Monday, 16 November 2015

The funny side of disability

Ok, one last discarded writing pitch that I'm dumping on my blog. It's about the funny side of growing up with a disabled sibling:

Growing up with a disabled sibling can be many things; character building, challenging, emotional. For me though it has mostly been quite funny.

Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been without its difficulties, but those have largely come from external sources – bullies, local authorities, this fucking Government – and not my brother, who for all of his quirks, is probably better value than a ‘regular’ sibling.

I can’t say for sure, my parents stopped at two so he is my only frame of reference, but you can judge for yourselves with my selection of his best bits below.

Before I begin though, a bit of context. My brother has brain damage, caused by lack of oxygen at birth. His disability therefore doesn’t manifest in a defined way. You will see how much of an understatement that is in a moment.

He is in his thirties but has an estimated mental age of five, so is not much different to most men his age, amirite ladies? He has a unique sense of humour and wouldn’t make hack jokes of the like that his sister just did. He has practically no filter, no social awkwardness, no concept of many of the things we take for granted – time, money, death. He’s the most interesting person I know and that’s why I wanted to write this. I have written seriously about him before - - but too many pieces about disability are downbeat; all about the struggle. The good stuff needs to get top billing for once.

My brother is very honest. A great quality you might think. Well yes, when exercised by someone with an appreciation for the fine line between refreshing candour and awful truths.

A few years back, upon meeting someone with a rather generous rear he turned to my mum and said, in a voice usually reserved for genuine emergencies, “oh no, fat bottom, fat bottom, fat bottom”

Luckily we side stepped that one by claiming it was just gibberish. “He’s learning disabled. He doesn’t know what he’s saying” we said unconvincingly as we pulled him away.

When he was a kid we were in the supermarket and a man passed wind. My brother loudly exclaimed “Oh yuck, that man has blowed off”. My mum told him not to say that. He replied at the top of his voice, with outraged incredulity “But he HAS blowed off, poo, it stinks”

We couldn’t really style that one out.

Related to honesty is his inability to internalise a thought and the truth coming out unintentionally. Our neighbours during my childhood were pretty unpleasant individuals. After we moved in they knocked especially to tell my parents that they hadn’t moved into their property to live next door to a disabled child.

Does anyone?

They said that my parents and I could address them, but that my brother was not to speak to them. My parents renegotiated these terms and proposed that none of us spoke to them. The problem is, if my brother sees you he speaks to you. He cannot be stopped. So after numerous incidents of my brother speaking to them whilst they angrily ignored him my mum sat him down and said “you are not to talk to Ted”. My brother asked why. Mum tried to break it down simply for him; “Because he’s nasty”. Accordingly thereafter, every single time we saw Ted my brother would shout “I am not meant to talk to you nasty old Ted”

No social constraints
My mum phoned him on his birthday this year to wish him well. He hates phones. Most probably doesn’t quite understand what the deal is. Someone’s disembodied voice emerging from a lump of plastic. He has a point, that’s just weird. Mum said happy birthday, he didn’t reply. She asked if he was having a nice day, he said a terse yes. Then she heard him hand the receiver back to his carer and say “take this away, I don’t want it”

That makes him sound unfeeling but he is actually a massive softie. One time when I phoned home and my mum tried to get him to say hello I just heard a load of banging and muffled sounds. Turns out he was trying to kiss me through the phone, perhaps assuming I must be in there somewhere. The differential between whether he is roughly discarding the receiver or warmly embracing it depends on where his mind is at the time, or how overloaded – in the old sensory department – he is feeling at that exact moment.

On Christmas Day for example, all of that wild oscillating between momentary excitement and long stretches of boredom often results in him cuddling up to me one minute and then telling me to fuck off the next. Don’t look at me. I didn’t teach him to swear. Which is a shame as that would have been great fun and a genuine honour.

Overly Literal
My brother is very literal so you have to be careful when giving him instructions, as his teacher once learned the hard way during a swimming trip.

