… into a lock-down cock-up!

My new wheelchair developed a fault. The manufacturer insisted on checking it — in Poland — and after months of hesitation I shipped it there, just in time for Europe to shut down. Now my old chair, after serving me well for fifteen years, is on its last ‘legs’. What’s a poor boy to do?

Johnny Sombrero’s Mustang

Soon after taking delivery of my new GTM Mustang wheelchair, at the beginning of 2019, I noticed that the right-hand front caster was spinning idly above the ground. Just a mil or so and, with me aboard, the problem went away. However, since I feel that having all four wheels touching the ground is not much to ask, I asked (dealer) Cyclone Mobility to investigate. The managing director’s swift reaction was, “We’ll pick the chair up and have a new one made.”

They did indeed pick it up but, a day later, mysteriously pronounced it fixed and sent it straight back. It wasn’t long before the problem reappeared. An engineer came out and fitted some washers but that also proved a temporary solution. Eventually Cyclone got in touch with Warsaw-based GTM Mobil to arrange a replacement frame, but they wanted to look at it first, in Poland.

I couldn’t understand why they could not accept the video evidence I had supplied, clearly indicating the problem. Why would they need it before making a replacement? Did they intend to put it back in the jig and twist it back into shape? Would that guarantee a lifetime of stress-free stability? I didn’t get it.

IMG-20190419-WA0000

A fetching rear view, with power source fitted.

Over the next six months my relationship with Cyclone became strained. They took ages to respond to my enquiries and, rather than representing a dissatisfied customer against a supplier who was at fault, the MD  saw himself as a “man-in-the-middle” who should not take sides. A wheelchair user himself, he didn’t appear to ‘get’ how removing my primary mode of mobility would affect my life. He knew why I had ordered the chair in the first place.

After several false starts and, as we now know, with impeccable timing, I let it go. That very evening, sitting on the sofa with my old chair to one side, i discovered that one of the forks was twisted. Panicking, I grabbed the phone and sent Cyclone an email expressing my frustration, threatening legal action and God knows what else, if they didn’t send it right back. It wasn’t, I admit, my finest hour — I should at least have slept on it. And as Linda pointed out to me, several times, I shouldn’t have let it go at all.

Cyclone responded in a rather hurt manner and I found myself calling to apologise for my outburst. We agreed it should go after all and the MD promised that GTM would give it priority. Last I heard, GTM was running a skeleton operation in Warsaw, no doubt prioritising social-distancing instead of fixing my goddamm chair.

Will I ever see it again? Did I mention it cost two-and-a-half grand? Will GTM and/or Cyclone survive the shutdown? When will my old chair finally collapse? Will Johnny be reduced to bum-shuffling round Sombrero Towers like a street cripple?

Oddly, he is remarkably sanguine about that distinct possibility. After 35 years of this bollox, t’is but a small step. So to speak. Bit I don’t think much of the customer service.

 

…To Dublin!

Ireland’s capital is navigable, accessible, and it’s true what they say about the locals. Johnny almost felt guilty that they got trounced in the Six Nations.

That’s the Guinness Six Nations rugby tournament. The black stuff featured large during our weekend break, so much so that Juanita and I ended up watching the crunch England v Ireland match over a cup of tea in the hotel lobby.

My goodness, it’s …!

The first taste came during our tour of the Guinness Storehouse at St James Gate. Having declined all the added extras — the personalised beer glasses, your selfie tantalisingly dribbled onto the white head — we made our way up the impressive circular tower while learning, via the obligatory son et lumière, how the stout is made. The humans who did talk to us knew their stuff but, when it came to tasting it, I took exception to some teenager’s encouragement to ‘gulp, don’t sip’. Well derr.

We did get a ‘free’ pint at the circular Gravity Bar, though. That was lovely.

It wasn’t just me Officer.

