Saturday, 8 December 2012


A few weeks ago, I stopped writing Slice of Life, ostensibly so I could recharge my batteries and return at some yet-to-be-decided point in the future with sharpened pen. And that was my plan. Honestly.

In the intervening weeks I've thought long and hard about this. And my conclusion is that Slice of Life has run its course. Sure I could scout around for new subjects, new things to scrutinise, satirise or eulogise, but why? To what purpose? To raise a titter, chuckle or guffaw somewhere out there in the limitless void?

I don''t think that's enough any more and I don't want to slip into self parody or repetition. I don't want it to outstay its welcome. In any case, the 3 books are available through Amazon and other sources and, incidentally, make the perfect stocking fillers for the discerning reader. They will continue to be available for the foreseeable future.

So what next?

I have a number of things to address and I am writing them here as a kind of assurance that they will take place. When you nail your colours to so public a mask, failure is not an option. So here is the roadmap.

Poetry - I have long viewed this with suspicion. Most people, on reading poetry, think "I could do that - nowt to it". Mostly they are wrong. Somehow the Shakespeare sonnets of their imagination don't transfer intact to the page. There is no facial expression that matches the rictus smile of a critic forced to attend an amateur poetry soiree.

Could I do any better? Maybe not but I won't know till I try. If it's drivel, I'll spare your cringes and polite changing of the subject. Let's just hope that I retain sufficient insight to know it's crap.

Short stories - Ever since I fiirst read Hemingway, I have seen the potential of this form. It's too easy to dismiss short stories as sketches for novels or as failed novels, lost for inspiration. Some are. But others are conceived for this form. As a string quartet is to a symphony, so the short story is to the novel. I love the leanness of the best short stories. No lyrical longueurs - every word has to count. It's the best mental workout a writer can have.

Yorkshire childhood - I grew up in God''s Country and, though far away now, it still calls me. I have wanted to write about a 60s childhood for a while. That time is now.

What do all three projects have in common? They have nothing to do with Parkinson's. I need a break from this illness. And since I cannot shake its malign grip on the rest of my life, I can at least find refuge from it in my writing. It's my happy place. You wouldn't grudge me that would you?

This website will continue. Some of this new writing may well find its way here but not as Slice of Life. So there we are.

I'll get my coat.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


I've been writing this blog for 3 years. Each year's worth, with a few embellishments and a little editing, has become a book which is available from Amazon or Lulu.
I hope the blog has entertained you whilst also giving you some insight into what Young Onset Parkinson's is like. I hope too that, whilst not diminishing the impact of the condition, I have shown that you can live with it. A positive attitude is important.
For a writer, knowing when and what to write is important. But knowing when to stop is just as vital. I don't want to repeat myself and I don't want my writing to become formulaic and predictable.I don't want to write just for the sake of writing.

I've always espoused the view that, when you have nothing to say, you should say nothing.

And right now I find myself in that position. I'm out of words.

Or, more accurately, I'm out of the right words. I have lots that I want to put down on paper but it is not really SLICE OF LIFE. So I haven't posted it here.

So, with your permission, I am going to take a break to recharge the batteries. As long as it takes.

Thanks for all your kind comments and encouragement. Oh, and get your friends to buy the books!

sliceoflife at hotmail dot co dot uk

In the meantime, here is what many of you have said is their favourite piece of my writing.

ANGEL (published - 6th August 2010)

Two decades ago, I worked in Indiana, part of America’s almost mythical Midwest. Bloomington, a college town and home of the Hoosiers was little more than a small dab of green paint on a huge agricultural canvas.  It was high summer and rain hadn’t fallen in nearly six months. Fields, normally, shoulder-high and plump with corn, were dry, bleached flats that stretched out to infinity. When the tractors weren’t shimmering in the heat on the open plains, they raised dusty swirls, twists and eddies that glided silently like spectral figures over the distant horizon. Television talked of The Dust Bowl, and those who lived through the 1930s spoke of the similarities and drew anxious parallels. This was the land of Steinbeck, of Tom Joad and the Grapes of Wrath.

