… with a new bedroll

The Unstoppable gearbag clips to the rear rail of a wheelchair for hands-free carriage. It is not only hugely practical but possibly the first bit of kit ever designed for the disabled community that actually looks cool. Consisting of an 87 litre capacity main bag and a 31 litre back pack, the two fasten together for towing behind the chair or, if required, separate for check-in and carry-on baggage.

Unstoppable_1Designed in the UK by Andrew Slorance, the Unstoppable also features a nifty set of wheels that turn in two axes, allowing the user to spin as well as roll. It doesn’t affect balance in the chair so you can cop a wheely up a kerb as usual. The zips and materials look pretty hard-wearing too so we shall see how they behave during next month’s Far East trip. While the wheelchair clip appears tough as well, it protrudes and so appears more likely to be vulnerable to the tender ministrations of the world’s airport baggage handlers. If damaged, the component is simple to replace.

Zips, straps, handles and clips abound on the Unstoppable in fact, so much so that Andrew thoughtfully places stickers next to the ones you need to fasten the bags together. Another zip at the top allows access to the main bag while it is attached to the wheelchair, if say you feel the need to panic-stow your liquids at check in. There’s a telescopic handle too, for the use of a companion.

20170913_172723The Unstoppable costs £289. If you’re a regular traveller, Johnny doesn’t even think that’s overpriced.

Which makes a change.

… tall in the saddle

Johnny has experienced something of a breakthrough in terms of pain control. A disagreeable feature of his life since becoming paraplegic, he has finally dealt with its nastiest manifestation simply through paying more attention to his posture.

Decades mostly spent sitting in a chair doesn’t do a cowboy any good. I heard talk of the ‘becoming wheelchair-shaped’ phenomenon but assumed that applied to one’s lateral, dog-legged position. To mitigate that tendency I still get vertical (or horizontal) as often as possible. But over the years one also tends to slump downwards, into the cushion, and that generates curvature of the spine and compression on nerves — such as the sciatic one.

As a result for many years I have suffered from acute sciatica, a condition familiar to many but, in my case the resultant pain was distorted by the Spinal Cord Injury into a throbbing bitch of a thing, radiating down the back of my leg and foot that would routinely continue, without relief, for three days and nights at a time.

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Thanks to the OU Disabled Students Allowance scheme

In the search for relief I subjected myself to several nerve block injections, various powerful drugs including opioids, and a make-or-break operation on my spine that, er, broke. After attending a two-week pain management course at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, I was that close to having a modulating device (like a pacemaker) inserted in my arse. It was a last throw of the dice. Over last winter, I have to admit, life was getting pretty desperate.

However at about the same time I acquired, through the #OpenUniversity God bless-em, an orthopædically-designed office chair (together with other kit visible in the headline photo) to help me in my degree studies. It took some months for it to have an effect (and for the Son of Satan to knaw through most of the adjustment cables) but by April I realised it had disappeared and I was living through a whole six weeks completely pain-free. That was a huge deal; it hadn’t happened since 1986.

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600 quid’s worth of carbon fibre replaces nylon uphostery

Since then some pain, including the sciatica, has returned but to nothing like the same extent. I can deal with it and I haven’t yet finished paying attention to my posture. I push myself into the curves of the office chair. I have spent an absolute frickin’ fortune on a carbon-fibre seat-back for my wheelchair, to replace the stretchy uphostery. I try to drive the car while sat upright, rather than leaning casually on the door arm-rest (not that easy a technique to master, given the hand-controls on the steering column). At night I try to fall asleep on my back. Sleep-disrupted nights have reduced by, I would say, about 80%,

I sit more upright in the day-chair and, when pushing, try not to lead forwards. On advice from my masseuse I am learning the Alexander Technique, to help me stay upright and depend on “the body’s natural balancing organisms”.

Will Johnny keep it up? Indubitably. He now has a huge incentive to stay erect. Hallelujah!

… to Hong Kong

Me Monkton

On watch with our CO, Lt Cdr Nico Franks

But not until October, en route to and from a diving trip in the Philippines. Johnny is seeking commissions for both adventures. It will be his first visit since 1974 when, as a skin-and-essence 21 year-old Sub Lieutenant, he spent a year navigating patrol boat HMS Monkton from Victoria Basin, in the heart of the then British colony.

