Tuesday, 9 June 2015


No matter how busy we are in the office, there's always time for tea. Somebody will finish a phone call, send an e-mail, sign a cheque and decide that this is a convenient moment for tea. There is an almost Zen like quality to the moment, similar to the tachi-ai in sumo, when, from that tiny moment of stillness, pandemonium erupts. Well, I say pandemonium but what I really mean is flickering of interest.

And in an office largely full of girls, I should immediately clarify that the point of similarity is that Zen-like stillness, not the imminent collision of mountains of flesh. That's how misunderstandings happen.

I think I have probably rather overstretched this simile to be honest. I'd probably better disguise their names as well. Better safe than sorry.

Anyway, I digress. Someone calls "tea anyone?" and pandemonium erupts. Sorry, mild interest. Funnily enough, the words "mild flicker of interest" are not usually followed by the word "erupts". Sometimes the English language can be strangely restrictive.

Where was I? Oh yes, tea. I don't usually come into the office more than a day a week. Mostly I work from home and, in a domestic context, tea time largely fails to reproduce that frisson of excitement found in the office. It takes on the quality more of a refuelling stop. A chance to take on fluid and nothing more. But in the office, there is always the unwritten possibility of more. If there has been a board meeting in the morning, or a committee, or working party, there is always the promise of flapjacks, millionaire shortbread or even, if we have been visited by knights of the realm, an outside chance of Jaffa cakes.

But irrespective of the circumstances, there is the business of tea itself. It would be easy if everyone drank exactly the same formulation of tea -- say one tea bag, milk and 1 teaspoon of sugar. That would be easy. Predictably, in an office full of larger-than-life characters (no, girls, I mean metaphorically -- not a sumo reference), everyone takes their tea slightly differently.

Of course, being in the office together full-time, each knows the others' preferences. They barely have to nod to each other. It's the kind of unwritten communication that you find in a flange of gorillas or a congress of baboons. Again, I'm not likening the girls in the office to groups of primates. They may share make-up tips but I have never seen them picking insects off each other.

Anyway, as a less frequent visitor to the flange, sorry office, I find myself struggling to remember who takes what in their tea. Or even who takes tea. In the space of 10 yards, from the office door to the kitchen, I have forgotten not only how people wanted their tea but also who wanted tea at all. On a bad day I may even forget who is in the office.

To resolve this, I hit on a master plan. Being by nature a scientist, I would prepare a crib sheet of everyone's tea preferences (and coffee for that matter) and put this in the kitchen, where needed. If Ellen wanted coffee (she doesn't drink tea), I would simply check the appropriate column, add a level teaspoon of coffee powder and pour a splash of milk into the cup. Or if Lisa wanted tea, she would prefer it without milk but with a single sugar.

Foolproof, I think you'll agree. And I could hardly wait until 3 PM to put my system to the test. Finally, there would be no barely veiled looks of disappointment from the team when presented with unsolicited or incorrectly prepared beverages. Nothing was left to chance. I had all their preferences down in black-and-white. This would be a triumph of science over chaos.

Except that on this particular occasion, Ellen elected, for the first time in a decade, to take tea instead of coffee. Hannah refused to submit to my coffee formula by insisting that she would only drink real coffee and, as for tea, would only touch a formulation she had encountered somewhere in the far east. And Lisa's tea went to Sam, since I had somehow failed to notice she had left the office three hours earlier. Observation is not my strong suit.

Still it's not without benefits -- it's highly unlikely I will ever be asked to make the tea again. Silver linings and all that.

Thursday, 4 June 2015


When you are newly diagnosed with Parkinson's, you find yourself on an information rollercoaster. You are inundated with information, weighed down with websites, pummelled by pamphlets and awash with advice. Everyone seems determined to tell you what you should do, when you should do it and what will happen if you don't (or sometimes even if you do). We talk of Parkinson's as a journey and, just as we're slipping on our metaphorical trainers, people are hastening to tell us about the rigours of the journey and the toll it will take. Whether they believe themselves to be helpful or not, there seems to be a need among some of the gloomier 'old hands' to make you share their despondency, their apathy and loss of spirit.

For these people, all life was sucked out of their bodies by the diagnosis. They sit quietly in a corner of God's waiting room waiting for their appointment. These are people who never get beyond the 'why me' question, people whose sense of victimisation by the illness gnaws at their being. These are people for whom wallowing in self-pity is the norm,

Misery attracts misery. The glums are never happier than when sharing their wealth of experience with a Parkinson's rookie, watching cannibalistically as they draw the life force out of their victim. Some don't even realise they're doing it. Others take some perverted comfort in dragging people down rather than lifting them up.

Parkinson's is like that. As a good friend of mine explained, the same thing that makes us frail also gives us power. The value of that experience is incalculable. Our narrative of the illness can be used for good or bad. We can do irreparable harm or inestimable good. We can become dementors or beacons. And these are not predetermined paths, the unalterable expression of Parkinson's on the human psyche.

These are choices. We have the capacity, when faced with Parkinson's, to avert our gaze and cower, beaten, in a corner. It's the soft option, passive and victimised. Or we can stand tall, stare this intruder in the eye and decide to do our best. Not just for ourselves, but also for others.

Parkinson's gives us that power. And it does so in direct proportion to our experience. The longer we have had Parkinson's, the more valuable and credible is our experience of the condition and the more sought-after is our opinion. That is power. But with that power comes responsibility. We can wield that strength for good or bad.

I've been lucky. Although my early experience of Parkinson's, and people with Parkinson's, was dispiriting, it was not terminally disabling. Among the many dementors, somehow I found, or was attracted to, people whose indomitable spirit fought back against the condition -- people who, as the condition took more and more from them, seemed to find more to give. People who would not submit to the condition but resisted with fearless determination. People who come from all walks of life -- a teacher from Tennessee, a surveyor from Hertfordshire, a boxer from Norfolk, a nurse from New Zealand and more.

Parkinson's is tough, certainly. It is, as Michael J Fox once memorably said 'the gift that keeps on taking'. It will make demands on you as it progresses and how you face those demands will say much about you as a person. I have been fortunate to have met people who, in the words of Val Doonican (and I can't quite believe that I am quoting the prince of knitwear), " walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the eye".