Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Wheelchair Services

I went to wheelchair services this morning.

The chair I have is five years old. Although it is regularly maintained it has taken a bit of a hammering during that time and I need a change. The process for getting a new wheelchair should be straightforward. After all, it is a pretty vital piece of equipment. Yet you probably won't be surprised to learn that the whole shebang starts with the completion of the obligatory forms at the local health centre and leads on (around three months later) to the visit I paid today to the Health & Resource Centre. I didn't even know such a place existed until I received my letter inviting me to today's appointment, but there it is in all it's glory opposite the old site of Lowie's nightclub.

I was just about in time for my 9.30 appointment but I was destined to be late all the same. Despite what the letter described as 'ample' parking there were no disabled bays available when I got there. There is a certain irony about someone attending a Health & Resource Centre to be assessed for a new wheelchair and being unable to find a disabled parking space. I had to phone through to let them know that I had arrived and would be with them as soon as I could. Going back to the letter, it had pointed out that should I not attend my appointment they would assume that I no longer had any interest in acquiring a new wheelchair and 'close my file'. Please no, not that. Anything but that. So I wasn't taking any chances.

Following the directions I had been given for the wheelchair services department I was greeted en route by Jeff who, after establishing that I am Mr Orford, led me through to a small room. An open door at the back of the room is emblazoned with the words 'assessment centre'. And that's it. That's wheelchair services. A small room rather like you might find yourself in when visiting your local GP. No sign of any of the admin staff I had spoken to on the phone, just me and Jeff left to thrash out the finer points of the deal.

Not that there looks to be much that is all that fine about this prospective deal. My plan was to simply re-order a brand new version of the chair that I have now. I like the chair that I have now. I looks relatively modern for an NHS chair and is pretty durable. Simple enough. Well no. Jeff, who at this point it must be said is a genuinely personable fellow and seems to be sincerely on the side of the customer, informs me that Lomax, the company which manufactured my current chair, have been bought out and so the model I have is no longer in production. Furthermore, there is now only one model of chair available for free from the NHS and would I like to see one? There is one in the back room. I nod, and Jeff pops into the room behind the 'assessment centre' door and emerges with the chair.

There's no polite way of saying this. It's ugly. Seriously, it's cumbersome and square and awkward looking. It looks like something out of the 1960's. When Jeff tells me that this piece of scrap metal is worth £1,800 I feel slightly queasy. Leaving aside it's aesthetic flaws, it's a piece of metal and a couple of wheels. No more materials than are required for the average push-bike. How can it possibly be worth so much? I knew what was coming next. If I didn't want that one courtesy of the NHS for free (and I didn't) then the alternative was their voucher system whereby they give you a contribution of around £1,000 and you pay the rest yourself for something a little more modern. Since something a little more modern could cost upwards of £2,500 it's going to be expensive and may have to wait a while after all. Regardless, I asked Jeff to send me the information on the voucher system so I could see what exactly is available and what it will cost.

The problem here is that wheelchair users are a captive market. While you may occasionally hear on the radio or television about the government trying to do something about extortionate mobile phone prices or utility bills, it seems they are perfectly happy to let the cost of wheelchairs rise through the stratosphere. After all, only a small percentage of the population need them so why should they care? Credit Jeff again, because he fully understood why I could not just accept the ugly chair because it does the job of getting me from A to B. I spend around 10 hours a day in my wheelchair and if I am not comfortable in it then that is an issue. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that vanity is not one of my flaws, but asking someone to sit in a wheelchair they find embarrassing for 10 hours a day is unacceptable. I'd rather wear a dress all day. Probably. Let's not forget that the wheelchair is pretty much the only thing that some people see in any case. It has to look reasonably attractive. If a wheelchair can ever be described as such.

I shook hands with Jeff on went on my way to work, pondering all of this a little further as I drove. By the time I arrived at about 11.00 all of the disabled parking spaces were taken. We've been here before once already today I thought as I made my way into the main car park. Nothing there either, nothing but the brilliant self-mockery that was to be found in spotting my shoe, the one I left behind in the snow on Friday afternoon, just lazily lying there in the car park. After much pointless deliberation, dithering and numerous attempts to contact Emma I instead parked in a nearby street, but only had enough money for a one hour ticket in the pay and display. I then had to ask my boss if I could just write off the rest of the morning so that I could sort out my parking situation and get some lunch. It was already around 11.20 at this point and I normally take my lunch at 12.00. Kindly she agreed and I eventually found Emma, who moved the car to another car park which saved us the princely sum of £2. It is a staggering £8.80 to park for four hours in the street I had chosen, and £6 for the car park we eventually used. Almost as scandalously expensive as the going rate for wheelchairs..

