What to do with a mountain of out-of-date granola bars?

Andy with mountain of granola bars
A few seemingly random facts need to be set out for the full glory of a single sentence containing a wonderfully innocent slip of the tongue to be appreciated fully:

Fact 1: R helps out feeding the homeless at a charity in Leeds.

Fact 2: GF recently mused whether the term “hobo” was short for anything.

Fact 3: J has recently complained that the granola bars which we have been eating from a box in the kitchen have a best before date of January 2016 – I thought they were slightly funky!

My cousin M went to Costco yesterday, as he does every month, where he picks up certain provisions for me. He called when he was there to tell me that the granola bars we like were half price – “I’ll have four boxes then please”!

After putting the new boxes away, and discussing whether we should continue to eat the out-of-date ones – “They don’t taste that bad dad” – R piped up: “I think there might be a box in the utility room on top of the pantry cupboard”.

I hoisted GF up, and once she’d recovered from smashing her head on the ceiling, she found that there were actually four boxes of bars on top of the cupboard, with dates ranging from September 2015 to January 2016! GF offered to try one – “very tasty” was the verdict! At the time of writing, GF doesn’t appear to be suffering any long-term ill-effects!

Discussions inevitably turned to what to do with the out-of-date bars; the “Yorkshire option” – we could continue to eat them (waste not want not); the “I didn’t know we’d won the lottery option” – we could throw them away; or the “Bob Geldof option” – we could give them to a deserving home.

“Could you use them at the charity?” GF asked R.

R didn’t know, but upon reflection, GF and I concluded that a charity would probably be a little reluctant to accept such out-of-date stock.

“That’s a pity”, said GF, “the homos would love them”!!!!

I’m not saying my son is an idiot, but he sure does a great impression sometimes!

On Friday I told J that I needed him to take me into town to buy, amongst other things, three Mother’s Day cards, one for me, and one each for the twits. R is my normal child of choice for such important tasks, but she was away visiting cousins …..

 

“I’m off to the gym, so I’ll just get them on my way back if you want” said Golden Balls, like the little trooper that he is. He duly wrote down his list of several essentials.

 

I stayed at GF’s on Friday night, and upon returning (to what I initially thought was the wrong house – the doormat was missing and the door was on the chain for the first time ever!) and after fighting my way through the mix of empty and half-empty (or were they half-full?) bottles of beer, I checked the fridge for the provisions.

 

“Where’s the shopping you were supposed to get?” I asked the hungover J.

 

“I forgot my list and could only remember that you wanted tomatoes” he explained. “I’ll get the rest when I go to the gym today” he offered, and although he forgot his list (again), he did seem to have remembered most things when he returned.

 

Later that evening, J and I went out for a few beers and a burger at Handmade Burger Co in Leeds, and then went to meet R off her train from Scarborough. When we got back to the house, R said “er, what are these?” holding the three cards in her hand.

 

I explained that J had been out to buy three Mother’s Day cards, “one for me and one for each of you”.

 

“Well, he’s only got one!” she said. I asked her what she meant.

 

“Well, there’s one that says ‘Especially for you on Mother’s Day’,one that says ‘Just for you on your birthday’, and another one which says ‘To my lovely Mums’! Do we know any lesbian mums” she asked. 

 

J proffered the following explanation – “They were all in the area that said Mother’s Day, so it’s the shops fault, not mine”!

 

So, happy Mother’s Day to my lovely mums – she does do the work of two mums after all!

 

Thank goodness J’s not wanting to study anything at university which requires an eye for detail …… or is that perhaps being a tad unfair to engineers?!

Dawn rise behind the home for the blind

Isn’t it funny how lyrics can set the mind running?!

 

According to Morrissey, undoubtedly one of the great poets of my generation, in First of the Gang to Die, “you have never been in love until you’ve seen the dawn rise behind the home for the blind”!

 

Two thoughts immediately sprang forth: (i) I guess I’ve never been in love; and (ii) the poor sods, having to live in a home for the blind!

 

My second thought stems from two weeks of torture during 1991 that I spent at the RNIB’s rehabilitation centre, Manor House, in Torquay; two weeks which has left me fearing any form of institutionalised living.  This was one of those occasions when looking back the perceived wisdom that all blind people needed sending to the centre was not, in my case, appropriate.  Other people that I later became friendly with told me that they had attended the centre and really enjoyed their time there.  However, unlike me, these people were either partially sighted or used to having little or no sight, where as I had only just started losing mine and by the summer of 1991 I had hardly any sight left at all.

 

The centre was in a very big old mansion set in fairly spacious grounds, which I understood had been bequeathed to the RNIB. On arrival, after a eight hour train journey accompanied by my ex, I was told by one of the staff that I was not allowed to use a white stick and would have to learn my way around the building using touch alone.  I was helped to my room and then told to find my own way back to the living room where everybody sat during the day when I was ready.  I had been shown how to find the lounge, as well as the dining room, so at least I wouldn’t starve.

 

However, as soon as they left my cell/bedroom I realised I had forgotten everything they had told me, I was after all still living in the sighted world and was used to finding my way by sighted clues alone. After an age wandering around the rabbit warren like corridors, I eventually found the correct sequence of turns and doors and made my way, very scared, down to the living room.  Upon entering at a snail’s pace, hands out in front of me, nobody offered a hand, or told me where was free to sit, or offered any assistance at all in fact.  I banged my shin on a coffee table, tried to sit on someone’s knee and eventually found my way to a free seat.  Nobody at all spoke to me.

 

The older Andy, the one who is used to the blind world, would have asked who was sitting near and introduced himself. Self conscious 21 year old Andy just sat there wondering what on earth he was doing there and how he would make it through his sentence.

 

My fellow in-mates, the ones who were not offering any help, were, as it turned out, totally different from the blind sporting community. In my experience, almost unanimously, blind sportsmen and women always offer help to those with worse sight than themselves.  It was common practice whenever someone entered a room for a call to go up asking who was entering.  If the person’s sight was so bad that they required assistance a hand banging on a chair was the preferred method of guiding them towards where they should sit, and if obstructions were present in the room an elbow would always be offered and the person would be guided towards a seat. I still to this day cannot decide if my fellow in-mates were just ignorant or were not aware of my difficulties.  Everyone there had sight problems, so I would have expected them to have an understanding of what to do and what help others may need or the type of problems they might be facing.  Maybe they thought I had been blind for ages and was thus used to it, or maybe they were used to others doing things for them all the time and not used to helping others; whatever the reasoning, nobody asked or seemed to care.

 

During the days at the centre we were split into groups and had to undertake many tasks. I had to use a closed circuit television, which was basically a television screen with a moving board underneath it upon which was placed the piece of paper that I was working from and a largely magnified image would appear on the screen.  My sight was so bad that it could take me several seconds to identify a single letter, but they still insisted that I had to use it as I was being assessed on my ability to use it.  Using this clearly inappropriate machinery, I had to do comprehension tests, using it both to read the text and questions, and to write my answers.  A simple test that would have taken me 2 minutes to do with sighted assistance took me several hours.  Talk about frustrating.  I wanted to scream and my mood blackened.

 

I also had to do mathematical exercises which were even more frustrating as I had to do very long multiplication in my head as I couldn’t use the CCTV to do this. A whole day could be passed doing maths tests.  If only they had read my CV and seen that I had a grade B at A’ level in maths.  What a waste of time – I could have told them in two seconds that I couldn’t use the CCTV effectively.  To make matters worse, they knew I was going to continue to lose my sight, so there was no way it could work for me in the long-term.

 

To add insult to injury, I also had to undertake manual dexterity tests to assess my suitability for assembly work. Screwing nuts onto bolts, hammering pegs into holes, arranging various items into order of size; I wondered which of my A’ levels had prepared me for these tasks?  All I could think of was how I was going to spend the rest of my life on a production line making things.