Booze turned out to be an important feature of our visit. Access, apart from the flights (see below) was not. Buy a Leap card at the Airport Spar for big, big savings on buses and trams. Perhaps I should have brought my Freewheel to deal with the cobbles of Temple Bar, wherein it took us several visits to find the eponymous watering hole. Every damn one of them seems to be called Temple Bar.

Anyway, back to the drinking. With the yeasty goodness of Guinness still on the sides of my tongue, at the TB I favoured a double Jamesons on ice with (an inspired move, this) a glass of water on the side. All the taste, none of the headaches.

The best pub we visited surely was the Doheny & Nesbitt on Baggot Street, where we joined a rowdy croud about to enjoy France v Wales. It’s the people, so it is. Just a couple of pints there.

The Gravity Bar — I think

Spread over four days this consumption doesn’t add up to much, I know, but I’m an old man trying like hell to avoid a hangover. These days, one of those would write off half the vsit.

And it wasn’t all drink, nossir! We did galleries and museums, and saw two shows; Blood Brothers at the striking Bord Gais theatre in the Docklands area and The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the famous Gaiety on South King Street. The two plays couldn’t have been more different but, faced with a choice, I’d go for the dark, dark humour of the latter. Love that dismemberment scene.

We overheard lots of languages, including a fair bit of Gaelic, and met some friendly folk. The staff at our hotel, the Maldron on Pearse Street, couldn’t have been more helpful. Aer Lingus, on the other hand, perhaps should. I had to fight my case for an accessible seat and on both sectors, despite waiting patiently to disembark after everyone else, they took ages to locate my chair. Just like in the 80s.

Do you go past Temple Bar mister?

… To Amsterdam!

Just because a place is flat doesn’t make it accessible! Certainly the landscape in The Netherlands is a help but the bars (and there are some great bars) and restaurants, typically, are up at least one bi-i-g step. It got to the point where, patience exhausted after four days, we chose our final venue based entirely on its level entrance.

Adam and I took the excellent Eurostar to Brussels and a Thalys train on to Amsterdam. There’s an Ibis Hotel close to the central station and we had booked an accessible twin room. The chair-lift from Reception to the restaurant was broken (we had been warned but you have to wonder for how long it had been u/s) but there were plenty of better breakfast options in the station concourse.

That evening, for some reason, we drifted off towards the Anne Frank museum. These days it’s quite an operation and you have to book slots to visit weeks in advance (but some tickets are made available on the day). Even at 5pm there was a queue. As expected it was not accessible but a friend had recommended the adjacent pancake shop, which is. Here is a photograph of our meal, including Adam’s disgusting reconstructed tea. You’re welcome.

Maritime Museum

November weather became a factor on Day 2 and we had to postpone our planned bike ride into the countryside. Instead we headed through the rain to the Maritime Museum, which shows some excellent art, models and artefacts — many from wars against the verdoemde English. There’s a fantastic golden Royal Barge and a full-size replica of a Dutch East-Indiaman is defo worth a visit, if only to experience a short but thrilling VR ride around the 18th century ships and harbour. This was my first such experience and I whooped like a kid. Clearly Millennial Adam had seen it all before.

Tally ho!

As forecast, the next day was sunny and clear and we took off to Starbikes to collect our trike. The electric-assist contraption had a wheelchair platform up-front, to which I was strapped like a Christmas mailbag, and Adam did all the donkey-work from behind. We headed off for the free ferry and then into the hinterland. For me it was eye-wateringly cold but a lined cover — the local equivalent of a tartan blanket — kept me poor old knees warm at least.

After a couple of hours’ steady pedaling alongside canals, past sombre fishermen and over the odd bridge (we had to take a run at these), we reached Zaanse Shans and a display of five, count’em five traditional windmills. A bit of a tourist trap, I felt, but perhaps we didn’t give it a chance. We were desperate to get back to town before we lost the sun’s warmth, so there was just time for lunch. Great pea soup mit Spek!

