When my neck started bothering me in October last year I ignored the symptoms and tried to soldier on regardless. That was a mistake. After the third episode, I sought medical help and was given treatment and a set of exercises to do. The problem was diagnosed as a combination of prolonged computer use and bad posture that, combined with a general lack of exercise, had resulted in a tightness of the spinal joints and a weakness of the neck muscles. Based on that, and besides the exercises I was given to do, I was advised to spend less time on the computer and be sure to take regular breaks.
Having tried to follow that advice to the best of my ability, I have noticed significant improvement; but what frustrates me is that whenever I think I am fit enough to return to Flickr and participate fully in the social dialogue, something happens to set me back. I’ll give you an example…
Last week I was feeling strong. On Friday, I resumed commenting but was careful, I thought, not to overdo it. I stopped after a couple of hours and settled down to watch the (Australian Open) tennis on TV. On Saturday, I woke with a persistent headache and I didn’t go near the computer all day. On Sunday, my headache had gone but I stayed away from the computer until late in the afternoon when I logged in to check my email. Among the usual commercial bumf was a note from a Flickr friend asking me how I was feeling. I replied to him, checked his stream and commented on a few of his uploads before I logged off and went back to the tennis. On Monday, when I woke up, I couldn’t turn my head left or right. On Tuesday, although not as severe as the previous day, my neck spasm was still bothering me and I was beginning to feel really frustrated. I enjoy Flickr. I have found there a rich trove of images whose depth, diversity, and quality is better than any I have found elsewhere. But over and above that, I enjoy the interaction with like-minded people that Flickr affords me. And this damn neck thing seems determined to thwart all of that. Then, out of this well of self-pity, I suddenly thought of Christy Brown, the Irish boy born with cerebral palsy who could only control one part of his body, his left foot. Yet despite that, he had managed to learn to paint and to write and published a book that was subsequently made into a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. All that from a boy whose physical challenges put mine to shame.
Christy Brown had indefatigable self-belief, but more importantly, he had people around him who believed in him, supported him, reassured and encouraged him; and I began to wonder if he would have been able to persevere and achieve the success he achieved if he had not had that support structure behind him. Is self-belief enough, I wondered. And this thought gave me an idea for a story.
Now, ideas for stories sometimes come to me initially as a title or a first sentence. Then, I just start writing to see where the idea takes me. I like writing that way. It’s almost as though what I am really doing is listening to someone one telling me the story in my head and then writing it down verbatim. That way, I discover the story in the same way as a reader will discover it; and the ending is always a surprise for me. In this case, the first sentence of the idea came to me as: “The inquest found that it was suicide” and I had just finished writing the first paragraph when my wife called me to ask if I wanted to use the PC (which she had apparently finished using). I said that I did and a few minutes later I logged on to my email to find, amongst other things, messages from three Flickr friends asking me how I was feeling; and a fourth, making a friend request on Facebook. In a flash, I went from writing a story about suicide to a feeling of elation and the sense of priviledge to be living in a time when this can happen. The idea that four people, in four different countries, on three different continents had written to me had touched me in a way that can only be understood in a broader context.
I was born in a small, parochial town in a small country whose protestations of pride seemed sometimes to betray a deeper feeling of inferiority.
We had no telephone in our house, simply because my parents did not feel that it was a social necessity. No one in the town was farther than 20 minutes away on foot; and where more distant contacts were required, nothing seemed so important to them that a conventional letter wouldn’t suffice. A visit to the nearest city (Aberdeen, 46 miles away) involved as much planning and forethought as would a trip to Tamanrasset today. In some ways, we were cut off from the rest of the world; yet, the world as it was then seemed perfectly adequate.
Of course, there was the excitement of receiving food packages from America where even the most mundane of products seemed, somehow, exotic: sugar that came in cubes and milk in powdered form. And there was the humiliation of having to present ration books to buy groceries at the Cooperative Shop. After WWII ended, just as things were starting to get back to normal, Britain was plunged into the Suez Crisis and with the trade routes to the East and Antipodes closed, food was in short supply and the ration books were issued again. Little did I know then that one day, we would travel down the re-opened Suez Canal en route to our new home in Australia. In fact, the idea of going away from where we lived at that time seemed unnecssary and beyond serious consideration. We were aware of other worlds; but the other worlds only seemed to touch us obliquely, as an occasional treat or as a distant hindrance. We were both isolated and inured.
You see, even though Scotland claimed to have invented television, the medium hadn’t come to our corner of the country yet; so in the evening, we’d gather round and ‘watch’ the valve radio as it hissed and crackled its magical message from places as far-flung as London, Luxembourg and Hilversum. I remember the hush that would descend upon the house as the announcer intoned those famous words: “This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news.” And I remember too how we’d listen intently to the weather forecast for British coastal waters, as if a force 1 gale in Dogger Bank would make the slightest bit of difference to our lives. And most of all, I remember the absolute silence demanded by my father on a Saturday evening as he copied down the football results in the hope of making his fortune on the Pools. What amused me in particular was the way the announcer used different cadences in his voice to distinguish between the results: home win, away win, and draw. I’d discover later that it was like the use of tones in oriental languages. Occasionally, I’d forget myself and mimic the announcer, drawing a swift rebuke from my father who seemed to feel that his fortune hung on precisely the result that was being given when I committed my indiscretion and that we would be condemned to penury for ever more because he had been prevented from capturing that one key result; and for the rest of the bulletin I’d sit frozen in fearful anticipation of the punishment that was to follow.
But even in that rural backwater, change was on the march. Music had been sold on large, heavy discs that rotated at 78 revolutions per minutes (rpm) and were played, in our house at least, on a gramophone that constituted another piece of furniture. But I remember the excitement of buying my first of the new, smaller, lighter, vinyl 45rpm discs: Adam Faith singing What do you want? Later, the old valve radios would be superseded by newer, transistor models; and suddenly, music would become portable. My first transistor radio still had a wooden housing (covered in faux leather); and a battery the size of a house brick. But it had a shoulder strap and I could carry it with my and play it wherever I liked. And it was in Port Saïd, on that trip through the Suez Canal, that I bought my first portable record player: a terrible tinny-sounding thing that had already thumbed its nose at the old 78rpm discs.
Those modest advances in technology seem almost pitiful by today’s standards. We could never have conceived then that the world could change so dramatically in one person’s lifetime. And in many ways, I feel that I am still a child of the Fifties; that compared to those born in the information age, I am like a tourist in today’s world where people talk and dress differently, where the culture and the behaviour and the priorities are different; where everything is exotic, a little baffling at times, intimidating too, but always interesting.
Those who were born into this age are certainly comfortable with it; certainly adapt to the changes, to the evolution, more easily and quickly than my contemporaries do. But because they have known nothing else, I wonder sometimes if they appreciate what they have; while those of us who come from another time and place are eyes-agape in awe of what we see. As a boy who grew up in a house without a telephone, how cool is it that I now get emails from people I have never met in Canada, Belgium, China and Japan? How cool is it that I can upload a photograph to Flickr and it can be seen immediately by people on five continents? How cool is it that I can publish a story on my website and draw tears from a stranger on the other side of the world? This is an amazing time we live in; not perfect; but amazing; and I’m thrilled to be here and be a part of it. So thank you Christy Brown, for what you were able to accomplish with just one foot; and for helping me see that the negatives only outweigh the positives if one allows them to.