 

We also had to see counsellors who would assess our state of mind. All they were really interested in was if we had considered suicide.  I took this as a question, but looking back they may have been making a suggestion!  The place for me really was that bad.

 

Evenings, and I mean every evening, were spent in the middle of Torquay at a pub getting absolutely hammered. This wasn’t just something that I wanted to do, it was what everybody did and had been doing long before I turned up there.  It wasn’t the kind of drinking based on happiness either.  One of my fellow inmates who was collected from the train station in the same van as me, was called P.  He claimed that he used to be the drummer in the rock band Slade – his accent certainly matched his claim to fame.  All he wanted was his sight back.  He wasn’t bothered about learning how to use a computer or demonstrating his numerical capabilities, he just wanted to see.  He drank more than anyone there, although I must admit I ran him close, such was my abject misery.  He would drink in the region of 10 pints of beer and not move all night from his corner of the pub, not even to go to the toilet.  This was the only time that any assistance was offered as one of the group had to guide me into the town to the pub and then guide me to the toilets, that was once my painful bladder won the battle over my shyness at asking for help.  At this stage in my blindness I wasn’t that forward at asking for help, so I spent the majority of the evenings in quite a lot of discomfort with a bursting bladder.  We would then return well after closing time to the centre in search of any leftovers from dinner.  That was about the only time I enjoyed myself there as some of the chats then were quite entertaining and informative.

 

I had to share my cell/bedroom with two other inmates. One was in his sixties and was a Londoner.  He thought his way was not only the right way to do everything but was in fact the only way to do something.  He wasn’t very approachable and was a bit over bearing.  Not surprising really considering how I had offended him.  I woke one morning after a particularly heavy night at the pub to the usual greeting of “had a good night last night did you?”  This was usual, but there was a bit more venom in his voice.  I replied that I had.  “I guessed as much” he replied, “judging by the way you pissed all over the side of my bed last night”.  I was mortified.  I had apparently drunk so much that I had gone sleep walking and obviously being a bit lost had relieved myself where I thought the toilet was.  Needless to say I didn’t drink as much from that day on.

 

My other cell mate didn’t join us until a few days before I was allowed out on parole. He turned up late at night and went straight to bed.  I introduced myself and he replied with “you’re not black are you”, to which I responded that I was not.  “Good” he said, “I was beaten up by a gang of n*****s and that’s how I lost my sight.”  That’s all I needed, sharing my room with a racist, and an angry one at that.

 

He told me that he was from Coventry. I asked if he was so late arriving due to his train being late.  His reply was a good cure for tiredness – “No, I only got out of the psychiatric ward this afternoon.”  I didn’t dare try to sleep that night until I could hear him snoring.  A racist with a mental problem was not my idea of a good cell mate.

 

I left (at great speed) with a prescription for a six week return stint at the centre to undertake my rehabilitation – I politely declined their offer!

 

Oh, such happy memories!! I, for one, certainly do not mourn the closure of Manor House in 2004.

In honour of our selfless heroes

Given yesterday’s horrific events, not least because one of my closest friends was a colleague and friend of PC Keith Palmer, I was somewhat reticent about blogging in my usual manner. Having reflected and listened to the speeches of our elected representatives, as this blog is all about hope, optimism, carrying on in adversity and making the most of life, I now feel compelled to post something. So, in honour of PC Keith Palmer, the two members of the public who died and those who were injured yesterday, and all those in the emergency services, armed forces, security services and the NHS who selflessly put us, the public, before themselves on a daily basis, here are two rather vanilla FB posts – I thank and salute each and every one of you; you’re all heroes to me.

29 March 2015

Just about to watch Forrest Gump with audio description for the first time with the twins – I’ve told them they aren’t allowed to laugh at me if, or more likely when, I cry though!!

4 March 2015

Suit shopping for J in Leeds – since when did clothes shops think they were night clubs??!! Can’t wait for a bit of peace and quiet at the Leeds match later!

Learning to live with sight loss

As my sight went from what I thought was normal sight to no sight in a period of 18 months or so, I had quite a while to learn to live with it, although as it kept getting worse, I kept having to learn to do things differently.

When I could no longer see to carry out my normal bank duties, I started a period of sick leave. Work was understanding. One of my workmates contacted the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) who sent one of their employee advisers out to meet me, the branch manager and the bank’s human resources officer. The bank’s position was that they wanted to find a job for me that I could do, but they didn’t feel that this would be possible in a branch. The main reason for this appeared to be that I wouldn’t be able to tell the character of anybody who was applying for a loan. I didn’t know what to think of this; were they being ridiculous or was I being ridiculous for questioning whether this was correct or not? I fully accepted that I wouldn’t be able to handle cash on the counter, or read hand written cheques, but I wasn’t convinced that they were correct on that point. The RNIB assured us that the technology existed to allow me to do all other activities that the bank might want me to perform, so it appeared that I still had career prospects within the bank. However, the RNIB advisor was content that because of the problems with handling cash and cheques, and not being able to spot fraudsters, my career prospects did not lie in a branch. I would have to wait until the bank found me a job that they were happy for me to do. I tried to stay positive and focus on the possibility of an exciting new chapter in my banking career, but as time passed by with no movement, I found it increasingly difficult to envisage myself ever working again.

During 1991, I had started to learn Braille, how to use a keyboard as well as learning how to use a white stick, or long cane to give it the professional name. I had done this with my rehabilitation officer DS. She visited me at home to teach me Braille, and despite my fingers initially being as sensitive as a frozen sausage, I did manage to read Braille, albeit very, very slowly. It was so slow and pains taking that if a word was really long I sometimes forgot how it started by the time I got to the end. DS had also tried to teach me how to cook and iron. She was obviously expecting me to live a single life, but she swore it was just a means of giving me independence.

I was also learning how to type and use a very basic computer package with voice synthesis output at Driffield College. This was all a bit surreal to me. The college was on the Driffield School site, and I think that at the time I was the only person in the class who was under 70. To make matters worse, Driffield School had been the scene of many of my most memorable sporting moments. The rivalry between Bridlington School and Driffield School was intense, especially at rugby, and many close games had been played between us. These games required me as our stand off to be at my physical peak, dictating play, sprinting around the field, slamming opponents to the floor and evading grasping arms. I don’t think we ever lost to Driffield, but the margins were minimal. The coach journeys back to school were always great fun. By contrast, the coach journey’s home from the college with my octogenarian buddy’s were a little more subdued and I wasn’t aware of any of my colleagues mooning passing motorists!

I had also competed in inter-school athletic tournaments at Driffield School, beating all comers, and I had also scored many memorable goals at Driffield School as well in our always close football matches. Two such goals stand out due to the unusual nature of both.

The first goal I scored at Driffield School was an extraordinary one. A long ball had been launched forward for me to run onto and use my pace. The ball bounced just ahead of me and kicked high into the air. I had sprinted past my marker and I could see the keeper coming off his line towards the edge of his penalty area. As the ball dropped I was in two minds whether to shoot immediately or to take the ball down on my thigh and go around him as he sped towards me. The uncertainty led to an exquisite lob with my knee over the keepers head into the empty goal. All my teammates said it was a fluke, but I didn’t do flukes, everything was always planned.

The second goal, my last ever goal for Bridlington School during the sixth form, was a painful memory. I had received the ball in the middle of the field and started driving forward towards the opposition penalty area. Our right winger, our most forward player, was wide open and so I fed the ball out wide to him. He went past the last defender to the by-line. The keeper, seeing the danger, left his line and moved out to our winger. I had continued my forward run and was closing in on the edge of the six yard box, having sprinted past the Driffield defenders, totally unmarked as our winger pulled the ball back to me. However, the ball was at that special height where it was just too high to volley, but just too low to head. I decided I would stoop to head it, but then decided it was too low. Uncertainty reigned again. Half way through stooping, I jumped so as to volley the ball. Half way through my jump I realised that I had misjudged the speed of the ball – that’s 2D sight for you – meaning that I didn’t have enough time to get my foot up and make contact, so I just threw my body at the ball. Ball met balls, and as the white leather one rolled into the unguarded net the two quickly swelling ones hit the deck with the body that was attached to them. Never have goal celebrations been so muted!