For Monday, Adam had booked a slot for a Rembrandt v Velazquez MMA grudge match at the Rijksmuseum, so we shlepped off there under lowering clouds. We had planned to visit the FOAM museum of photography en route but, frustratingly, that was inaccessible too. However the main event lived up to expectations; it’s a bit of a maze but the art on show is wonderful. Afterwards we caught the No.12 tram back to the station; a fold-out ramp was available but I had to ask the conductor for it (locals clearly manage without).

On our last day we made a rather fruitless side-trip by train to Haarlem. We had booked help but turned up late and were scolded by both the lady in the ticket office and the chap holding the ramp.

The excellent Sharrebier

From the bars we stumbled upon during our stay, only the Cafe Sharrebier was accessible. Luckily, it also has a fine range of beers (each with its own glass, apparently). We also ate well but only the more formal De Kroonprins, our final destination, boasted a step-free experience. Other level-access venues may, or may not, be available.

… on an exercise bike!

I’ve let things slip. I acknowledge that. From walking everywhere on two sticks to struggling around the car with elbow crutches (currently seeking a car with the petrol cap on the driver’s side), the insidious process of weakening has taken many years. And the less I have used my semi-paralysed legs, the weaker they have become.

It’s partially to do with getting older. If during my early decades of disability I lost my balance and fell over, it was a straightforward manoeuvre to regain the vertical using my wrists and arms. But one day (forgive me for not making note of the date) I must have either bruised my bum or needed help to get back up. So the next time I walked, I would manage the risk. And over the months and years — you get the drift.

It is mainly down to laziness, however. The less hung-up I became about using a wheelchair, the more convenient it became. I still hate having to use it, just not all the time. I still try to keep fit but the exercise — mostly hand-cycling — is confined to my upper body. And now I’m in my 60s, even those bits are showing wear and tear. Since I know that my glutes and quads still work, I must now help them contribute to what’s left of my mobility.

I rock this joint.

So the other day I bought this mofo. Got a good price on GumTree — 2nd-hand fitness equipment is a buyer’s market — and jammed it into the office in place of the unused scuba kit and several guitars. Climbing aboard is still a two-man job but, once there, I can make it work. I use the minimum setting but will soon ramp up the volume “Ramp up the Volume” to a gentle incline. And after that? My only enemy is a total absence of staying power.

Being a modern machine, I not only get read-outs of time, speed and distance but also, now and again, motivational messages like ‘You Rock’ and ‘Awsome Dude’. That’s all the encouragement I need. Man.

… To dog agility training!

When it’s August, and half the family is away in Canada and it’s just you and the dog, and you need to get off the ranch but your regular walks are kinda crowded with other people, well watcha gonna do?

Well Sombrero, you could start by being a bit more bloody sociable. But that said …

Armed with his ball and a pocket full of kibble, Ludo and I made our way to an isolated field in darkest West Sussex, where Tania Chapelle introduced me and the critter to a canine assault course of jumps, see-saws and plastic bendy tunnels, just like the ones at Crufts. I had booked a one-to-one session with Tania’s Dogs First training school.

We walked the course and then, using liberal quantities of food, bribed the mutt into jumping a jump, scaling an obstacle and finally running through a tunnel. There was more to it than that of course and Ludo took a while to get with the programme, but his endless enthusiasm — not to say appetite — won the day.

Not Ludo

All I wanted to do was wear the bloody animal out, and that certainly worked, but we discovered he was quick to learn too. I also learned, how to guide him around the course, how to manoeuvre the wheelchair to block his exit around each obstacle, and to scatter food to good effect.

Team Ludo has since graduated from food to tennis ball and is currently competing for a place in a group class. Tania has asked the farmer to put the roller over the course, to make it easier for me to do my bit.

A number of sponsorship opportunities are still available. Sombrero knows a business opportunity when he sees one.

… To Highclere for the Battle Proms

No sign of the Downtons?

