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”.