It was with a similar feeling in the pit of my stomach that I sat in the college typing out audio sections of Marti Caine’s life story listening to how good things were during the war. As I painstakingly typed the words from the audio cassette at a snail’s pace, I was aware that the location couldn’t have better signified what I had been and what I had become. I felt a great sense of loss. I found it very emasculating and difficult to come to terms with.

I had also chosen to learn how to use my long cain in Driffield rather than in Bridlington. The reason for this was embarrassment. If I was going to make a fool of myself, I would rather do it in front of people who didn’t know me. Being 21 it didn’t take much to make me feel like I was making a fool of myself, and as at the time I felt that being blind was an embarrassment in itself I think that it was the correct decision to take. At that time, I certainly was not proud of my blind status. From the centre we would do small routes around the vicinity, and eventually progressed to longer routes through the throbbing heart of Driffield. Eventually I was confident enough to take my newly acquired skills home, and although I didn’t go far I felt confident enough to venture out of the house on my own occasionally. As well as routes to the local Post Office to cash my £38 weekly Giro, I learned the route to my local bookmakers, which luckily was half way between my mum’s house and the Post Office.

The initial boredom of not working and spending my days alone had been replaced by an acceptable routine that kept my mind busy, preventing it from straying into areas best left unvisited. My Grandma Lily, who lived in a granny flat extension to the guest house which my parents ran, would make me a cup of coffee at 11:00 am and we would watch/listen to day time television until my Grandad Walter returned from his morning walk with the Daily Express. My Grandma Lily would then read the newspaper to me, using her magnifying glass as she was, for all intents and purposes, partially sighted herself.

Irrespective of my Grandma Lily’s eye condition, inevitably she started to read the horse racing columns to me as part of her trawl through the sports pages. Just as inevitably, a column heralding the coming of the next Pegasus in the 3.30 at Plumpton was followed by a scouring of the race card in order to assess the proposition that one could treble one’s investment for no risk at all. And so began my love affair with horse racing and betting. After we had read the paper, picked out my nags and a record of their names made on my pocket dictaphone, I would grab my stick, my £28 a week stake money (£10 of my benefits being given to my mum for my keep) and off to the bookies to sit on my stool next to the counter whilst the staff, P, B or D, wrote out my £1 win or 50p each way bets for me. From the time my Grandad returned with his paper until I returned home from the bookies after racing, my mind was distracted from the reality that had become my life.

Just like all great love affairs, it has had its highs and its lows. Periods of not being able to tip a wheel barrow and runs of appalling luck were put to the back of my mind by outrageous wins and periods of unbelievable runs of winner after winner. On several occasions I had to be accompanied back to my mum’s house by concerned punters who thought I might become the victim of a mugger carrying that much money in my bulging pocket. Whilst I was never prepared to invest massive amounts on a single horse, I was prepared to invest in multiple bets which promised large rewards if the majority of the selections were successful. On many occasions all the horses came in, hence the need for an OAP bodyguard on the way home. £3 stakes would often result in payouts of more than £200, which, to a person with a disposable income of £28 a week, was a massive sum.

Regardless of the financial sense in my pastime of choice, the fact is that it did the trick of keeping my mind active and giving me something to fill the void that was my life until evening time, which was more often than not spent training. It shouldn’t be forgotten that at this time, daytime television was a very poor relation when compared to today’s offerings; had I not spent the afternoon in the bookies, I’m not sure what I would have done to remain relatively sane.

At this point in my life, when I went out drinking with my friends at the rugby club it was the done thing for any comic genius to nudge me, wait for me to apologise, bump into me again, and keep on doing this until I realised it was the same person trying to wind me up. Once I had realised that this was what was going on, I then had to try and figure out who it was just by using touch and smell alone. I know what your thinking– hilarious! Such behaviour happened a lot, presumably because they didn’t know how to talk to me, but at least they were trying to interact with me; several friends pre-blindness drifted away, their lack of contact suggesting that they found it difficult to deal with my changed situation, a suspicion which has been confirmed to me later in life by those concerned.

I presumed that I had bumped into one of the rugby club comedians one day when I was going to the bookies on a particularly windy day. Such windy days for blind people are the equivalent of foggy days to sighted people. As the wind howls around, only very close sounds can be made out through the sound of the wind rushing past your ears, crossing roads is dangerous, and non tactile clues as to what is around you disappear. Conversely, I can “See” for miles when it is foggy as there is no wind. Give it a go, you really can hear for miles on a foggy day.

On this particular occasion I found the curb as usual where I crossed the road. As I stood on the curb edge listening for cars I was bumped into by a burly figure on my right shoulder. I apologised, as was my default position at the time, especially if I thought they were bigger than me, and went back to listening. Again, a bump on my shoulder followed. I asked who it was, no reply. Oh god, here it goes again, the rugby club jokers are stalking me, which wasn’t surprising as at least two of them, NA and RL, were fairly regular visitors to my bookies.

“Who is it” I asked again. No answer still.

“This really isn’t funny now, just tell me who it is”. I was in a rush, I had a dead cert for the first race, so I couldn’t be messing around like this. Still no answer but still the bumping on my shoulder. I could feel the frustration beginning to build in my chest. The volume level started to rise.

“What’s your name? Why won’t you talk to me? Just tell me your bloody name” I said in a raised voice.

When no answer was forthcoming I put my arms out to try and find some tactile clues. The first thing I realised was that this was a particularly burly figure – I was right to have apologised for him walking into me. The second thing I found out was that he appeared to be wearing a camel skin coat, or something very similar to that; it could be NA, he was a market trader who I could imagine in a Del Boy style coat. The third thing I noticed was a strange smell, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. When I heard him snort, whinny and stamp his hooves it all became clear; I realised that I had been arguing with a horse. I really do hope that no-one saw me talking to this horse. They must have thought it wasn’t just my sight I had lost, especially when I was asking it what its name was and why it wouldn’t talk to me! Who knows what they’d have thought when they saw me entering the bookies a minute later – perhaps they’d think I’d been looking for inside information!

When I went out drinking with my mates I didn’t use my white stick, I just held on to my friends elbows. This on occasions also led to embarrassment, but as I had been drinking it was easier to laugh off. On one night out, the ex-wife’s younger brother, DB, took me to the toilet, I went to my urinal and he went to his. We kept on chatting whilst performing, and as I finished first I stood back and waited for him to finish. I thought I heard him move back and stand next to me, the usual position for someone who is guiding me. I grabbed the arm that was there and carried on our conversation. After about 30 seconds of me gripping the arm and talking to the face that was attached to it, the person to whom both belonged plucked up the courage to tell me that he wasn’t who I thought he was. I soon found DB metaphorically urinating in a heap on the floor. He told me later that the look on the persons face was worth its weight in gold.

At one pub in town, I knew the doormen from the rugby club, and always stopped to talk to them on the way in. Whilst chatting away one night my guide, CT, waited for me on the top step of 3. “Come on Andy, it’s your round” came the cry. After two more of these hurry up calls I reached my hand out for the waiting elbow whilst saying my goodbyes to the doormen. Although what I felt was firm, rounded and at the same height as CT’s well developed set of triceps, there were a few clues which told me that I was not in fact grasping CT’s arm. Firstly, this body part was a lot bigger than CT’s tricep. Secondly, it was slightly softer than his triceps as well. Oh yes, and there was the shout of “Get off my boobs you pervert” which really did give the game away. A slap nearly followed until CT jumped in and pointed out that although I was in fact holding her ample bosom, and that she may be right in calling me a pervert, that it was in fact my blindness that had led to this, not an uncontrollable urge to feel her up.