Along with friends, I was invited to speak at a conference in Kansas, 500 miles away. We could have flown but chose to drive, in a rattling hired sedan without air conditioning, hour after soporific hour, on arrow-straight undulating roads strung with telegraph poles, the monotony broken only by occasional animal carcasses or rusted flatbeds, abandoned where they had fallen. “Welcome to nowhere” read the faded graffiti on one decaying Chevy. Through Vincennes, St Louis, Columbia and Independence, and on towards Lawrence on Interstate 70, we played away the hours with tapes of Tom Waits, as we gradually assumed the manners and personae of Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg. We left the interstate, with its honking horns, and set off on a two-lane blacktop. Apart from occasional trucks, we had the road to ourselves

Night fell swiftly in August on the summer plains and, as the stars filled that ink-black prairie sky, the fuel gauge gradually slipped into the red, and we thumbed the map for our location. Nowhere – just as the graffiti had said. As Joe tapped the fuel gauge, we reached another brow in the road. A flickering sign in the distance read “Food. Gas” with that laconic precision so prevalent throughout the plains states. As the car coughed, we pulled in to a tiny one-pump gas station. It felt like a step back in time. On the far side of the road was a chalk-white steer skull on a pole. While Joe fuelled the car, Lesley and I stretched our legs, the air still hot from the day. A man in faded overalls and a grease-stained baseball cap emerged from a tiny shack-shop of breeze blocks with a tin roof, kicking the dust as he walked. “Do you have food?” I asked. There was the long pause of a man used to spending his words carefully. “Got all you need there” he said, nodding to the shop “Annie Mae’ll help you”

A moth fluttered behind a dirty cracked window next to an antique Coke machine that groaned and burped as its refrigerator fought hopelessly against the heat. A small bell tinkled as I opened the door. Somewhere in the distance the long prairie wail of a goods train pierced the night’s silence. I picked Monterey Jack cheese, ham, sesame rolls and rootbeer and placed them on the cracked red Formica counter next to a small tarnished brass bell. As I reached for the bell, there was a rustle of the fly curtain at the back of the shop. “Hello” I called. “Be with you” said a girl’s voice. “Annie Mae?” I asked and she smiled, all freckles and dimples, as she totted up the groceries on the corner of a newspaper in her childish hand. She licked the pencil tip then pronounced “That be five dollars and forty three cents”. She held up her open hand to signal ‘five’ and giggled. I saw she was missing a thumb. "Funny girl" I said. She laughed.

I realised my wallet was missing the moment I reached into my trousers and slapped my pockets in the reflex movements of a man unexpectedly penniless. “Vincennes” I said to myself, as I remembered leaving it on the counter of the Dairy Queen, where we had stopped for cones in the late afternoon. Five hours earlier and two hundred miles back on the Interstate. “I have money in the car” I said in explanation. "Back in a minute".

"Well we need to find a bank in the morning" said Lesley "cos I've just spent our last fifteen bucks on gas". Like royalty, Joe never carried money, always relying on Lesley. I explained about the ice cream parlour in Vincennes.

"Annie Mae, I have no money. I'm really sorry" I stuttered and began to put the groceries back. Even in the half light of the shop, my beetroot red face must have been obvious. "It's okay" she said "take the food. You can pay on your way back".

I protested. But Annie Mae would have none of it. "Just don't tell my pop" she winked. And giggled.

As we spluttered out onto the highway again and gathered speed, I told Joe and Lesley about Annie Mae and the food. "Real cute" said Lesley. "Real dumb" said Joe, sparking a row between the two.

We were in Lawrence for two days. Two days hot enough to fry eggs on the bonnet of the car. I did the lecture, with voice barely audible over the air conditioning, my slides buckling in the heat from the projector. I told the listeners of dopamine receptors and the nigrostriatal pathway, of dysregulation and  dopamine transporters. Everything I knew about Parkinson’s (I used to be a neuroscientist, remember). There were questions too, mostly interested in why an Englishman was in Kansas. "Just following the Yellow Brick Road" I said until it wasn’t funny any more. I was shown around the labs, invited to dinner with the faculty members, and guest of honour at a lake party on a bright yellow pontoon boat where we ate slices of watermelon washed down with Coors from the cooler.