I arrived in June ’74, fully expecting to be deployed for social duties only. One of five patrol boats in the squadron led by the Salisbury-class frigate Chichester, we would set sail for day-trips two or three days a week, rarely in the dark and never at weekends. We patrolled the limits of the colony’s waters and I must have done a decent job as I cannot remember any dramas (there are admittedly few underwater hazards). I water-skied behind her once.

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It can be done at 15 knots. Just not for long

It all changed during our annual deployment further south, in August of that year. We sailed to Bangkok and thence to Singapore, where our ships’s company was one of the last to experience its less salubrious side, in Bugis Street and its environs. Kai-tais and Merry Monks abounded. Very soon the burgeoning cruise ship market and its better-heeled clientele would necessitate a swift overhaul. (I visited again the very next year and there was no trace of the bars, brothels and massage parlours.)

We were about to sail for Penang before being recalled to HK, where the government had decided to put a stop to the increasing flow of IIs (illegal immigrants) who were making the perilous journey from the People’s Republic to the better life they expected in the British colony. We had already encountered a few; most were being smuggled by junks but the most desperate swam for it, sometimes aided only by inflated plastic shopping bags.

Unfortunately, between us and Harry Honkers lay a typhoon, one of several that plague the region each summer. Our passsage north therefore involved some pretty lively weather, less than ideal conditions for a wooden-hulled former coastal mineweeper. With the sky obscured for three days I was forced to navigate via Dead Reckoning, plotting our last known position on the chart and using corrected course and speed to predict our track. When the stars finally appeared and I could take a sight, we were only a mile or so off track.  After three days in the middle of a storm that’s nothing!

On our return to HMS Tamar, we soon discovered that life had substantially changed. Two of the boats would henceforth be required at sea all the time, to recover any IIs we could find and hand them over to the police for repatriation. I know, even at weekends. AND in the dark!

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Nothing to declare

We worked quite closely with the professional and surprisingly firm Royal Hong Kong Police in their launches, joining them on numerous night patrols into the border regions of the New Teritories. We picked up a few swimmers who were alive (and heard of some who weren’t, having allegedly been attacked by sharks) and stopping both junks and sampans that mostly turned out to be innocent. I remember wearing an empty yet still surprisingly heavy 9mm Browning automatic at my waist and it may have been about then that I realised that, while clearly an ace navigator, I was not destined for great things as a leader of men.

Honda S800

800cc of uncontrolled fury (note power bulge on bonnet)

During my 2017 stopovers, I will have an opportunity to see how life has changed. Victoria Basin (visible on the right in the headline image) and HMS Tamar are definitely no more and our various bachelor haunts will surely have been absorbed into the world of international commerce.

Johnny’s life has changed too, and he will want to see how easily an independent wheelchair user navigates the high-rise skyline of his former posting.

 

… the Top End Force 3 hand-cycle

Johnny has been riding this for more than a year now. The first trike to cost less than £2k, it’s lighter than his previous Quickie Shark and has a more efficient disk brake. The matt black colour is cool but it’s not exactly hi-viz. Mind you, neither is a black dog.

I was disappointed at the customer service from the manufacturer and dealer. I was charged full-price for the upright seat option and, once it arrived, had to swap it with the standard recliner (it’s outside my office right now. Anybody want it?). I specified Schwalbe Marathon tyres for the rear wheels and they arrived in the crate loose, along with the bare rims (and they are a pain to fit). The deraillieur gears and disk brake had not been touched and I had to lug the whole thing to my local bike shop.

IMG-20170725-WA0004Anyhoo the design is simple, which is a Good Thing, but the result is minimal real-estate for carrying drinks, tool-kit and coat. The drive-train is slick but needs regular tuning, and twin cables run in extremely tight bends from the (RH) hand-crank, so they don’t last. Roll on an affordable electric shift. You can’t change the chain-wheel while pedalling, but there is a way round that. If required, the footrest straps can secure your ankles and a lapstrap your hips. Finally, the parking rim-brake is way more efficient than the ridiculous and quickly-lost Velcro strip that came with the Shark.