He had his trunks on under his clothes, to make changing easier. However when they told him to go and get undressed he dutifully went to the changing room and took off everything, including his trunks. He wandered back out to the pool area stark naked except for his shoes and backpack weirdly. Maybe they don’t count as clothes to him. He then casually joined the line of kids to go swimming, like a boss.

Another time his tutor at MENCAP college was arranging a trip out one evening. They were awaiting the arrival of a minibus to collect them and as my brother was ready, the tutor suggested he look out for the bus. As the bus wasn’t there yet my brother assumed that the tutor meant he had to go and seek this bus wheresoever it might be. So he set off down a dark country lane alone until he found something resembling a bus; a bloke working on a van in his yard. He guessed that my brother was from the learning disability college and phoned them. The panicky manhunt was called off and my brother got collected from this man’s house by a police car, which he enjoyed immensely.

It’s also interesting to observe the way he processes language and understands words. When he was a kid he was quite a handful and we would often have to tell him to calm down or behave. “Behave Nicholas” my mum would say, and he would stop being naughty. So he understands the word behave right? Ish. When I recently told him to behave he snapped back at me “I AM being have!” So we’re talking more in code than anything I suppose, which is quite cool.

The unexpected
My brother’s lack of observance of norms often results in unexpected incidents.

When I was a teenager, and therefore really not up for public embarrassment of any nature, we were in the supermarket and passed an old lady in a wheelchair. Many of my brother’s friends at school were wheelchair bound and he pushed them around the playground at break time so his instinct, obviously, was to make off with this old woman.

We chased him around the aisles trying to stop him and retrieve her. When we finally caught up to him we apologised profusely to the old lady, who was actually delighted.

She said “I haven’t had a young man take me for a ride for a long time”

Lording it up
My brother can’t do much for himself; cooking, bathing, dressing. He needs 24 hour support to live. He’s kind of like a monarch, but with less taxpayer benefits. And indeed, he has copped some of the attitude too.

He will be telling us about the people at his placement, and when my mum says “Who’s that? One of your carers?” He will correct her and say “No, one of my staff”

Get you.

He goes to the toilet by himself but needs a bit of help here and there, like with wiping his bottom or pulling his pants back up properly – again, like a monarch, boom! (Is that treason? Sorry ma’am) - so sometimes he will walk out of the toilet with his trousers and pants round his ankles, point at me and bluntly say “sort my trousers out”


Upon first meeting people, carers or otherwise, he sees a chance to up the ante and will pretend he is even less able than he already is, usually asking them to feed him his dinner. When caught out, he drops the act immediately and picks up his fork like a pro. I probably just dropped him right in with Iain Duncan Smith there.

Speaking of food, he never used to know when to stop eating, or indeed what to eat. One morning when we were young, my mum woke up to the spectacle of my brother in the middle of the kitchen floor, surrounded by all of the food from the fridge and freezer. He had eaten some of everything. Even the lard.

Thankfully he has curbed his excesses in that department, but sometimes still slips. We had a roast dinner on his birthday and there were five Yorkshire Puddings left in a serving bowl. Before my mum had cleared the table he had managed to eat them all: one by one; systematically; no pauses for breath. At the end of this process he looked exhausted, and whispered to me in the most pathetic voice I have ever heard, “can I have an orange juice please?” Then a dramatic pause and an even more pathetic “please…please” When I left the room to get it he could be heard muttering “please, please…please mummy”

I shouldn’t laugh.

But then again I suppose I should, because as Matt and Trey have shown us in South Park, disabled people can and should be part of the group and the group laugh at each other’s idiosyncrasies.

Jimmy and Timmy deliver punchlines as well as sometimes being one themselves; the same as all of the boys in the show.

And that’s the thing. Worrying how to act around disabled people comes from a fear of creating offense. The trick is not to act at all. Be kind, and if something funny happens, laugh it up. It diffuses, demystifies and unites.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Urban Survival Guide: Walkers

What's this? Not another orphaned writing pitch? So sad. Let's give it a safe and secure new home here and tell it we love it like our own:

Welcome to this essential guide to surviving urban walkers. No, not walkers a la The Walking Dead or of the whiter variety in Game of Thrones – although these characters can be just as perilous should they cross your path – but the ordinary, workaday, normal kind. The ones who are just sort of wandering about the place like extras in Grand Theft Auto, getting in the way, causing chaos, obstructing the pavement, only reacting to external stimulus when you finally run them over or pull a gun on them. Ahem. So yeah, who needs cgi zombies when you have the true banality of evil readily available to you in your local streets? Get out there, spot them and if possible, use some of these tips to get them back on the right path, literally.