It may be a while before I take any more time off in the morning to visit wheelchair services.......

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Blow Out

Anyone who saw my last entry will know that I recently had a funeral to go to. The service for my old team-mate and friend Neil ('Bliss') was held close to his home in Buckinghamshire. Perhaps it would have been easy for some to consider the journey to Milton Keynes from the north west too far, and in many cases it might have been. But not in this case. Not for someone who had such a huge influence on me in some of the best years of my life.

So I went. As ever with me it is not as straightforward as 'I went to the funeral, I went for a drink afterwards, I came home'. Oh no. My problems began after the service. Before we get there though I must just share with you a conversation I had with an old-team-mate outside the chapel while we were waiting to go inside for the service;

"How did you know Neil, then? Was it through fencing?" asked an older gentleman whom I knew very well, but who clearly didn't remember me.

"" I replied.

"....I played basketball with him. And with you as it happens. At Bolton."

A puzzled look......another of hurried realisation and then.....

"You've grown up."

To be fair to my old Bolton team-mate Brian Dickinson, I have. Even if I don't always act like it. To be yet fairer to him, I played only a season or two with him and the last of those was something like 17 years ago. He might remember a much slimmer, fitter young fellow with more hair and a damn sight more energy and enthusiasm.

So the plan afterwards was to head to the David Lloyd centre for a drink and a chat. Perhaps a chance to reminisce and exchange stories of Neil and his contagious energy and ebullience. I made arrangements with another former team-mate Mark, who was riding in the car of yet another one, Sue. They would wait in their parking space while I went down to the bottom end of the crematorium were I had hurriedly parked my car earlier having got slightly lost on the way and arriving with about 20 minutes to spare. It turns out I don't have the technological know-how to operate Emma's sat-nav system and so I had reached my destination by asking a mechanic at a place nearby called 'Brake World'. He was very helpful.

So anyway I get into my car after the now obligatory fight with my not-so-lightweight wheelchair (it was so much easier when I was an athlete, when I knew Neil) and headed towards where Sue and Mark were parked. Except they weren't. All I could see was a queue of traffic, all drivers trying to make their way down the narrow lane which led to the exit. By now it was snowing quite heavily and it was 5.45 pm. I had only booked the one day off from work and I had a three-hour drive in front of me. I joined the queue and hoped to get a glimpse somewhere of Mark and Sue, or at least latch on to someone else who might be headed over to the David Lloyd centre. Surely the majority of people stuck in the queue would be. This is where my theory broke down and I lucked out. By the time I had the main road in my sights there were two cars in front of me. The first pulled out on to the busy road and turned left. The second pulled out on to it and turned right. So which one of them was going to the David Lloyd centre and which one was going home? Were they both going to the David Lloyd centre but just via different routes? Were they both going home? These were unanswerables. I decided there and then that since I had lost Mark and Sue and since it wasn't safe at that moment to make a phone call to enquire as to their whereabouts, I was going home.

I stopped at Northampton Services to make the phone call about 20 minutes later. Mark apologised and so since has Sue, but with the snow getting worse and time moving on I was certain it was best to head back on home. All well and good then for the next couple of hours until, driving at a granddad-like 50mph (something I have done frequently since my speeding fine) I felt the car jolt and heard quite a loud bumping noise. Not like a pop or a bang, just a thud. The steering was fine at first but as I drew nearer to home it got more difficult until by the time I exited the M6 to join the M62 for the last leg of my journey, the car was pretty much uncontrollable. Puncture. I had to pull over.