Just us and 9,000 Brexiteers, up for an evening of popular classics and fireworks at ‘Downton Abbey’ near Newbury. We were also treated to a stirring flying display from a Spitfire, some Napoleonic Wars re-enactors who we couldn’t see and a vertical arrival by the Parachute Regiment’s display team (of which more later).

It was a beautiful location, if a wee bit flat for ground-level displays such as the Light Horse. We could make out the stage but the TV screen was only big enough to help the compere and soloists stand out. Ryan bought us a package that included a pretty decent catering box. I don’t know how long we’ve had the Honda but this was the first time we remembered to use the picnic table from the boot. Incidentally, this feature is in keeping with the official amplification of the CRV marque as ‘Comfortable Runabout Vehicle’, which isn’t quite as ‘off-road’ as I would like, Had I known this at time of purchase …

Cheers Ryan!

Many of the audience put far more effort into their participation than did we. As well as many flags and hats, and flags-in-hats, groups of friends could be identified by Glasto-style flagpoles, chandeliers or a game of giant Jenga. And when the fireworks weren’t popping, as they say, the champagne corks were.

It was a grand day out. Oh, now that I am officially an OAP, I’d like to end by paying tribute to whoever set up the traffic plan. We stayed until the anthem and yet, as we exited the park, I don’t believe we rolled to a stop once. Very slick, we even filtered in turn like in Jersey. Well done that man. Or woman! You never know these days …!

PS. Many years ago my showbiz pal Noel Edmonds and I organised a set of helicopter air shows known as Helifest. Having called in all my operator favours for the flying display, in desperation I widened its scope to include the Red Devils parachute team (for it was they). The soldier who dealt with my enquiry revealed, rather nervously, that the Army had told them henceforth to charge for each appearance (until then they had been funded by its recruitment budget). I asked how much and he said, £1,000 (I forget the actual sum). In shock I shrieked “£1,000 POUNDS?” and he immediately retorted, “Oh, OK then, free!”

I have never felt more proud of my negotiating skills.

… The SmartDrive (update)

I’m glad I invested in this kit. It gets me up slopes, it helps me walk the dog and keep up with grown-ups. It’s reliable and the lithium battery lasts long enough for me (the Bluetooth wristband controller, without which the whole thing is dead-weight, does not). The only real problem is, the thing has a life of its own.

My home is surrounded by a path of fake york-stone flags, laid when I were a lad and a lot more mobile. Most times I negotiate these safely but, every so often, I time it wrong and bounce off an edge. It’s the same with kerbs and unexpected stones. The front castors stop abruptly and so do I. But no matter the obstacle, unless you stop it by tapping the wristband, the SmartDrive will power on at the selected speed. It will soon overcome the clamp and push itself through the vertical to cut out in a facing forward position.

And then, basically, you’re shafted. The only way to reset the device, back to the facing aft condition, is to get out of the chair. If there’s a seat nearby it’s a 30-second job but if not, all you can do is shuffle your sorry ass to the ground. It takes but a moment to reset but then, of course, you have to get back in the chair, a manoeuvre that I find increasingly difficult in me old age.

Dramatic reconstruction

If you spend your life cruising through airport terminals and exhibition halls, you have nothing to worry about. But if you live in the real world, this can be a real issue. You need to keep the clamp tight but there is a limit to the torque you can apply with the Allen key supplied.

This condition can be avoided by coupling a FreeWheel to the front of the chair. It lifts the front casters off the ground and makes life, with and without a SmartDrive, a lot smoother. Leaning backwards helps as well.

Finally, it’s a good idea to turn the device off when you don’t need it. Several times I have patted the dog and immediately run him over.

… The SmartDrive MX2+

This battery-powered clip-on doo-hicky may not extend your mobility horizons, but it should make your existing ones easier to handle.

I have been struggling up the uneven slope to my office lately, and searching for a little oomph to avoid my shoulders becoming any more knackered thatn they already are. The choice was between a hand-bike attachment at the front of my wheelchair and a SmartDrive underneath.