Phone Zombie What’s this lurching towards you? Slowly, unsteadily and on a collision course. Check their head, is it down? Check their hands, do they contain a phone like device? I am sorry to inform you that you are in the path of a Phone Zombie. Do not, under any circumstances, let them bite you. Nothing much will happen if they do, it’s just a good general rule.
Phone Zombie Action Plan: Do not move aside, that is what they want. They have abdicated responsibility for navigating their environment and are relying fully on other people’s vigilance and politeness to dive out of their path and clear the route. Hold fast, until you are almost in touching distance and then shout “LOOK UP!” before making them soil themselves and veer out of your way. Yes phone zombie, it’s not so much fun when the shoe is on the other foot now is it?

Reverse Phone Zombie No not a sex position, so stop sniggering in the back. This is in fact the inverse of the previous Phone Zombie problem, and it is in some ways much, much worse. Yes...getting stuck walking behind one *b-movie scream*. They weave from side to side, back and forth, they slow down, they speed up, every time you try to get past them they lurch in your direction of travel like some annoying heat seeking missile. Why can’t they admit their inability to multi-task and step aside for a minute? Or at the very least not opt to shakily inhabit the exact middle of the pavement? We will never know; such are the mysterious depths of their twattery.
Reverse Phone Zombie Action Plan: As tempting as it is to deliver a boot to their bottom, one must not stoop to conquer. Their lack of peripheral vision means that any attempt to get around them will be unsuccessful; without sound that is. So as with the original Phone Zombie, go in close, and deliver a bellowing “EXCUSE ME” directly into their ear. If you’re feeling bold, try to leap frog over them.

Duracell Advert Bunny Not technically a walker, although they once were, and will soon be again. But at this moment they occupy a curious limbo. Still in the midst of the pavement traffic but stock still, head down, checking their phone (what else?), giving off the impression – particularly when viewed from behind – that they are have run out of batteries. Yes, this Duracell advert bunny has the competitors product lodged up its bum and has ceased to function, becoming a living roadblock.
Duracell Advert Bunny Action Plan: Fight fire with fire. Stop right next to them. Stand uncomfortably close. Then look at their phone as if to say “What’s all this then? What’s this thing that’s interesting enough to justify causing all this disruption? Hmm? I MUST SEE!” They will soon move along.

The Usurper Usually found in the busy streets of cities and metropolises, these guys aren’t walking, they are full on marching and if you are in their path, woe betide you. Actually even if you’re not in their path, woe also betide you, because as their name suggests, the whole pavement is theirs and they are not afraid to kick you out of your bit. They weave in and out of people, huffing, puffing, shoulder barging. They have to get to their business meeting. They are important. They change trajectory at the drop of a hat. Any space that opens up, they’re in. And any space that is still occupied but they want, they’re in. They see you, coming towards them in the other direction and they decide they want to be where you are. Before you know it, they have switched lanes and are barrelling towards you like the boulder in Indiana Jones. What to do?
The Usurper Action Plan: Like Braveheart Mel Gibson before you, stand firm and shout “HOLD….HOLD….HOOOOOOLD” This will sufficiently freak them out and force them out of your orbit. If they keep coming, produce an umbrella, extend in front of you and open.