When we went out in the early days of my blindness it was a regular occurrence for drunken people to threaten me with physical violence due to me staring at them, or worse still, staring at their girl friends. When either my friends or I told them to stop being so silly and explained the situation the usual response was one of disbelief. People just weren’t prepared to accept that a 21 year old could be blind. “Prove it” was the most common reply. Well, how do you prove that you can’t see? The usual way of doing this amongst the drunken community is apparently to count their fingers whilst they hold them up – it wasn’t just the classifiers at the blind athletics championships that favoured this technique (more of this in my blog about my first championship). The problem with this is that it is a one in five chance that you can get it right, which means a 20% chance that a fist will follow, as obviously this means that you can see and were in fact staring at their girlfriend’s breasts as they had suspected.

If on the other hand you refuse to guess saying that you cannot see their fingers they still don’t believe you. The usual response to refusal was to accuse me of extracting the urine. Experience told me that the only way to prove that I was blind was to wiggle my eyes about a bit and stare vacantly into the distance. This seemed to be all the proof required, so wiggling the eyes was my adopted strategy for such problems, and it seemed to work as I always avoided being punched.

On one such occasion down the Cock and Lion nightclub in Bridlington, a particularly aggressive lad, a couple of years older than me and part of the fishing community, insisted that I had been staring at him all night and demanded that we sort it out like men on the pavement outside. After the usual routine had been played out and the eye wiggling had done the trick, a very drunken physically incapable friend, AS, who had been charged with “Looking after me” whilst the rest of the rugby lads were buying beer, drinking beer, sweating out beer on the dance floor or getting rid of processed beer in the toilets, relayed the story to an equally drunk but much more physically able friend, MP. MP, backed up by the rest of the rugby club gang, marched across to the lad that AS had pointed out as the aggressor. MP grabbed him by the throat and dragged him across the nightclub to apologise to me. The problem was that the lad that MP was slowly strangling, who was followed by his gang of friends, was the wrong person. Luckily, eventually, peace was made and the two gangs parted, but it did little to encourage me to follow my friends to nightclubs after that.

My friends also suffered problems when guiding me. Obviously allowing someone to hold our elbow means you are a homosexual, and such comments often followed. Walking into pubs meant lots of stares to which I was oblivious, so it didn’t bother me, but some of my friends were very uncomfortable with it. There was also just plain old non-homophobic ignorance as well to cope with. On one night out, my friends and I were refused entry to a night club. There were four of us, and none of us were that far gone, in fact, it was quite a steady night really. However, the doormen just would not let us in. We kept asking why, and one doorman in particular just kept saying you’re not coming in. Eventually, he said that MP was too drunk to enter. We couldn’t believe this, he had only had about six pints and he usually had nearly double that before we left the rugby club and with him being 18 stone it didn’t affect him that much. We kept arguing and it looked like it was going to get ugly. I thought a fist might follow shortly, so I started to give out signals that I was blind and shouldn’t be hit.

Eventually the doorman said “Look, I don’t care what you say, he’s obviously pissed out of his head, and the guy with the wiggling eyes is having to hold him up by the elbow.”

Now many years of athletic training had made me a strong chap, but strong enough to hold up an 18 stone bloke by the elbow – I don’t think so! We immediately questioned his IQ and explained the reality of the situation. Free drinks followed for some time that night. It turned out that the doorman was not in fact lacking certain mental attributes as we had asserted, but did in fact possess mental attributes that not many do. In short he was a fortune teller with the power to see into the future. These powers obviously got the better of him during our confrontation, as not much more than an hour later, fuelled by the free drinks, MP did in fact require holding up due to being so drunk.

Nights out with the rugby club boys posed another problem for me. When I go out I like to talk, in fact, I like to talk a lot. This means that I can lose track of time, with the result that often the only beer which had left my glass had done so through evaporation only. This resulted in me having to down my pint in one as everybody prepared to move on to the next hostelry. This became rather annoying, and a self perpetuating problem. Downing my pint in one made me somewhat giddy. This made me talk more, which made me drink slower, which made me have to down my drink in one again, and so on, and so on. Attempts were made to purchase half pints, or soft drinks, but those words apparently are not in the vocabulary of rugby players, and as I was unable to find the bar myself, or when found attract the barmaids attention, I didn’t have a choice.

One night I just couldn’t keep up with the pace, and so I asked MP to get rid of my pint for me whilst no-one was looking. He slyly poured it into a plant pot and the problem was solved. This happened in a couple of pubs, and it looked like a long term solution had been found. However, the following week when we all met at the rugby club MP came in for a lot of stick. Rumours had been spreading regarding his masculinity as several independent witnesses had reported seeing him pouring his beer into plant pots. To prove his manhood he had to drink a pint of mixed shorts, a regular occurrence at rugby clubs, and after that the watering of plants with beer stopped.

Instead, we came up with a different way to avoid the having to down pints in one problem. If I was lagging behind in the drinking stakes either MP, CT or JK, or whoever was the designated guide, would nudge me, or tap me on the forearm to signal that I needed to speed up. The more vigorous the nudge the quicker I had to drink. On the whole, this worked rather well, but one night it failed drastically.

Myself and the ex had arranged to meet MP and his wife JP for a drink before we all went out for a meal together. We met in the Nags Head in Bridlington as the John Smiths was a fine pint that went down very well indeed. It was fairly noisy in the pub so we all had to lean towards the person we were talking to in order to make ourselves heard. MP was on one side of me, the ex was on the other side of me, and JP was opposite me. We were chatting a lot and as usual I had neglected my pint. The ex tapped me on my knee and I leaned towards her to hear what she had to say, but she started speaking to JP. As the ex had in fact invented the whole signaling system (trust a woman to be so practical) I immediately took this as the signal that I should finish off the rest of my pint. As the glass left my lips and started its descent to the table I thought I would try to hide the fact that I had required the signal and asked MP if he was getting them in. He duly rose and soon returned with refills.

More chat followed, and after a while MP tapped me on my knee. I leaned over towards him to see what he wanted but as he started to talk to JP, I again took this as the signal to get a wobble on with my beer. My drink was immediately finished. I brandished a tenner at MP and said “same again?” It was obviously going to be one of those nights where I was going to have to do my best to keep up with the big fella. As the old Tetley bitter advert used to say, if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Lots more chat, lots more knee tapping, lots more gulping of beer. After a while I didn’t need any more taps as I was now quite obviously keeping up with MP. We went for our meal, and from what little bits I can remember it was very nice indeed.

The following weekend I met MP and the rest of the lads at the rugby club and was immediately met by MP with a plea that I don’t drink as fast as I was doing the previous weekend as he had struggled to keep up with me. “Struggled to keep up with me? I think you’ll find it was the other way round!” I replied. From his perspective he explained I had been sat there chatting and drinking steadily when all of a sudden for no apparent reason I had picked up my pint, looked slightly startled and downed it in one and then demanded a refill.

Following this the signaling system was ever so slightly altered. We adopted a communication method that retained the better points of our original system, but removed the possibility that the intention behind the nudge or the tap could be lost or misinterpreted. In short, a series of well chosen words would be spoken which would convey the secret message. “Andy, you’re drinking like a bird, speed up” became the preferred option.

By 1992 my keyboard skills were good enough for me to move onto the Sight Centre at the Queens Gardens College in Hull, a rather confusing name for a centre for blind people I thought. There I learned how to use all-singing all-dancing computers with voice synthesis. Input was through a standard keyboard, but output was by way of a computerised voice rather than through looking at the screen.

