SEVEN WORDS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

Ten weeks after breaking my neck I was lying in a hospital bed — paralysed from the shoulders down — propped up on pillows and trying to write. My legs were dead and my arms had limited movement. I could no longer wiggle my fingers. My hands were useless, so I threaded a fibre-tipped pen under my index finger, over the two middle fingers and under the little finger, thus locking it in place. It was my first writing experiment. In front of me was a sheet of A4 paper resting on a book. I put my other hand on the edge of the paper so that it wouldn’t move and then scrawled the words: NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS, HERE’S THE LETTER. It looked as though a spider had emerged from an inkwell and crawled across the page. Happy with my efforts I signed it. A nurse folded the letter up, put it in an envelope and sent it off to my friend Allan. I had never felt more satisfied in all my life. Scrawling those few words was probably my greatest achievement, ever. It proved that with perseverance and determination I could overcome my injury and do spectacular things — things that I once thought impossible. Suddenly a new world stretched before me. I wasn’t a hopeless cripple at all. I was just severely injured and had to make the best of a bad job, concentrate on the things I could do and not the things I couldn’t. Don’t look back. Look forward at all times. Forget my past life. It was now irrelevant. From the moment I wrote those words, that simple but divine moment, I knew my life ahead would be an adventure.

In the occupational therapy room, I learned to use an electric typewriter. I was able to depress the keys with rubber tipped dowels attached to leather straps which wrapped around my hands and tightened with Velcro. This opened up a new world. Every day I would go into the occupational therapy room and type 500 or more words. It was slow going at first but I gradually got used to it. Over time I learned to type quickly, like a hack newspaper journalist using his index fingers. I kept the pages in a folder but somehow, over the years, the folder was lost. It would have been fascinating to look back and read my thoughts in those early months as I recovered from my injury. I once heard a specialist spinal consultant — Doctor Frankel —say that it was one of the most devastating injuries that man could sustain and survive. He was right. Luckily I had not damaged my brain. I had my faculties, my spirit, my determination and my ambition to achieve the unachievable — at least push myself to the limit.

I left the spinal unit six months after my injury (I was injured in June and left in December). I would never walk again, never use my fingers or hands and my arm movements were reasonable but limited. I had no sensation from the nipples down. I still haven’t grown used to the cut-off line between feeling and numbness. Strange how the loss of sensation is so sudden across my chest and yet so gradual down my back. It feels horrible.

Who would believe that I am now able to paint, write, draw (I thank David Hockney for this. Saw him in a biographical documentary about art. The journalists interviewing him asked why he kept doodling. Hockney replied that he wasn’t born an artist … he had to work at it every day). I found his comment very inspiring. From that day I began to draw. Gradually, over time, my drawing skills increased. To this day I can look at an object or face and draw it accurately. As I began my recovery from my injury in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the future looked bleak until I wrote those few words. They literally changed my life. I had made the impossible possible.