The Great Ape The most feared predator of our densely packed rush hour streets, it’s the (unfortunately not endangered) Great Ape. Swinging their arms like a goose stepping bonobo chimp, they slap silly anyone who walks near or by them, ensuring themselves a cheeky exclusion zone in otherwise crowded circumstances. The more ruthless ones swing not only their arms, but a bonus golf umbrella, raising the stakes from slapping to impaling for anyone who wants to walk within a four foot radius of them.
The Great Ape Action Plan: It is tempting to just duck and cover, but that is avoidance not action, so brace yourself, we’re going in. Get as close as you can without getting clobbered, wait until the arm comes down to their waist level – before they can get the momentum for the upswing – then grab their hand and swing with them, start skipping and pulling them along with you, singing all the way. Where the umbrella wielding ones are concerned, get within safe distance behind them, then grab the brolly as it reaches the maximum radius, stopping them and dragging them back so that you can nip in and get past.

Love’s Young Dream Picture the scene; a narrow pavement, room enough for one person comfortably, two at a pinch. You are walking along and then on the horizon you see...a couple, holding hands. Love’s Young Dream. You hope they will do the right thing, drop back and go in single file past you, but you know that never happens. They are always too enamoured of each other to let go for even a moment. THEIR LOVE IS TOO STRONG TO BE CAST ASUNDER...for two seconds. No, they will continue holding hands and taking up the full space quota of this narrow path, and you can just go in the gutter. Obviously.
Love’s Young Dream Action Plan: You could certainly recycle The Usurper Action Plan here but if you are feeling a little more fruity then how about this for an idea? If you are male exclaim to the woman half of the couple “I can’t believe this, you said you loved me!” If you are female, exclaim the very same to the male half of the couple. Then squeeze past whilst they break hands and squabble.

That's the guide. Go forth and survive.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Public Transport Idiot Bingo

Hey look, it's another article that didn't get to print. So let's dump it here in my writing graveyard / blog (note: need to work on selling it):

Public Transport Idiot Bingo

It’s costly, it’s crowded, it devours your time like some sort of mythical beast that eats…time; yes, it can only be commuting.

That daily trudge back and forth to a destination we don’t even want to end up at. A quick peruse of the Metro, peppered with the occasional existential realisation that our lives are being devoured by pure mundanity, then maybe a cheeky Sudoku.

So given that this is the time and place where we are all at our collective lowest ebb, it’s hard to imagine that we would want to make it harder for each other by being dicks isn’t it?

And yet…

The only way to survive is to turn the grind into a game. Namely, Public Transport Idiot Bingo.

That way, the next time you have an elbow in your ribs, or an armpit in your face, instead of a little bit of you dying inside, you can jump up and shout ‘house!’ instead.

See how many of these specimens you can tick off in one journey. You will probably win every day.

The Phone People Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way early. The phone people. With their phones. We’ve all sat next to Phoney McPhonerson. Yapping their drivel, in their best loud voice. The conversation is never necessary and in all cases could certainly wait. Forever. Their words drill into your skull. You start the same sentence of your book over and over. Nope, it still hasn’t gone in. You eventually give up and stare out of the window, all hope of useful pursuits crushed. Your journey becomes dead time. Cue the second existential crisis of the day. Award yourself a bonus point if you spot one of these varmints in the quiet zone. Award yourself extra, extra bonus points if you get up the courage to tut at them. The highest level of recourse available to the commuter.

The Old Phone People Old people with mobile phones. Now this brings with it a different but equally awful set of problems to the ones invoked by the regular Phone People. The conversations are not really an issue. Usually lasting the ten seconds it takes to tell their spouse they are on the train and should arrive in twenty minutes. No, with them, it is their phone settings that cause the issues. The keypad tones. The wretched keypad tones, that we thought all of humanity had mutually agreed to switch off; always on. The awful sound of them texting, slowly, for ages. Forget water torture. Put them in with the prisoner. They’ll be singing like a canary within minutes. And the ringer volume. Always set at the top level. Eardrum destruct level. A problem they compound by taking eons to extract their ringing phone from the bottom of their bag. Tick them off your game card and then move carriages for your own sanity.