Being 20 minutes from home I decided that rather than ring the RAC (of which I am a member through Motability and therefore do not have to part with any cash for the privilege of being rescued) I would ring my dad to come and help. I knew he would be able to change a wheel and I also reckoned that he would be able to reach me a lot quicker than the RAC would. This was quite a selfish decision on reflection but in my defence I was parked up on the hard shoulder of the slip road, alone, in the pitch blackness and memories of running out of petrol on the freeway between Los Angeles and San Diego were spewing forth to the front of my mind. I rang Emma, who because she is the sort of person who listens to people who know better and I'm not, knew that the man from Ford's had warned us that there might not be a spare wheel in the car. Some models only come with a puncture repair kit. Something about saving money, she told me as I imagined my dad turning up and enquiring as to why I had phoned him rather than the RAC if I didn't even have a spare wheel to replace the punctured one.

Fortunately I did and the switch was fairly straightforward, except for the comedy moment when my dad lost the sheet which I use as a protector for the car seats. He'd been using it to kneel on because the surface of the road was dirty and it blew away in the wind. I was writing it off when he emerged from behind his car with the sheet in his hand, and plonked it back in the boot from whence it came. You have to feel sorry for him really. He's too old for this shit and his work wasn't done even then. When we got back to my house (his is only a few doors down) he had to physically push me up my drive because it was covered in two inches of snow. These are the times when disability becomes an issue again. I shouldn't have to be ringing my dad or anyone else because I need to change my wheel and I shouldn't need to be manually assisted up my drive because it is snowing.

Despite the drama and more snow I made it to work on Friday. We were given the option of using some flexi and leaving a little early because of the weather conditions. I took the opportunity. Memories of the last really significant snowfall of a few years ago convinced me to get out while the going was still good. Back then, I had left it too late and it took me almost five hours to travel the 12 or so miles between the office and my house. Yet the snow had one more surprise in store for me nonetheless. In my haste to get out of it and into the car I failed to notice that one of my shoes had fallen off. It wasn't until I pulled up outside the house and started to transfer back into my wheelchair that it dawned on me that I was, to paraphrase Peter Cook, deficient in the shoe department to the tune of one.

So that was Thursday and Friday. I did not leave the house again until Monday. It just wasn't going to be safe.

Thursday, 3 January 2013


I hate to start 2013 on a sad note, but when I learned this morning of the passing of one of my oldest friends in basketball, committing something about Neil Ross to these pages just seemed like the natural thing to do.

Nicknamed 'Blisters', Neil Ross was a team-mate of mine at Meteors and at Bolton Bulls for many years. He was also a great friend and influence (good and bad some might argue), and despite never quite making it to the very peak of the sport, a champion wheelchair basketball player.

My 20 years in the game might not have been a success in the eyes of some. After all much of that time was spent cruising lazily around the second tier of the National League, breaking sweat only when in close proximity to the basketball, like a boxer dog that has just heard the bounce of his favourite tennis ball and jumped up from his forty winks to chase it. However, those of you still with me after that strained analogy might want to consider that despite my limitations I played with and against the very best players this country had to offer at the time. Some of them are still among the best and narrowly missed out on a bronze medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games recently. The point is that I don't think I have ever seen a talent quite like Neil. That he was not a regular fixture in the Great Britain squad throughout his time in the game is symptomatic of the way that teams were chosen in those days. Without getting too far into it and in the process confusing those of you not familiar with the vagaries of the game's classification system, Neil was a player of relatively lesser disability who sat low in his chair and played mostly around the perimeter. His game was taking players on one-on-one, hitting the outside shot, finding the pass that nobody else could see. All of this he did effortlessly and in a way that completely inspired me. The game was fun with Neil. He was never going to be the tall battering ram that the coaches wanted players of his classification to be.

Not that he didn't care about the result. He was very passionate about winning and, as coach of the North West junior team in particular, got very angry indeed at times. If you couldn't play like him, maybe he could scare the shit out of you enough for you to get somewhere close. I have only seen one other coach get near to some of Neil's legendary outbursts, a man called Fred at Meteors. I only had the pleasure of one training session and one game with Fred, but I clearly remember him going apoplectic at every single, small element of the game that didn't go exactly as he planned it. If Fred is still with us I wouldn't be surprised if he has some blood pressure problems.