Johnny uses the trike mainly to exercise his dog (registered name Ludo, Spawn of Satan) around the local lanes. In common with most dedicated hand-bikes the seat is close to the ground; if you are an old fart like Johnny, your aching shoulders will love anything sturdy that you can use as a staging-post, as you haul your sorry ass back up to the wheelchair. Living as we do in a hops heartland, where are all the beer crates?

… a beach wheelchair in Jersey

There are those amongst us who would rather eat worms than be pushed in a wheelchair. But I suggest it’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to paddle in the sea or build a sandcastle without getting bogged down to your axles.

Balloon-tyred beach wheelchairs are increasingly a feature of our seaside resorts. The Channel Island of Jersey has six of them, strategically placed on the biggest sandy beaches by the BeachAbility charity and ready for free loan to visitors and residents. For the less mobile a hoist is also available, but you may need to give notice to get it in the right place.

IMG-20170805-WA0002Johnny phoned on a whim one sunny Saturday morning and coordinator Mig said she could be at the Gorey site in 15 minutes. We needed a little more time than that but we soon met her in the Long Beach car-park, where the chair is kept in a small locked shed. The size of the tyres can make transferring tricky so a sliding board is to hand.

The previous day I had taken my standard chair onto the hard sand of le Hocq at low tide. Even if the way ahead looks flat and firm, there are soft patches everywhere and even with a Freewheel I soon got stuck. On the beach chair even the fine sand, above the high-water mark, was a breeze — for me obviously but for Chris and Pippa too. We rolled down to the sea and watched the dogs going loopy in the shallows.

I considered swimming but it would have been a scramble to get back on and, these days, I am taking care of my shoulders. And you can only go so far into the sea before the chair starts to float. I hadn’t thought of that.

IMG-20170805-WA0015We rolled back to the soft sand at the sea wall and bought bacon-and-egg rolls for breakfast. A simple pleasure and one I had not fully enjoyed for 30 years. Back in the car-park, the excellent Mig was waiting patiently at the shed, looking after my own chair.

Swallow your pride says Johnny, and enjoy the wondrous Jersey shore on more-or-less equal terms.

 

… to Aerobility

This well-supported charity – known as the home of disabled flying – aims to get people living with a range of handicaps airborne. It has a fine record of fulfilling the ambitions of youngsters and veterans alike; indeed, it prides itself on finding an aviation solution for everybody.

Alex Krol and Tecnam2Aerobility is based at Blackbushe Airport in Hampshire with outposts in the Midlands and Scotland. Its fleet of four aircraft has recently been augmented by an Italian-built Tecnam two-seater (left), the first production aircraft to be designed with a hand-control option for paraplegics. That’s quite a breakthrough, considering I’m not aware of any cars that fit the bill. Prove me wrong.

Aerobility offers taster flights and Private Pilot’s License courses, comprising full air and ground-school programmes. The fleet is  available for hire by suitably-qualified pilots. Students can also practice their procedures on  a bang up-to-date cockpit simulator.

Current plans include the establishment of a formation team, “The Bader Bus Company”, to be crewed by disabled pilots and set to fly next summer (and scheduled for TV coverage). A Build-A-Kitplane project, with every single component funded by charitable giving, is nearly ready for lift-off.

And right now, teenagers are being sought to participate in Aerobility’s second Aviation Education Programme. Aimed at young people aged between 14 and 18 years old with mild to moderate learning and/or physical disabilities, the AEP strives to provide them with transferable skills and strengths that they can take into further education and employment. It covers introductions to Airfield Operation, Air Traffic Control, Fire and Rescue, Aircraft Engineering, Meteorology and Principles of Flight.

… to British Summer Time, Hyde Park

This series of open-air concerts is becoming a familar part of the London season. I bought a ticket this year out of love for Tom Petty’s back catalogue and respect for his longevity — this event was part of the band’s 40th anniversary tour and their only European date. My daughter took the free companion slot with me to see the running order in reverse; she had barely heard of Tom.