The Loud Talkers I’m not even talking quiet zone loud talkers here. They go without saying. No pun intended. No, I am talking talker talkers. Obnoxious talkers. Good luck hearing yourself think when these guys hop on board. They are performing their conversation for the carriage. They keep looking around, all pleased with themselves for being the life and soul of this dull commuter train. They think they are a great wit. They think you want to hear these gems. They are bang wrong. This species of commuter is usually found later at night – the result of some post-work drinks – but do not let your guard down, they can be a rush hour occurrence too. Which brings us neatly to our next category…

The Non-Commuters The non-commuter on the rush hour service. Christ. They stick out a mile. They don’t know the rules. Spoken or unspoken. They destroy the equilibrium. Upset the fragile ecosystem. They must be stopped. They will pretty much always be in civvies, some will have luggage, some will have kids in tow, but ultimately it is their behaviours that betray them. They don’t know where to stand. They get in the way. They have loud, jolly conversations. They laugh. Laugh? This is no place for laughter. They do not push the door release button when they are right next to it and therefore very much in charge of it. But most of all, they increase the already fierce competition for space and seats. Something the daily commuter is already very on edge about. It’s bad enough competing with your fellow pros who know the protocols. These bumbling amateurs are a curve ball too far on a rainy Monday morning.

The Headphone Wearers You board the train and the carriage seems fine. Normal enough. Nice and quiet. Yes, I will do well here, you dare to think. Next stop and more people get on. Nobody boarding is displaying any obvious twattery. No phones to ears, no loud mouths. But the wave of relief doesn’t last long. What’s that faint sound? It’s getting closer. Ah, it’s the person seating themselves next to you and the tinny sound of their bad music choices. On a par with old people keypad tones, this constant niggle will drive you to despair all the way to your destination. Bonus points if you are wearing headphones and can still hear their music over your own.

The Couple Couples that commute together. It should be a thing of beauty. A shard of humanity in this bleak commuter wilderness. But let’s face it. It’s just annoying. Talking, giggling, holding hands and then sauntering along as though it’s a seaside holiday rather than the busy rush hour concourse at London Waterloo. Almost as bad as non-commuters. In fact maybe worse. You’re meant to be one of us guys. You should know better! Bonus points if you spot a couple who have clearly had a domestic before boarding the train and are still subtly sniping.

The Bag People With train ticket prices soaring and salaries stagnating, the several thousand pounds you forked out on your travel pass is bad enough. But wait, hark, what is that I hear approaching? It’s the Bag People. Here to add insult to injury by demanding the seat you more than paid for, to accommodate their backpack, briefcase, satchel or – worst of all – oversized handbag. Feigning a complete lack of peripheral vision as people board at each stop and the train gets more and more packed, they hold on to their ill-gotten second seat for as long as possible. Like a troll overseeing a fairy tale bridge, you must engage them to be allowed to pass. The toll? A snarky look, a woe is me sigh, a pantomime display of effort when moving the offending object to its rightful place of either baggage rack or floor. Speaking of the floor, bonus points if you spot a Bag Person who is trying to render the seat opposite them uninhabitable by placing their load in the space in front of their feet.

The Aisle Seat Hog A distant relative of the Bag People, the Aisle Seat Hogs have taken the baggage on the aisle seat format and upped the ante; yeah, human on the aisle seat baby, much harder to displace. These sly dogs rely on a combination of camouflage – if there is someone sitting in the aisle seat, then the window seat is surely taken, people think as they pass by without looking properly – and the abuse of our good old British politeness – Asking someone to move? Inconveniencing them slightly? For shame. Like their covetous counterparts, they will move if asked, and usually with the same degree of magnanimity i.e. nil. Their attachment to the aisle seat means they will only permit you the window, as a result, you will sometimes be forced to ask them to let you back out at your stop. The classic aisle hog will not get up for a second time and will only turn slightly in their seat, forcing you to rub your bum in their face. Maybe that is their sick little end game.