Thursday came, muffins and ham for breakfast and then on the road to Nowhere. Or wherever it was that we had stopped for gas and food on Monday night. On a two to one majority, we persuaded Joe to drive back to the garage and give Annie Mae her five dollars and forty three cents, all in shiny new coins. As Joe grumbled and muttered, we looked out for the garage. Mile after mile of dusty emptiness.

Then I saw the cattle skull. We pulled over and I picked up the envelope with the money. The garage looked different. They must have replaced the aged single pump. Two fancy new Texaco pumps stood there.

I looked around. Where was the shop? The breezeblock hut was nowhere. Instead a small glass fronted shop  with plastic fittings occupied the space. A middle-aged man emerged. "Need gas?" he asked. "No" I said "I need to give some money to the girl".

He screwed up his eyes. "What girl? Ain’t no girl here”.

"Annie Mae" I said "Freckles? Missing a thumb".

He looked down and flicked some cigarette ash off his overalls. "She's not here" he said quietly. A long pause. ”She’ll come around sometimes. When there are strangers mostly”.

I waited a moment, but no further explanation was forthcoming. "So where is she now?" I asked.

He nodded in the direction of the corn field opposite. "She bin in the field some twenty years now”. His voice faltered. “Buried her there the night her pop brought her in, knocked down by a truck. Folks left their food behind so she ran across the road after them. She was kind like that. Always looking to help. Buried her pop a week later. Wouldn't eat or drink. His little angel she was. Called her Angel Annie somedays".

My mouth was dry and, although he kept talking, I heard nothing else he said as I crossed the road into the field, the corn rustling in the dusty breeze. I reached into my envelope for the five dollars and forty three cents. Shiny new coins glinting in the sun. With a bellow that echoed off the distant grain elevators, I hurled them as far as I could and stood for a moment listening to their pitter patter as they fell among the corn. I turned back towards the car.

From somewhere I heard a giggle.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Blast from the past - Boys' toys

This and other stories in "Slice of Life" available from Amazon.
Almost my earliest childhood memory, nearly 50 years ago, is of standing at the windowsill with my mother, waving my father off to work each morning.  We lived in Denham at the time and people did that sort of thing.  But as my mother returned to the chores of the day, I would linger at the window watching the cars go by.  Like most four year old boys, I could identify all makes of car.  Had it been 15 years earlier, I would have been confidently telling Spitfires from Hurricanes, Messerschmitts from Heinkels and so forth.  But this was 1961 and I had to settle for cars.  Not just any cars mind you.  Among the Austins and Morrises, Humbers and Singers, Rileys and Wolseleys, there were two I was looking out for.  One was a green Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, which, with Teutonic precision, passed the house every day at exactly 8.32 AM. Even in the 1960s, the automotive industry’s heyday, the Karmann Ghia looked special.  But beautiful though it was with its coupe body and whitewall tyres, the Karmann Ghia was just a warm-up for the main event.
 At around quarter to nine, to a fanfare in my head, Mr Potts, the local bank manager would leave for work. And he had a Jag.

 A shiny green Jag with wire wheels that lived, like a caged beast, in his garage, never on the drive. Too often for my liking, a bank colleague would collect him, the Jag would stay in the garage, and I would slink, disappointed, back to my Frosties.  But if I was lucky and especially if it was summer, Mr. Potts would fire up the Jag. And although we were 10 houses away, we would hear its distinctive sound, somewhere between a snarl and a purr. To anyone else it just sounded like a powerful car.  But to a motor-obsessed four year old, this was not just a powerful car: this was a six cylinder, 3.4 litre Mark II Jaguar capable of 0-60 in 11.5 seconds and with a top speed over 100 mph. Grace, space and pace.