My fellow students were a strange bunch. None of them had jobs, and several of them lived in homes. There was a pair of twins, who seemed to know every song ever produced in the 60s and early 70s, were clearly “special”, and who had occasional outbursts of naughtiness, often aimed at ladies and certain parts of their bodies. My lessons would often be punctuated with a female voice saying “now then, you know you’re not supposed to touch me there”. There was also a deaf-blind student who I tried to ignore, simply because I didn’t want to have to think about his situation. I did become aware of him on several occasions however, as he did tend to let out a series of very loud farts whenever he ate his sandwiches!

Within no time, and with a massive amount of help from local charities, I was using a similar computer of my own at home all the time. My dad had managed to find a computer gadget which allowed my computer to receive Teletext data. For those readers under the age of 30, Teletext was text data which was broadcast alongside the television pictures and normally accessed through your television screen using an analogue aerial. Whilst there was no search functionality, and the range of information limited, it did at least allow me access to this very limited range of data on equal terms to those with sight. Using my screen reader software I was able for the very first time to access information on my own. This to me was more empowering than my long cane or being able to cook a lasagna. I could now not only take part in sport but also read about it as well. Herein lies the reason why sport, which had previously been important to me, became of vital importance to me; it was the only thing that I could do independently and without help from others.

Throughout this entire period athletics was my saviour, being an escape route from these everyday trials and tribulations. Through the day I was a novice guide dog user (separate post on my guide dog experiences to follow!), a developing computer user, an amateur gambler and whilst able to make a hot drink and cook the most basic of meals, unable to do the majority of the domestic chores necessary to look after myself, but in the evenings I was one of the world’s fastest blind sprinters. The track was the only place I felt comfortable, at home and an equal; that was what really kept me going.

How on earth have you got glitter all over the house and on your face dad??!!

A few more FB posts to usher-in the fast-approaching weekend!

17 March 2015

OMG in a taxi and he’s asking me for directions – help!!! Good job I’m off to the pub, I think I’ll need it … if I ever make it!!!

18 March 2015

Got told off again tonight by R … I took it upon myself to clear up all the rubbish that has accumulated in my car over recent months, and I found a tube of what I thought was sweets down the side of the passenger seat. I managed to get the end off, but the contents felt like flour and had no smell. I managed to open the other end of the tube and the result was the same. So, not sure what it was, I took it into the house and left it in the kitchen.

When R came home she was greeted by a trail of glitter from the car to the kitchen, and I could hardly deny it was me, as I had glitter all over my face and in my beard!!! Still no idea why anyone left some glitter in the car though…

22 March 2015

Mind must be a little pre-occupied this morning, as I somewhat absent mindedly added a tea bag to my gingerbread latte!! Not quite sure if the result is really nice, or really horrible. Either way, if Costa start serving this, I’m suing!!

What a bloody mess, literally!

Four more FB posts from two years ago this week – enjoy!

12 March 2015

What a lovely windless still morning today. I’m not sure what time it gets light at these days, but it was most pleasant listening to all the birdsong when out with the dog this morning, even went on the long walk it was that nice. Roll on spring!!

12 March 2015

Just been chastised by my youngest…. Apparently, at some point today I’ve knocked over a full bottle of fabric conditioner, and the utility room is a right mess…. Whoops!! She is now demanding a pay rise….. We’ll have to see about that!

15 March 2015

Bugger me that made me jump!! By the shape that has been left (according to Golden Balls), a bird just flew straight into the patio windows!! Might have to have another Guinness to calm my nerves…

17 March 2015

Sliced my little finger open this morning on a sharp knife when unloading the dishwasher – someone is going to get a shock when they see the bloody mess when they finish unloading it!! I’ve no idea how I’ll drive my keyboard at work? I’ll just have to get my PA to press the letters Q, A and Z when I need them. Looking forward to drafting that contract with Quazi Ltd!!!

Finding my way into blind sport – part 2

The number my mum had copied out of the British Blind Sport magazine was that of JB. I told him I was an athlete who was losing my sight rather rapidly and asked him to give me some details about athletics for blind people in Britain. He explained to me the role of BBS who run blind sport in this country. He explained how they were a charity, how they put on training weekends and competition days for blind athletes and how they chose teams and sent them to compete internationally.

I was absolutely dumb struck – an upside to being blind. As JB spoke my mind was racing ahead with what might be. International athletics for the blind meant that there was a possibility that I could achieve one of my childhood dreams of being an international athlete.

I asked JB for more details about the international competitions and found out that there was to be a European Championships later that year in France. It wasn’t too late for me to qualify for the team but it would be hard as GB had lots of good athletes. He asked me what times I ran for my preferred distances. I told him my times and I could hear the disbelief in his voice 11.6 for the 100m, “22.7 for the 200 and 51.6 for the 400m? Are you sure?” he asked. I briefly ran through my athletics career up to that point and he began to realise the kind of athlete he was talking to.

JB asked me the name of my guide runner and asked how we ran together. “What’s a guide runner” I innocently asked. He couldn’t believe that I was managing without a guide runner and told me that I would have to find one immediately and learn how to run with him. Whilst this is in no way intended as a criticism of JB, not least because his advice turned out to be absolutely correct, I found this to be an attitude all too often prevalent within the community of people who work with disabled people. All too often they tend to tell disabled people what they need based on their past experience with others in similar situations, but what is right for one person is not necessarily right for another. At the time I had been managing, admittedly only by the skin of my teeth, to run unaided. The attitude that I must run with a guide runner, and there was no question about it, was the same as those who insisted that I must have a guide dog, I must learn Braille and must go to Torquay to the blind rehabilitation centre. It was a one size fits all type of mentality – you are blind therefore you must follow this pathway. The one thing interestingly that does not happen is someone to tell you that as you are now blind these are all the benefits and help which you may be entitled to. Funny how people tend to tell you that you need something which will keep them in a job, but don’t tell you about things you are entitled to which may cost money. Although I knew very little about life as a blind person and needed some guidance, at times it did feel like people were making decisions for me rather than giving me the information upon which I could make my own decisions. The slightly older Andy would certainly not have tolerated this kind of attitude.

At the end of the conversation JB told me that he would like to invite me to a training weekend which was to be held in Solihull a couple of weeks later. In the meantime he suggested that I found a guide runner and he told me the basics of guiding and a few suggestions that I might like to try.

I had regularly trained with and raced against my friend JW, or to be precise, I regularly had the pleasure of looking at the back of his head several times a week as he disappeared into the distance. As my sight became worse, it took less and less time for him to disappear from view during our training sessions. JW was a very very good athlete. He had been the UK Indoor under 20 400m champion, had made the English Schools final at 800m and could beat me at all distances; in short, the longer the event, the further he beat me by. JW and I had been the best of friends since he had moved to Bridlington from Nuneaton after his O’ levels in 1986, both on and off the track. As he lived quite close by he seemed the obvious person to ask. He agreed to give it a go, after all, it might be a bit of a laugh. How right he was, as whilst success was not necessarily guaranteed, fun certainly was. Had JW said no, who knows how the rest of my life would have played out.

The invitations for the BBS training weekend arrived and I, JW and Dad the chauffeur travelled down to Solihull. We were to stay at the Moathouse Hotel on Friday night and Saturday night and to train on Saturday and Sunday. Having had to wait for JW to finish work, we arrived at 10:00 pm and we were told that we had missed the evening meal. We weren’t too bothered about this as we had all had a kebab and a pizza before we set off. They really were innocent times, thinking that because we had an intensive weekend of training that we should, or even could, stuff our faces on unhealthy food. I was very nervous about the training session that was planned for the next day as I was sure that I was going to get my arse kicked, and as such my dreams would be shattered and I would be left with only the messy end of the stick that represented being blind. Strange how quickly my view of blind people had switched from non sport playing basket weavers to athletes who would kick my arse: I hadn’t been educated that quickly, so this obviously showed a severe lack of confidence in my own ability.

This fear, combined with JW’s unquenchable thirst for beer, resulted in four pints being devoured by 11:00 pm. Pizza, kebab and beer: how things would change over the years, at least for me if not JW!