The Laptoppers Tappy tappy tap tap tappy tap tap tappy tap tappy tappy tap tappy tap tappy. Tap….tappy tappy tappy tap tap tap…..tap tappy tap. Tap….tap. The classic, and excruciating, sounds there of the common Laptopper. They board the train with a latte and a look on their face that says ‘I am always on duty…business duty’ Out comes the laptop and then starts the tap, rap, click and clack of their morning emails. To ensure that everyone thinks they are an extremely important hot shot, the Laptopper types in the style of someone trying to hack into the mainframe in a 1980s movie. Their try-hard ways tell you they are definitely a mediocre middle manager and nothing is actually at stake here. Which makes their torturous piercing of the otherwise unbroken train silence that little bit more insufferable. A distant relation of the Blackberry user, whose subtle taps and clicks are less annoying by contrast but still torturous over a protracted period. Save it for the office people.

The Space Invaders Help, help, we’re being invaded! By people with no spatial awareness! *Looks to camera* *Screams* They edge you out of your own seat, until you are clinging on by half a bum cheek. They stare ahead whilst doing it. Pretending you don’t exist. You start to see how Bruce Willis didn’t know he was dead. Sorry, spoilers. The businessman who wants to sit legs fully akimbo and will need half of your seat to so do, thank you very much. The person opposite edging their feet ever forward into your leg space until your knees are bent backwards under your seat and you are starting to develop DVT. The woman who insists on keeping her handbag on her shoulder, and lodges it into your rib cage as she takes her seat next to you. Resist them if you can. Nudge back. Flinch. Stretch. Employ the commuter death stare. They will consume you completely if you let them.

The Feet on Seatsers A typically off peak occurrence – although some are bold enough to try it in rush hour, if circumstances permit – it’s the Feet on Seatsers, with their dirty feet all over the, now dirty, seats. These languorous types like to make themselves nice and comfy. They’re not even trying to protect a seat like the Bag People or the Aisle Seat Hogs. No, they just want to put their feet up and simply cannot wait to do it somewhere more appropriate. Often found wearing an expression that seems to say, ‘I’m not like you squares, I mean look at me, I’m like a cool rapper or something’, their smugness is sometimes much worse than the original infraction. Bonus points if you see one getting told off by a train guard or an old lady and immediately sitting up straight and behaving. Rebels without any balls.

The Beauty Queens These ones sneak up on you. One minute they’re a normal commuter. The next, they are a fully licenced mobile beauty parlour. There is no way of spotting a Beauty Queen until they produce the dreaded make-up bag and by then it’s too late. Once that bad boy has been unleashed, you know what’s coming next, and there’s nothing capable of stopping it. These girls mean business. They are willing to risk poking their own eye out with a mascara wand should the train hit a bump. And so it begins. Flailing arms, elbow pokes, fidget, fidget, fidget, put one item away, get out another, put one implement down, pick up another. Your field of vision is full of their annoying twitchy movements. They are the human equivalent of strobe lighting. Epileptics, avert your eyes! Then after half an hour of this silent ruckus, they look pretty much the same, and you’re covered in their excess powder.

The Coughers Mostly seen in the winter months, this is a classic commuter breed. Here they come, entering a confined space of all places, hacking their guts up, and instantly infecting half a dozen others, like some sort of low rent zombie apocalypse movie. Go for the head! It’s their weak spot. Ok, this isn’t completely fair. People can’t help having a cough. People will sometimes have coughs. We should probably pity them a bit. Going to work poorly. Let’s start over and direct this ire where it truly belongs; with the No Hands Coughers. Born in a barn, with nobody to teach them coughing etiquette, they don’t even seem a tiny bit inclined to raise their hand to their stupid mouth when the spluttering begins. Moi? Cover my mouth? But that would involve moving my hands. And I am currently using both to hold this riveting Metro. So you will all just have to get a face full of my spit, germs and bad breath. Not even sorry.

The Eaters And finally, The Eaters, or rather the smelly eaters. The ones who think it’s a good idea to visit the Cornish Pasty Company before boarding a sealed capsule. The grease, the pong, the detritus, the humanity. If you are on a long journey then ok, a modest meal may be in order, but we are talking commuter trains here. If your journey is under two hours, have a Twix and wait nicely for you tea. Of course the light snacker is not entirely innocent. Filling the air with the crinkle, crack, crinkle, crack of a roughly handled crisp packet. Food should be seen but not heard.

So that's the game card. Match them all to win the game but lose in real life.