Friday, December 4, 2015

A VI Merry Christmas

I have posted before about the truth behind some of our best loved Christmas customs (see ) and as we approach this special time of year once again, my research has revealed some almost interesting facts about the role that blind people have played in shaping many of our festive customs over the years.
For example, did you know that legend has it that Santa first got the idea to put sleigh bells on his reindeer after receiving a request from a grumpy old blind bloke in Croydon?  Arthur Dodds had requested the auditory addition, claiming he was frightened that “one of the fat fuckers will run me over one of these years”. Fortunately, the elves translated the request for Santa as a plea from a nice old man who wanted to enjoy the full festive spectacle. However, the tradition was almost ended some years later when Santa was busy delivering presents in Australia. Unfortunately, Santa had parked the sleigh near a day/night VI cricket match. Innocently grazing on the pitch, Rudolph’s bells were mistaken for a ball and he was dispatched to the boundary with a lovely cover drive. On the plus side, his injured nose, which took the brunt of the shot, became his trademark.
And it was a ‘Scottish blind man who started the tradition of leaving out a carrot and a whisky on Christmas Eve. He had been at the whisky all night and left his last night-cap by the fireplace. A little worse for the drink, he later misjudged where he had left his glass and ended up toasting his fingers in the fire. As for the carrot, he had picked one up in the supermarket and brought it home to ask friends and family what it was. Of course, nobody knew, so he’d decided it made quite a nice poker.
You might also be surprised to hear that Christmas fairy lights were also inspired by someone thinking about their blind loved one, or so the story goes. Apparently, the young  Swedish girl, Anja, was desperate to keep her blind father away from the presents under the tree, as he had a tendency to rummage around trying to guess what was wrapped up for him. So his ingenious daughter rigged up a series of live electrical charges all around the tree to keep him away. Neighbours commented on the lovely coloured sparks they made when the inquisitive Dad went pressie-hunting and Anja got the idea to develop a less sadistic version for the mass market.
Did you know that explosive Christmas crackers as we know them were developed that way especially for blind people? Originally they were small gifts shared at the dinner table, until an ingenious French man decided a more sensory experience was needed for his blind wife. Early prototypes were variable. Having blown up his shed, poor Jacques would have held his hands up in defeat, had he not already blown them off. However, he persevered and eventually his design was passed safe for use around the world.
Finally, the influence of the VI world extends through to some of our favourite New Year customs. The great Scottish tradition of first footing – being the first person to cross the threshold of your neighbour’s house – was started by a blind man in Glasgow in the 13th century. He’d been at his local tavern for a few celebratory ales and had had become a little confused on his return home, ending up at the wrong house, whereupon he was dragged inside for another drink before being sent on his way. Several houses later he eventually made it home and the next year he was careful to make the same mistake. His canny Scots neighbours soon caught on and the tradition took off.
So a VI Merry Christmas to you all!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Notes on not falling over

This whole trip could be summarised as my personal battle with gravity, a force of nature which, over the four-day trek, I grew to loathe with a passion. The trek would take my group of thirty walkers on a well-used but none-the-less challenging route known as ‘The 3 Peaks’, taking in each of the three highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland (Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis respectively).
Things had started well. Despite being weighed down by 3 litres of water, enough snacks to feed a small town and a large bag of self-doubt, I had overcome its relentless pull in order to haul myself and my provisions to Snowdon’s peak, I guess it was inevitable that the big G would take its revenge on the way down. It did at least require the assistance of a fellow G – the dreaded mountain gulley – to bring me down. I was as keen as the next man to descend quickly, but not that quickly. Deep in conversation with a fellow trekker, my left foot was soon deep into a gulley, where it was clearly planning to rest up for a little while. Fortunately for me, at least half of the group following behind me were partially-sighted and would not have seen the HD version of my fall. They may well have heard the hard thwack of my knee hitting the rock, followed by the feint thud of my pride doing the same. But my overwhelming sense was triangular relief – my knee was only scuffed, my ankle wasn’t broken and we were nearly off the damned mountain.
 I learned quickly that the key to successfully getting up and down a mountain is not falling over. Staying upright is easier said than done when you cannot see where you are putting your feet. Now that I come to think of it, I have difficulty walking up my street without tripping over – what the hell was I thinking of? Almost every step demanded a level of concentration which was as sapping as the physical effort required to climb or descend. The use of walking poles was invaluable, transforming me from a teetering biped into a marginally more stable quadruped. At 6 ft 4, my additional limbs didn’t exactly turn me into a mountain goat – more a kind of arthritic giraffe – but they were my trusted swords in the battle against the evil forces of gravity. Whilst my poles lent me physical support, I was equally dependent upon the moral and mental crutch on offer from my fellow trekkers. The truth is, I think it was as much the words of guidance, the generosity of spirit, and the compelling desire not to make an idiot of myself in front of them, which kept me on my feet, for the most part anyway.
And, as you may have already surmised, it was no easy gig for my guides, operating as my personal ‘trip adviser’ for several hours at a time.  They had to provide direction – “shimmy left, step sharp right”, information – “18 incher coming up now” and white lies – “It’s not far now, I can see the top” in equal measure. It was a lot of responsibility for them – who would want to risk walking a blind guy off the edge of a mountain? Apart perhaps from his wife, who had opted instead to stay home with the dogs.
Of course, there were times when gravity was not my forceful foe but my best buddy. Like for example, when battling the 40mph wind that welcomed us to the summit of Snowdon, whipping around our heads, tugging at our clothes and bags, driving ice-cold rain into our faces. Had someone inadvertently enraged an ancient Welsh mountain god, invoking this hostile reception to its summit? I gripped tighter onto my guide’s arm, fearful of being hurled back to England by an angry gust, but my hands were now semi-frozen, along with my nose and ears.  “Great fun, this mountain climbing” I joked, but the words were whipped away by the wind. I like to think they are still blowing around out there somewhere, untethered by the pull of the earth.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A-wake on the bus?