That's who Fred was, but when Neil went off his proverbial trolley in a time-out you got the sense that it wasn't quite him. Off the court he was everyone's mate, one of the funniest people I have known, and hugely popular. Had it not been for his occasional tantrums he would have been perfect for the job of coaching the north west junior team that he had previously been fundamental to the success of as a player. All the other junior players were slightly in awe of him and would have driven through a block of shite if that was what he had told us it would take to win. As it was he did a fairly decent job in the role in any case, with national titles at Stoke Mandeville becoming the norm. His sense of fun could get us in trouble sometimes, but we childishly drank it in. Not everyone in attendance at those tournaments was totally in love with our pre-game warm-up music choice, Wigfield's Saturday Night. If we were especially confident we might even throw the dance routine in. Wins were traditionally celebrated with a Jurgen Klinsmann-style dive from our wheelchairs (the German striker's self-mocking goal celebration was all the rage in those days), but losses were felt keenly. Losing is supposed to hurt, but when we did we were left in no doubt as to how important it had been to Neil. Sometimes it was just a little too important to him.

And that is pretty much how my playing days with Neil ended. We were playing for Bolton at the National League play-offs (third division) against Manchester. Down by a point Neil raced free on a fast-break and as time ran out, was pushed off balance by a defender causing him to miss the shot. We had lost and all kinds of merry hell broke loose. I just remember going back to the dormitory, away from all the madness that ensued (it got a little physical as I recall) and having this funny feeling that this would be our last game for Bolton. And so it was, as Neil headed for Sheffield and one or two of the rest of us moved on to Oldham. Looking back that might have been the last time I played the game completely freely, where doing the least obvious, most outrageous thing was encouraged. Some would say I became a better player when under the guidance of first division coaches at Oldham and later at Sheffield, but I enjoyed it less. I was never quite comfortable with the regimented nature of it all, the idea that I was there to help someone taller and less disabled look good for the good of the team, well it just didn't sit all that well with a little show-off like me. By the time of the 1997 World Junior Championships and the end of my international aspirations (or Hajgate as I like to call it), I was well and truly a recreational player. I was playing with the same free spirit as I did with Neil, only now I knew I wasn't going anywhere lofty at the end of it all.

These memories are fresh, but one most vivid recollection I have of Neil is of a game in Scotland. The West Of Scotland team were notoriously difficult to beat on their own patch, but one of our attempts to do so at Bolton became ever more difficult when we lost Neil to one of the most horrific injuries I have ever seen on a basketball court. Going for a 50-50 ball with one of their lads the two of them collided sickeningly. Neil put his hands over his eyes immediately and when he eventually was able to remove them you could see the blood gushing from what looked like his eyeball. That he was not blinded is a minor miracle but you know what? If he had been he would still have been able to play basketball to a seriously high level. He just had it, that touch, technique, that ability to float past people like they weren't really there. That touch of genius. I can't remember whether we won that game that day but I seriously doubt it.

From the day I first met Neil as a 16-year old (he was three years older than me, at 13, and playing for a team called Red Rose who played their home games in the unnerving surroundings of Kirkham Prison!) to the last time I saw him, there remained a strong rapport. When he moved away from basketball and into coaching wheelchair rugby I asked him for a favour. I had suggested to the editor of Rugby League World magazine that I write a piece on wheelchair rugby for them. When they agreed I made a quick call to Neil, who remember at this point I had not really seen for a number of years, and he instantly agreed. We did the interview over the phone (when we had stopped laughing about old times and reciting old episodes of Vic Reeves Big Night Out) and I had a double page spread in a national, glossy sports magazine. It remains among the best achievements of a journalism career matched only in under-achievement by my exploits as a wheelchair basketball player. But the point is that Neil was ready to help an old friend out at a moment's notice. By the way, aswell as wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, Neil was also at various times heavily involved with wheelchair fencing and wheelchair tennis. I never saw him in action in any of these sports, but if he was half as good at any of these as he was on a basketball court then he would have been formidable.

Latterly my communication with Neil was limited to the odd slice of Facebook banter. He had moved down south and got married, and so much of our correspondence consisted of me goading him about his defection to the dark side that is rugby union. Once, When We Were Kings (junior kings at any rate), he had been an avid Wigan rugby league fan, with my devotion to St.Helens causing many an interesting debate. Sadly for me at that time, Wigan were winning just about everything while Saints, well Saints had Paul Forber and Dave Tanner.

I knew nothing of the return of his illness until today. That had apparently been how he wanted it. No fuss, no drama. It said much about the man, as do my many fond memories of him.