We went down for breakfast the next day and despite my intrepidation about the forthcoming training sessions we heartily disposed of a cooked breakfast (the full works), and then went down to the track. I met some of the athletes and the coaches who were involved and then sat down awaiting the welcome speech. This was given by J “you will go on my first whistle” A, later to become famous as the referee on the ITV Saturday night television programme gladiators. JA was the driving force behind blind athletics and stories abound of his no nonsense attitude to red tape and obstructive officials, including allegedly managing to successfully get the team onto the Moscow Olympic track that was being guarded by armed soviet guards who did not want him to do so. JA, who had coached some of the countries top able-bodied athletes, was trying to drag the world of disabled athletics into a more professional era, where our disabilities were secondary to our status as athletes, which involved training like athletes who had disabilities, rather than like disabled people who were doing athletics. Training philosophies which were used in the able bodied world were the norm for JA, and the athletes certainly seemed to be benefiting from this if their vast array of medals from recent championships were anything to go by.

JA introduced himself and all the coaches in the room, and explained what was going to happen over the weekend. I was informed that I was to train with JB and the rest of the sprinters. I had managed to get separated from JW, and as we stood up to leave a young girl grabbed my elbow and asked if I could guide her out of the room. Too embarrassed to do otherwise, I followed the shapes in front of me which were slowly making their way towards the light at the other end of the dimly lit room, but despite my best attempts I managed to bounce her off a variety of chairs and tables, before slamming her into the doorframe. I felt bad about that, but I wasn’t sure what else I could have done. After she let go and searched for another elbow I was grabbed by JW and we made our way on to the track.

After a warm up session I was asked by JB to show him what I was capable of by running a 100m race against the other athletes in the group. Despite JB telling me over the phone that I had to find a guide runner, I was asked to run on my own in the outside two lanes of the track. I was very anxious. I was afraid that my inadequacies as a sprinter would be revealed by this contest, but also afraid for my safety. Although I had told JB that I had been running on my own, that was two weeks earlier and by that time I was struggling to do anything on my own, so the prospect of the race was very frightening. However, I was not about to let these strangers know that I was a wimp so I just did it and braced myself for a fall or a bump. As it happened I was quite safe, due mainly to the fact that I pulled my hamstring after about 40m or so.

I was hit with a feeling of total frustration and a sense of anti climax. I had travelled all that way to only run 40m, and possibly miss out on the chance to show them what I was capable of. However, JW had been keeping an eye on the rest of the athletes and told me that I was leading when my hamstring went and he thought I could beat them all. This helped my mood somewhat, as did the coaches saying that they were impressed with my all too brief exhibition of my talents.

As it turned out, this pulling of the hamstring was probably a blessing in disguise. It meant that I couldn’t train at all for the rest of the weekend, but it did mean that I could meet everybody in the team and all the coaching and support staff. This was a real eye opener. By talking to blind people and people who worked with them I soon came to realise the all too simple truth that blind people were just people who could not see. Being blind did not mean that you had to be good at basket weaving, like radio 4 or wear clothes from the seventies. It didn’t mean you had to sit in a chair in the corner all day either, most of these guys and girls had jobs, and good jobs at that. Various degrees of blindness had not stopped all these inspirational characters from doing whatever they liked. Despite various prejudices that they had experienced, it was mainly factors which able bodied people had to put up with which prevented them from achieving their dreams: MF would never play for Wolverhampton Wanderers because he wasn’t good enough at football and was only 5 feet tall; JW would never be able to eat all the food in the world despite his best efforts as there was not enough time in the day; RL would never get to sleep with all the women in the world as not all of them fancied ugly scousers; MW who I would meet later in the year, would not get to lie in front of the telly all day as he had to work for part of it. They were all real life normal people, with normal lives and normal problems. MF wanted to know the football scores, JW wanted to know when dinner was, RL wanted to know intimate details about my then girlfriend, and MW wanted to know if there was anywhere he could lay down. Their sight problems were only mentioned fleetingly. Their sight, or lack of it, was part of who they were, it did not define who they were. Of course, things could have been different absent their sight problems, but they tried not to let their lack of perfect vision place boundaries on what they could achieve.

I must have done enough to impress the coaches as I was invited along to another training weekend and to the UK championships which would determine who would be picked for the European Championships later that year. I returned home optimistic in what the future held for me. The most important thing I took away with me from the weekend (apart from the hotel shampoo and soap) was the will power to get through whatever problems I faced. If ever I was in a situation where I thought I couldn’t do it, or was embarrassed I would say to myself /“What would RM do in this situation?”, or “what would RL say to that person?” I found that the athletes I had met had become my new heroes, my role models. I am proud to say that they later became very good friends as well.

The BBS training weekend was all that was needed to reignite my sporting dreams and aspirations. The excitement and sense of purpose in my sport that had been missing since my early teens resurfaced overnight. It was like being born again. I now had the opportunity to achieve all my boyhood dreams. The result was a change from a social athlete into a 100% serious athlete. The drive and determination that had been present in my sport during my formative years resurfaced. I started to train more often and harder during all sessions. I wasn’t going to let my blindness prevent me from achieving my full potential; I had been given an opportunity to achieve my dreams and I was determined to take advantage of it.

Enthused by the BBS training weekend, throughout the spring of 1991 JW and I practiced our guiding technique as often as we were able. At first we used a sock as a rudimentary guiding tool, but soon found that this could slip out of your hand which resulted in sheer panic, usually me panicking, but often JW as well. Our next device was a rather sturdy shoe lace tied into a figure of eight which made it nearly impossible to lose hold of. However, this was soon disposed of as well after a disastrous start to my competitive career in blind athletics.

Our first race was to be at the City Of Hull open meeting, held every year in April at the Costello stadium in Hull. This seemed like a good place to do our first race as Costello had been home to my athletics since I was 12 years old and I knew it like the back of my hand so it took away some of the fear. It would also be full of people who knew me and had followed my progression into the ranks of the blind. I thought this would make me feel less embarrassed and less freakish. It probably would have worked if all had gone well. We had explained to the track officials that I was competing and that I would require two lanes. They said that they were aware of my situation and had allotted to me what would become the usual outside two lanes – keep me away from the real athletes so I can’t hurt them was the thought that went through my mind.

We settled into our blocks, a skill which we had practiced extensively, and then rose into the set position on the starters command. The gun fired, our legs and arms drove hard and the shoe lace snapped! Our first race had lasted approximately two meters.

“Good place to do our first race” I thought, “not embarrassing at all”. So much for that. It was to get worse. Ours had been the penultimate race of the day. The only race left was the senior women’s 200m race. I had a simple choice to make, run with the women or don’t run. Men racing against women never happens. I decided that I had better do it despite being embarrassed at the thought of it.

We settled into our blocks for a second time, this time clutching a sock which, despite our concerns based on previous disasters, was the only option available to us and prepared to go into the set position. Two thoughts, or more precisely prayers, were racing through my mind. The first was a prayer not to let the sock slip out of my hand, and the second, the more important one, was to not let me get beaten by a girl. The prayers must have worked as I managed to hold onto both the rope and my dignity by winning the race in a particularly unimpressive time of 25.7 secs, a time which would become the usual time for my first race of the season.

By the time the BBS UK Champs came around in early June I had taken to using a loop of sturdy rope which allowed both myself and my guide to place our hands in with the backs of our hands almost touching. We found that this allowed us to keep syncronisation better and to allow the guide greater control with steering me. However as the champs came round JW told me that he would not be able to guide me as he wanted to do a race himself on the same day. This turned out to be something I was going to have to get used to, especially as all my guides were seriously good quality athletes who had their own goals and objectives to achieve in their athletic careers, and so I asked another friend and former training partner if he fancied having a go at guiding me. His name was MD and he was some 2 or 3 years older than me. Despite being a 3,000m steeple chaser he was remarkably quick over the shorter distances, and being the nice guy that he was he said he would give it a try. We trained together a couple of times and achieved some very quick times. It was going to be a success, I could feel it.