This kit from Cyclone Mobility mounts to the chair front

The former option — several makes are on the market — effectively upgrades the chair into an electric trike. Another term for it could be mobility scooter. I make the comparison only because your hands move from the push-rims to handlebars and all the power then comes from the front wheel. You just steer it. I once tried out my Dad’s mobility scooter and froze half to death after half an hour excercising only my right thumb. That said, the combo does look and perform much better than a scooter. It also lifts the front castors of the ground so you can try it out OFF ROAD!

With a SmartDrive, your hands must stay in contact with the wheels, if only because the thing will push when you start it and only stop when you tell it to. If you come up against a stone or tree-root and fail to avoid it, stop or lift the front castors manually, it will keep on pushing until, in a worst-case secanario, it tips you onto the ground and runs you over. Your own chair. Oh the indignity. But at least the blood keeps flowing around (and potentially out of) the body.

Safely at the office door

You control a SmartDrive through a Fitbit-style wristband with a Bluetooth connection. This feaures an accelerometer that reacts to taps on the push rim. Two taps to go, one to stop accelerating and two more to stop. After a couple of near disasters pushing/driving up my uneven slope, I have the hang of it. It helps if you (counterintuitively) lean backwards. I will now trial it at the local beauty spot where I exercise the dog; if that works, which it should, everything else will be a bonus.

I will also use it in conjunction with my FreeWheel, which will get round the castor problem. That should make for quite a nifty combo. More later.

… to the Amalfi Coast.

The Vertical Coast, more like. L arranged this trip and, if I had seen in advance photos of towns like Positano, Maiori or (our base) Minori, I would have whinged like a sailor denied shore leave in Rio. Our flights were to Naples so I thought I had only Visuvius to worry about.

Imagine my surprise, then, as the autostrada dipped down between two cliffs and transformed itself into the first of numerous hairpin bends. Truth be told, it was somewhat hilly. How hilly was it? It was so hilly that, whenever the Croche Rossa ambulance sped past our hotel, sirens blaring, we would get the Doppler effect two or three times as it zig-zagged up or down the main street. In fact it wasn’t hilly at all. It was edge-of-the-cliffy.

This gangway was a tight squeeze for the chair

But we managed, as always. Our hotel had a decent accessible room. The boats linking many of the neighbouring towns were do-able, if you were prepared to be manhandled up and down the gangways. Many of the restaurants have outside seating at street level. Most of the village piazzas are at least on the level. And of course for every uphill, there’s a downhill.

Just don’t expect much in the way of lifts, ramps or loos. We depended on taxis for every journey, and even then they insisted on sending vans. Easy for the wheelchair, not so much for Andy. Linda’s informal scouting revealed two, count’em two, accessible loos along the entire coastline — one in Ravello (doubling as a storeroom) and another up several steep steps at the Blue Bar on Positano beach. As for ramps, the Villa Rufalo in Ravello boasts the steepest, longest one I have ever been expected to negotiate. Definitely a group effort required but, if you can muster the support, the gardens and the views are stunning.

A whole ‘nother challenge in Ravello

We ate well. Most meals started with an amuse-bouche, the food revolved around seafood and lemons, the coffee was wonderful and, to finish with, there was often a free tot of home-made limoncello. Orchards lined every road, many protected by netting and some of that, so we were told, concealing illegal building projects.

We were about 90 minutes from Pompeii and that is a sight to behold. Our visit concentrated on the structure of Roman society and the precarious nature of one’s position as patrician, pleb or what-not. Our guide led us from the Coliseum entrance, avoiding the smutty mosaics that had been the focus of my first visit, back in the day. We got in free, by the way.

Traffic calming, Roman style

So I guess the point of this entry is to encourage any fellow wheelchair user who might feel intimidated by the obvious obstacles lying in wait along this dramatic coast, to have no fear. We spend our entire bloody lives improvising so it would be a shame not to take it up just one more notch, if you want to experience some of the most spettacolare scenery Europe has to offer.