Directorate. Even so, like all young men, we were keen to move our careers on. Sticking with this job wouldn’t do that as it had no obvious career progression. Our efforts were given added impetus when David was asked to become the new Chief Engineer. It was an offer he wasn’t allowed to refuse. Surprisingly, at least to the rest of us, Mike was the first to land another job. Not just another planning job. He was to be a planner at Manchester Airport. A role which fitted his self-image beautifully.
Chris’s political influences finally came to a head during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. Somehow he’d negotiated a secondment that allowed him to work full-time with the National Union of Mineworkers. We rarely saw him after that. Central Unit now consisted of Rich and me. Then there was only one; Rich. As I landed a job in Leeds.
I’d been applying, unsuccessfully, for project-coordinating jobs similar to ours when I saw a job advertised which I didn’t even think existed. It was for an Equal Opportunities Officer for the Disabled, in Leeds City Council’s Equal Opportunities Unit. With my responsibility for access to Council buildings, along with my sporting experience, including setting up the BPSA, I felt I must be in with a shout. I was, or at least it got me an interview.
The interviews were held at the Civic Hall, Leeds, on Friday, 21 December 1984. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I sat in the first-floor corridor, outside two large, ornate, wooden doors. Eventually I was ushered in. The room had wooden tables on three sides, all equally as ornate as the door. Each of the three sides were full of people. They were mostly Councillors, members of the Equal Opportunities Sub Committee for the Disabled, to which this post was responsible. Others were Officers, such as the Clerk to the Committee. I was asked to sit in the middle of the room, facing the table at the end. In the centre of which was the Chair of the Committee, Councillor Mrs Marian Monks JP. She began by asking me to tell the Committee about myself. I simply regurgitated what I’d written in my application form. She then asked her deputy if he’d anything to ask me. He said, “What would you do if you were invited to a meeting in an inaccessible building?”
“I wouldn’t go,” I replied. Adding, “Organising an accessible venue would be their first introduction to equality for disabled people.”
She then invited other members of the Committee to ask me questions. I think I was asked two. That was the end of the interview. Within half an hour, I was back home.
As I lay on my bed running through my answers, wondering if I could have done better, the phone rang. It was the Personnel Officer. “We’d like to offer you the job,” he said. “Are you willing to accept it?”
“I’d be happy to,” I coolly replied. Whilst all the time thinking, “Too fucking right I’ll accept it.” After phoning round with the news, I planned an appropriate celebration. It featured beer; obviously.
I had a month’s notice to work, so I picked Monday 4th February, 1985 as my start date. At my leaving do, PG said to me, “Don’t expect too much from them.” I thought this was an odd thing to say. Another one out of the Dr Cook drawer (“What good is Economics”). I thought, “Good luck in your new job,” would have been more appropriate.
My new job included some evening work, such as attending the Equal Opportunities Sub Committee for the Disabled, which met on a Friday night. Along with Denise’s irrefutable argument that it only made me unhappy, I told Ron and the others I was taking some time off from shooting whilst I got to grips with my new job. I knew that was it for me. I’d reached the end of the sporting line. The one thing I’d excelled at whilst at school. The one thing I looked forward to above all else when I lay in my hospital bed after my accident, had turned out to be an abject failure. Okay, I did have some successes along the way, but after twelve years of chasing the dream, it was over. Now I had to rely on my brain, along with the skills I possessed, to make this job work. No pressure there then…
At the 1984 Paralympics, the Americans demonstrated a new team game called ‘Murderball’. It was specifically aimed at Quads and was a very physical game. Contact was not only allowed, it was an integral part of the game. It wasn’t until 1993 before it became a Paralympic event under the name of Wheelchair Rugby (all Paralympic events had to be related to a recognised sport). The perfect game for me, I wonder what might have been if I hadn’t stopped competing when I did. Then again, life’s full of if’s and but’s isn’t it?
My Gorgeous Denise c1982.
Wedding Group 22 Oct 1982.
L-R Syd (Denise’s dad), Joyce (my mum), Steve (Best Man), Kathy (Matron of Honour), Muriel (Denise’s mum) & Frank (my dad).
With Dan & Deb.
Denise & Debbie at the start of the Fund Raising Pub Crawl c1983.
Handing over the pub crawl cheque.
Courtesy of Wakefield Express.
Dan and friends handing over a cheque for £10.
Courtesy of Wakefield Express.
Carl, me and Gerry at the 1984 Paralympics Opening Ceremony.
You can, more or less, see Rich Hibbard’s winning logo on Gerry’s T Shirt and on the track suit badges.
In 1972 Trevor was an average teenager growing up in the North of England when he had an accident celebrating his 19th birthday. He broke his neck leaving him paralysed from the chest down. After discharge from Pinderfields Spinal Unit, all Trevor wanted to do was get back to his life of fun, friends, sport and girls (with more than a dash of sex, drugs and rock and roll). He had aspirations and ambitions too, but could he achieve them now his life was so very different? This is not a, 'triumph over tragedy,' or 'woe me' story though. It's funny and frank with enough twists and turns to keep the reader wanting more as Trevor's life unfolds.