I had decided that I would run the 100m at the championships on my own as I could just about manage to stay in my two lanes on the straight, and it was always quicker to run without a guide if it was possible as it is more biomechanically efficient. As I required guiding around the bends MD would just be required for the 200m and 400m. The champs were held at the Wolverhampton track, a track which held bad memories for me. The reason for these bad memories was a crime that I had committed at that track, one for which I have never really been properly punished.

When I was 14 I had suffered a great deal from ingrowing toe nails. I had received all the treatment which chiropody had to offer but I still suffered a great deal of discomfort. It had prevented me from playing football and rugby when it was really bad, and when it was not that bad had merely meant that I was in agony every time I kicked the ball, which is an important part of both football and being a stand off at rugby. Action had to be taken so my parents paid for me to have an operation to remove part of my nail bed and part of the side of both of my big toes which the specialist had said were the two problem areas. The operation was totally successful, but I had to wear massive bandages on both big toes. I could not fit my bandaged feet in any of my shoes, so I couldn’t go to school. Although this didn’t exactly upset me, it did mean that I had started to go a bit stir crazy. The athletics club were going to Wolverhampton to an open meeting, which meant a long coach journey. Long coach journey’s with the boys team were always really good fun, but add into the equation a load of attractive girls as well and we are now talking teenage heaven. I was not going to miss out on such a trip so I had to find a way of getting some footwear on my feet. One choice was to cut up my trainers, but I only had the one pair and my parents couldn’t afford to get me any new ones, so that wasn’t really an option. In the end it came down to either staying at home or wearing a pair of sandals. At the time sandals were extremely unfashionable, often being referred to as Adidas Jesus. I had no choice, if I wanted to get on that coach I would have to put up with this fashion disaster. I say disaster as this in itself was not the crime. The crime was the wearing of white socks with the sandals. All day I had to put up with shouts of abuse and hysterical laughter, and that was just from my brother! People who were not related to me were no better either. Therefore, every time I thought of Wolverhampton I broke out into a cold sweat and my toes started to tingle.

Despite these bad memories I turned up at the track there for the UK Championships in good spirits. I thought I would run well and was looking forward to gaining selection for the European champs. My 100m race was to be run very early in the programme. I was competing in the B2 category for athletes who were partially sighted. I was only to run against a couple of athletes, but I had no idea how good they were, so I was very nervous. The gun went, I exploded out the blocks and set off down the straight. I had no idea if I was winning or not, but thought I was running fast. I was probably trying a bit too hard and started to tighten up towards the end of the 100m. Five meters from the line my hamstring went again, but as I was so close to the finish I managed to limp at great speed through the line and still win the race. Without having run that brilliantly, I was the UK Champion, and I had only been registered blind for a month. After 10 hard years of athletics training, I was an overnight success.

That victory meant so much to me. It was a national title, it meant I was the fastest partially sighted athlete in the UK and it was my first accolade as a blind athlete. But it signified more than that; it signified that despite the adversity and dramatic changes in my life, the fact that my eyes had all but stopped working did not mean that everything else had stopped working. My body was still that of an athlete and whilst I needed extra help and an additional lane to run in, that had not changed. It made me realise that my brain still functioned as it had before my sight problems and that there must surely be ways of allowing me to use it in order to carve out some kind of career for myself.

I felt very frustrated at the thought of not being able to run the 200m and 400m. I wouldn’t normally have minded, but I had asked MD to guide me in those events, he had taken a day away from his own life to do it, and now I had to tell him he had wasted his time. These feelings of guilt and that I was abusing my friends are still with me today not only in athletics but in life in general. Feelings of being a burden are common to all disabled people I guess and, even when you know in your heart that the person really doesn’t mind, there is always a deep seated nagging doubt that they are just saying that.

To try and compensate him for his trouble I bought him a beer at the bar and awaited the verdict regarding the euro champs. The news came through by the end of the afternoon that I had done enough and I would be going to France. What relief, what joy. At last, I was going to achieve my lifetime ambition. Every cloud did in fact have a silver lining. Being blind was the only reason that I had achieved this.

Look out for the story of what happened at my first championships which should appear here over the next couple of weeks.

Finding my way into blind sport – part 1

I was always a keen sportsmen – actually, that’s a lie; sport was the most important thing in my life. I would have given anything to be a professional sportsman. Little did I know…?

I played football for the county, for school and a Sunday league team, rugby for the county and school, cricket for school, and ran for the county and City of Hull AC. However, I thought my sporting career was over when I finally lost all my sight aged 21.

The real impact on my sporting career started when I was 20. The first casualty was my blossoming career as a 400m hurdler. During the athletics season, at a meeting at North or South Shields, it was one or the other, the City of Hull senior men’s team was short of numbers and needed volunteers for the majority of the field events, the 400m hurdles and the 3,000m steeplechase. As I would have struggled to run 3,000m never mind jump over barriers and a water jump, and I didn’t want to volunteer for any throwing events (after a disasterous javelin incident at Sheffield earlier that year – I’ll probably blog about that some time), I volunteered for the 400m hurdles. The biggest problem I had was getting over the hurdles as they were much higher than I had thought. To say I hurdled them with difficulty was not true: I actually jumped over them with difficulty. I was drawn in lane 1, which meant that all my competitors were on my blind side. I was so focused on the hurdles that I didn’t pay much attention to anyone else but as I approached the half way point I glanced across to my right-hand side and as I couldn’t see anyone I realised that I was in the lead, which certainly concentrates the mind. Having successfully negotiated the remaining obstacles, I won the race by a large margin. Whilst the time of 61 seconds was not outstanding, this did however provide me and my coach, BS, with enough encouragement for me to start to train seriously for the event.

One such training session took place in early September 1990. It was still fairly warm so there was little chance of me doing myself an injury when attempting to clamber over the obstacles – or so I thought. I set off from the 400m hurdles start with the intention of going over the hurdles up to the 200m point in the race, and to do this several times depending on how well it went. The key to 400m hurdling is in the stride pattern. From the start line to the first hurdle took me something like 21 strides, and there after I settled into a regular stride pattern of 14 strides between each hurdle. Once I reached the 200m point in the race I would probably have to increase the number of strides to 15 between each hurdle as my legs tired and my stride length shortened. However, theory is fine but it is not always that simple in practice.

As dusk descended, I set off on my first run, counting my strides as I went along in order to give me practice at the stride pattern. After 17 or so strides I realised that I should be approaching the first hurdle but I couldn’t see one. “Trust BS, he’s forgot to put one out” I thought. But not more than a couple of strides later I knew I was wrong to think that of BS, for there appearing out of the gloom at great speed was the 3 feet high barrier. I had to make a split decision. I was too close to hurdle it properly, and probably too close and going too fast to side step it. If I had tried to do either I would have ended up on the floor wrapped around a hurdle which was not a pleasant prospect. Therefore, I opted for a straight forward dive over the hurdle. It hurt like hell but at least I knew what I was landing on and all I suffered were impact injuries not the alternative of impact plus entangling injuries.

That was the first sign that my sight was really starting to deteriorate to a disabling level from a sporting point of view, but further signs came on the football pitch. My real love had always been football. I had represented the school team for every year that I was at school, at one point even playing for the school sixth form 11 when I was in the third year. I was also picked for the county side and had, at every county match, scoured the sidelines for scouts who had the ability to make all my dreams come true. Maybe because the county manager played me as a holding midfield player, rather than my natural position of attacking midfielder, the scouts never turned up, or if they did they were not impressed enough to speak to me. Maybe it was because my ability to control the ball appeared to have worsened as I aged, which sounds rather counter intuitive, but I had definitely noticed it happening. Looking back, only being able to see out of one eye could not have helped with my ball control as only seeing in two dimensions meant I could not judge how fast a ball was moving towards me. Colliding with players who moved towards me on my blind side, even kicking players in the head who had stooped to head a ball on my right hand side and the abuse that followed, didn’t help my cause either. I had been just as good at rugby, but as soon as my school found out that I was blind in one eye they banned me from playing.