 Indeed this was the car for anyone interested in banking - not only did Mr Potts the bank manager drive a Jag, but so too did the likes of Buster Edwards, a man with an equally consuming interest in the workings of the average high street bank. The Mark II Jag was, after all, the favoured getaway car of most sixties villains.

 If I had to wait, fine. I could be patient if necessary. Even buy other cars too as I grew up. Sensible practical cars. Hatchbacks with cup holders and parking sensors. Family cars with folding seats and leaking sunroofs. All of these.

 But somewhere, garaged at the back of my mind all along was Mr Potts’s Jag.

 Now one of the more dispiriting diversions of PD is the need to declare the condition to the DVLA whose robotic, if understandable, response is to cancel your existing licence and replace it, at their discretion, with a short term licence, renewable on medical advice.

 This focusses the mind. Not ‘arf!

 When you realise your motoring days could end at any moment with a stroke of the DVLA’s pen, each motoring mile becomes more precious. Open roads become more liberating, traffic jams more frustrating. Somehow all motoring senses are heightened. So when the DVLA gave me my 3 year licence, I metaphorically consigned the boring cars to the bin. If I had only 3 years of motoring left, I was damn well going to enjoy them.

 It was Jag Time and I told the wife so.

 ‘Unimpressed’ barely covers Claire’s response.

 A few trenchant sentences left me in no doubt about my fiscal responsibilities as father and husband and where the Jag fitted into them. It didn’t.

No, the order of priorities was new kitchen, new bathroom, garden landscaping and so on. Buying a Jag was about seventieth on the starting grid of tasks, somewhere between unblocking the patio drain and neutering the guinea pig.

 By the time I had reassessed the grid, and weighed all the arguments, the Jag was back on pole.

Now the difficult part. How do you buy a Jag with only ten grand to spend? Assuming you exclude Buster’s fast track approach to Jag ownership.

 As it happens, one of the less widely publicised features of Jaguars is their jawdropping depreciation, a hangover from the sixties rustbucket days. While most German metal holds its worth like Chris Bonnington clinging to a rock face, merely turning the ignition key in a Jaguar seems inexplicably to halve its resale value. Very bad if you buy new. But very good if, like me, you can only afford to buy a used Jag.

 Even so, ten grand Jags are about as common as solar eclipses.

 I phoned the local Jag dealer and explained to the salesman that I needed an S-type, that curvy retro homage to the Mark II, for under ten grand. I could swear he put me on speakerphone.

 I didn’t think they were ever going to stop laughing.

 Slowly it dawned on the salesman that this wasn’t a prank call. I really did want an S-type for peanuts. He apologised and said he would look. It might take a while.

 “Don’t worry” I said “I’ve waited decades, what’s another few weeks”

 To be honest I didn’t expect to hear from him again but, as good as his word, he searched. Two weeks later, he found a 3 litre zircon blue S-type and brought it to my house to test drive. I heard it pull up.

 Suddenly it was 1961 and I was a four year old boy again.

 I sat in the driver’s seat and took in the acres of leather and forests of maple that had made this car. I turned the ignition and revved it. Ten minutes later we were sorting out the paperwork. A week later I was collecting it.

 “Any advice on driving?” I asked the dealer.

 “It’s a Jag” he said “Drive it like you stole it”

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Two Americans

   Two Americans have, in very different ways, unwittingly taught me two important life lessons. No, but I follow your reasoning, I am not talking about Laurel and Hardy. Nor Abbott and Costello. No, the gentlemen in question were Mark Twain and Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Although the latter may be new to you, you will almost certainly have heard of Twain.
   More than any other author perhaps, Mark Twain is responsible for introducing British adolescents to American literature through the chronicled adventures of Tom Sawyer and the exuberantly named Huckleberry Finn. Viewed by many, Faulkner and Hemingway included, as the father of the American novel, Twain’s output amounts to some thirteen novels and other sundries. Hemingway even went so far as to say that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since”. Strong praise indeed.