Last week I was shocked by something I didn’t hear on the bus. That is to say, I didn’t hear a thing. And it was a very busy bus, jam packed with people on their way to work – so busy that several of us were standing in the aisle. And yet, for the entire 15 minute duration of my short commute into Newcastle, I didn’t hear one conversation. Not even a monologue , no giggling schoolgirls, no crying babies or shushing parents. The silence was only broken by the creaks and moans of the bus itself, and the feint tinny jangling of someone’s headphones.

And it really bothered me. I’m not sure why, or even if, I should be so irked by this. I mean, some people would no doubt love to have such a peaceful and calm carriage to work. But I hated it.  I’ve travelled on quiet buses before, but never on one so full and yet so silent. I found myself wondering if this was a stereotypically British thing  - I couldn’t imagine this scenario happening in New York, Delhi or Paris.

Of course, I also couldn’t help thinking that it is simply a sign of these digital times – times when we are so busy communicating with our vast social networks that we can’t possibly spare the time or the energy to converse with those around us. And before you accuse me of being some middle aged fart of a Luddite, I must reject at least the last part of that description. I love my smartphone as much as the next man, possibly more, given the amazing access it gives me to stuff that would previously have been simply out of reach of me and my dysfunctional eyes. However, it’s nice occasionally to turn to that next man and discuss last night’s TV with him, or the football results,  the weather, the state of the roads, or whatever.

As a blind person I have grown accustomed to the sinking realisation that occurs when I work out that I’m talking to someone who  is not there. I guess it is just going to happen more often now, even when I know they are sitting right beside me. So, I’ll keep quiet like everyone else.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Green Man - Blue Air

Fortunately, I had heard the car approaching
Unusually fast, I remember thinking,
Considering I’m half way across the crossing, I
Keep on walking, slower now and then
I stop
Not going any further.
Glad I did, as the car skids past me
I wonder what the driver thinks
Did he/she not see me?
I’m the blind one after all.
Only fair to scream my considered opinion of
The driver who nearly killed me today.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

over the limit

Just the other day, Mrs B received a nice letter in the post, informing her that she had been caught speeding, and asking her to fess up to being the driver in question. I jokingly suggested that perhaps I could claim responsibility for the offence as there was little chance of me accruing any more points. This got me thinking as to my possible response to the authorities…
Dear Sir/Madam
Further to your recent correspondence with my good lady wife, I wish to inform you that it was in fact my good self driving the car when the speeding infringement took place.
Before you decide on the appropriate sanctions relating to this offence, I would just like to offer up some mitigation in my defence.
First, due to my severe lack of sight, I was unable to see the speedometer display on the dashboard. Being a responsible driver, I did use my other senses to do my best to estimate my travelling speed at the time. I could not smell the tyres burning, the windows were not rattling and I could feel only the slightest G-force pulling at my face. I therefore concluded that my speed was reasonable for the road conditions. Until car manufacturers start to make their displays more accessible for the blind then we will continue to have these problems.
Secondly, my sight loss makes it impossible for me to see any road signs, including those indicating the speed limit. Once again, I am disadvantaged by my disability and the blatant disregard for my communication needs. Has the local authority ever heard of the social model of disability?
Third, in recognising the dangers of having to drive in an environment clearly not set up to meet my needs, I was doing the considerate thing by driving as fast as I could to my destination, thus minimising the time spent on the road and the associated risks.
Finally, I am sure you appreciate how important it is for blind people to maintain their independence, and driving my car is the best way for me to do this. Once a friend or neighbour has helped me locate the vehicle, and helped me put my guide dog into the boot, I am good to go, with no further assistance needed.
I trust you will take these circumstances into account when dealing with my offence.
Yours sincerely