As the new football season started in early September I noticed that as I looked directly at the ball I couldn’t see all of it as the loss of vision was starting to spread further across my left eye. If I looked at the middle of the ball, I would only be able to see the left hand side of it. In order to see all the ball, I had to look upwards and to the right of the ball. Only then would all the ball be visible within the remaining field of vision that I had. The problem with relying on peripheral vision is that the further away from the focal point the object becomes, the less detail you can see, and trying to rely on peripheral vision only over long distances was of limited utility. The other problem was that the blind areas were broadly a grey colour, which meant that the sky and clouds that I could see didn’t particularly stand out from the blind areas that surrounded them, which just confused me.

At that point, my football had been limited to playing in the local Saturday afternoon league for the Rudston B team (a village near Bridlington), and I played for a Sunday league team made up of friends of both myself and my brother. The Sunday league team, which played in the Hull league, was quite a good team and I looked forward to the games every week. Towards the end of the previous season, I played with what had become usual sight for me. I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye, and I had started to lose the vision on the right hand side of my left eye. But this was not really a problem as I had started to play as an old fashioned right winger so as to open up the amount of the pitch that was in my field of vision. Using my pace I was the leading scorer for our team and the usual tactic was the long ball over the top for me to run onto using my superior speed, the only remaining task was to put the ball in the back of the net, which I seemed to do more often than not.

However, as my useful vision diminished, and I became more reliant upon peripheral vision, the tactic had to be adapted somewhat, as I required our defenders or midfielders to shout to let me know that the ball was coming my way over the top and, if they were able, to give me some indication of which way I should run, right, left or simply straight ahead. If they weren’t able to issue instructions quickly enough, I listened for the ball bouncing and then ran towards that noise and hoped that the ball would appear in my field of vision. It worked, to a point, and I kept on slamming in the goals and we kept on winning.

But it only worked for so long. Not long after my 21st birthday I played my last game of football, one of the things that saddens me the most. I often dream about playing football, and it is my favourite dream, even better than the Bay Watch dream. The freedom of being able to kick a ball, to control it and hit long passes, to float over the ground with the ball at my feet, pass a defender or two and then crash the ball into the back of the net – it’s really exhilarating. The down side of this is waking up. I always feel a great sense of loss after this dream and feel miserable for hours, but I suppose it’s worth it just to experience those feelings again.

My last match was played at South Hunsley school near Hull. By this time when I looked directly at the middle of the ball all I could see was the bottom left hand segment of the ball, maybe about 15% of the ball at best. It was against the league leaders and we were in second place. The game started well and after 10 minutes the ball was cleared by their defence, not very well as it happened, and I could just make out that the ball was coming towards me, begging to be smacked back from whence it had come. Instinctively I put my head down and swung my right foot at the ball, or where I thought it would be. The result was a 25 yard screamer into the top corner and I laid at the bottom of a mass of my team mates.

We were still winning 1-0 towards the end of the second half when our left winger went on one of his mazy runs. F went past five or six defenders from what I could make out, and then moving in from the left wing dribbled the ball past the goal keeper. However, he was at such an acute angle to the goal that he looked up and passed the ball to me as I was standing on the penalty spot with no defenders around me. I could have side footed it home, or blasted it, but I had started to lose confidence in my ability to see the ball coming, so I decided to control it as I had so much time. It turns out that I had made the wrong decision, as I managed using all my concentration to control the ball remarkably well, and I stood with the ball at my feet, with acres of room in front of an open goal. But there was one slight problem, where the bloody hell was the goal? I just couldn’t see it! There was green stuff, and above it grey stuff, but that was all I could make out. If the keeper had stood his ground I would have at least had a reference point upon which to focus, but he had most inconsiderably buggered off. I put my head down and hit the ball towards where the goal must surely be. However, as goals are not awarded for hitting corner flags the score remained 1-0.

I can still hear the laughter and shouts of “donkey, donkey” to this day – team mates can be so hurtful.

It was one of those defining moments in your life. It dawned on me that I was properly visually impaired. I turned and walked slowly towards the half way line with my thoughts blocking out the ridicule that was being hurled in my direction. I attempted to carry on and defend our one goal lead, but my confidence had totally gone by that point and I didn’t go anywhere near the action in truth. I walked off the pitch not able to join in our celebrations at going to the top of the league as I knew I would never play the beautiful game again. That was probably one of the lowest points during the loss of my sight.

As my sight continued to worsen on a daily basis through late 1990 and early 1991, the only sport that I could participate in was athletics, and that was becoming increasingly difficult. I felt compelled by something inside to try to carry on as normal for as long as I possibly could, but it was becoming increasingly scary to do so. The dilemma was to carry on and fight the fear, or take the fear away by giving up and giving in; the former feelings won the battle.

The only way I could do my athletics training during the winter when it was dark was to follow somebody who was wearing a bright top that I could make out well enough to feel safe. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this, I just got on with it. I had to make excuses if we were supposed to do a road run to warm up, because the dazzling car headlights were all that I could see, trees, lamp posts, pedestrians, etc, were completely obscured. Whilst I could still see enough to safely negotiate my way around, even in darkness, when walking, trying to do this at speed proved to be a different matter. It only took one hazard to jump out at me from the shadows, be they real shadows or ones caused by my failing retinas, and my confidence would be shattered. A fake limp would suddenly appear and I would walk back to the stadium if on a road run, or back to the stands if doing a track session. I don’t think that I would have been able to continue running if I had remained partially sighted. There again, maybe I would have got used to it and the terrifying fear may have subsided. I suppose we will never know as events meant that I wouldn’t be running alone for much longer.

During a trip to Liverpool to meet an RNIB job advisor where we tried out some vision aids, part of the prolonged task of trying to find a way for me to return to work at the bank, my Mum had noticed a British Blind Sport magazine with a picture of a blind athlete, NT, on the front of it running. She read it to me on our long train journey home and made a note of the number for me to ring.

This was amazing news! I was ridiculously excited to think that blind people could do sport. Before this I suppose I was as ignorant, if not more so, than the average person with regards the capabilities of blind people. I rang the number as soon as I could.

Little did I know the chain of events that would unfurl from this one phone call and that within less than six months I would be the proud owner of a Great Britain tracksuit, a European gold medal and a World Record to boot! What a serendipitous event!

He’s behind me?! Oh no he isn’t, is he??!!

Four FB posts to start the long overdue weekend, and keep an eye out for the story of how I got into blind sport tomorrow ….

27 November 2014

Well, I suppose it’s almost Pantomime season … I managed to lose the dog this morning after I took him off his lead to explore the grassy area in the lemony snicket. I was calling him for ages, but there was no sign of him, and all the time he was … yes, you’ve guessed it … behind me!! I really should put a bell on the little fecker!

13 February 2015

I could tell I hadn’t been to the doctor’s for a while…. If smacking my shoulder on a lamp post and straying onto the odd road here and there on the outward journey wasn’t enough of a sign, then properly winding myself on the way back on a lamp post definitely sealed the deal!! I think I may have been relying on Alfie a bit more than I thought when we are out on walks together…. Who’d have thought it, that stupid dog being useful after all!!

17 February 2015

So uncoordinated this morning I wasn’t aware I was missing my cup with the kettle until the boiling water ran off the counter and on my foot – ouch! To make matters worse, after mopping up the water I knocked over my cup of tea! If I wasn’t so busy at work, I’d be back in bed right now – I think it’s going to be one of those days….

21 February 2015

J’s mum asked him if she could practice pedicures on him – “only if I can practice rugby tackles on you” was his brilliant response lol!