   Twain was inevitably a rich source of quotations from the humorous to the inspirational but none resonates more deeply with me than this:

   The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”.

   And in those twenty one words are distilled a potent idea and a gnawing certainty - the idea that life should have purpose and that, sooner or later, through circumstance or happenstance, that purpose will be made clear.

   A good friend of mine from Texas, diagnosed with Parkinson’s five years ago, found a form of salvation. After the usual feelings of depression, he emerged, with urgency and drive, into a world of advocacy. In a strange way, and one he would not have chosen, Parkinson’s had given him his purpose.

   And so it has for me. Like many others before, and doubtless many more after, I am a soldier in this war on Parkinson's. And, if it is to be won, it is a war that must be fought on many fronts. By the best research, by improvements in patient health, by public education, and by changing the political will. These are bold ambitions and will not be achieved by a single individual.

   In this war we contribute in our own way, in the way we feel most comfortable. For some that is very public, marching with placards, signing petitions, rabble-rousing militancy. For others it will be behind desks, lobbying politicians or educating the public. In any war, the control of information is paramount. This is no different. And for some, the battlefront is in the world's laboratories and research institutes, in white coats, conducting the research that will ultimately defeat Parkinson's. And then there are those others, myself included, who use websites to make sure that our victories are publicised, that the soldiers are equipped and deployed where they are in the best position to use their talents against the enemy - and to know where the breaches in the line will come and to send reinforcements. The tactics of battle. Which brings me to my second American.

  The second man, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, was a Confederate general during the American civil war. My father, at the time I was born, was fascinated by the American civil war and, although he has never said as much, I am convinced that I was named after his favourite general. Jackson was a master tactician, using the limited resources at his disposal to wreak havoc for the enemy. During the famous Valley campaign, Jackson moved his small army (a mere seventeen thousand strong) more than six hundred miles in a month and a half against a force that numbered sixty thousand, inflicting five significant defeats on the union Army. Jackson had a way of making limited resources go further. An inspirational leader and tactical genius, Jackson's command of the Stonewall Brigade probably extended the Civil War by a couple of years as the South briefly entertained the fanciful possibility of victory. His death in 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville effectively ended the last vestiges of hope.

   Despite his tactical mastery, it was Jackson's courage, and that of his troops, at the first battle of Manassas, standing firm in the face of a heavy Union assault, that earned him the nickname by which he is most commonly known. "Stonewall" Jackson.

   Jackson acknowledged throughout his life that his army was never as strong as needed. But he never complained, and used his tactical brilliance with the limited resources at his disposal to wage war on his enemy. He believed that the best form of defence was attack and his ability to strike fast and hard at the enemy won many a battle against overwhelming odds.

   Two men with very different ideas. Twain the inspirational thinker and Jackson the decisive doer. Between them they have taught me that this battle, this war even, will be won by brilliant ideas efficiently executed. They have taught me that it is vital to think in depth and equally essential to act swiftly, decisively and with purpose. I am no Twain or Stonewall but I recognize in them the qualities I must try to bring to the fight. I see the ground on which I will stand and fight.

   I can't speak for other chronic illnesses with any authority, and it's probably wrong to generalise, but there seems to me to be a special bond among people with Parkinson's. In many ways this is surprising, especially so when you consider how heterogeneous a bunch we are. Some freeze, some shake, some stumble, some mumble. My Parkinson's is not your Parkinson's. I may quiver and shake while you may be a frozen statue. It's hard to believe that so different a group of symptoms can still be part of the same illness. But despite these variations on the theme, we recognise each other as soldiers in the same army.

   We are fighting a war on Parkinson’s and, though it may often feel different at the battlefront, as our comrades fall around us, it is a war our enemy cannot win. We will slow our retreat. We will draw a line and we will stand and fight, shoulder to shoulder. Scientist, physician and patient will link arms and say “Enough”. We will stand like a stone wall against our enemy. We owe it to all the fallen.

   We will hold the line.

   And when we have won and lie exhausted on the field of battle, in the last words spoken by Stonewall, “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees”.