As a disabled punter I could have brought the car to a Blue Badge area within the venue and if we do it again I just might. The tube run to Green Park may look straightforward but it ain’t:

  1. From the newer Jubilee Line platforms such as Waterloo, to avoid a big step at the older GP station, use the raised rear of the platform. Follow the wall-markings
  2. While otherwise step-free at GP, you must negotiate several lifts and sloped connecting tunnels in order to regain, panting, the fresh air
  3. From GP it’s a 20 minute trek to the venue and even further to the accessible entrance. Do your research. We asked a copper and followed C’s phone but detail was lacking.
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That canopy’s not for you, boys, it’s for the Vips

The accessible section consisted of a ramped platform and a ground-level area. I assumed we would be on the former but our wristbands (and our tickets, we discovered) were for the latter. However indignation born of ignorance got us onto the platform, where we snuck into line and I resolved not to leave for the duration. With a companion’s swing-tag C could come and go at will, so it was clear who would be getting the beer in.

The show was great although, for an area billed as close to the VIP enclosure, we depended on the video screens to see what was going on, just as much as the rest of the audience. Leaving the venue was straightforward but why-BBC-why would I, a seasoned live music veteran, stop by the merch and spend 35 quid on quite the crappiest tour T-shirt I have ever seen.

… the Wasp

Andy Wasp

Me before …

We had better refer to this as work-in-progress; I haven’t yet managed to get into the cockpit of a Wasp, let alone ride it. But here I am, in my gilded youth, mounted and ready to spring into action in defence of — damn, forgot my aircrew knife..

I flew the Wasp for two deployments aboard HMS Endurance, the British Navy’s Antarctic Patrol Ship. We were away from October to May, 1979-80 and 80-81, mostly supporting the British Antarctic Survey’s work in the Peninsula. We also flew David Attenborough and his team as they filmed Life in the Ice sequences for the BBC ‘s well-loved Living Planet series. Penguins, so many penguins.

I loved flying the Wasp although it was a pretty impractical beast; single engine, limited payload, fly doors-off daylight hours only and always within sight of mother. It was soon replaced by the twin-engine Lynx.

A decade or so ago I found “my” Wasp in a corner of the excellent Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. I took about 10 minutes to haul my sorry ass into the comfy right-hand seat but I got there. While surveying the strictly analogue cockpit my son Adam, then about 10 so we’re talking around 2000, clambered into the left seat, had a quick look round and promptly jettisoned his door. Maintaining my compusure, I explained how I had managed to fly the thing in a most challenging environment for two years without putting a scratch on it, and then he …

But you know what’s coming. “But Dad, it says ‘PULL HERE’!”. He’s a doctor of engineering now.

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… and after

So anyhow, now I see another airframe has been restored to flying condition and is doing the summer round of air displays. I met pilot Terry Martin and he showed me around — its markings are Endurance flight! It even has the penguin device painted on the rear doors.

It’s in beautiful nick. Our helicopters also sported red noses and tails to improve our visibility against the ice glare. The year after I left, the lads had to camouflage them, like this, for the Falklands conflict. They continued to fly doors off but now at night, in winter conditions, under radio and radar silence and fitted with anti-ship missiles instead of survey equipment. I’m glad I wasn’t tested in that arena.

… to Pisa and Florence

Lovely compact old cities, easy to navigate but bumpy roads and high kerbs make a companion and a Freewheel something of a must. Johnny and Juanita flew BA to Pisa airport and took the new Pisa Mover shuttle to the Centrale railway station, from where they set off on foot to the famous tower. Most of the route is pedestrianised so it is easy to find after a 30-45 minute stroll.

You can imagine how popular this place is with tourists and, indeed, it’s a thrill to finally see an edifice so familiar from Year 3 Geog. Everyone strikes the pose in some form. We stopped en route for ice-creams at La Bottega del Gelato, north of the Ponte de Mezzo in Piazza Garibaldi.

For the rail journey from Pisa to Florence (trip times range from 40 to 80 mins), it’s a good idea to contact SalaBlu (SalaBlu.firenze@rfi.it) who will help you with timetables and the luggage, and get you onto the right bit of the train. The transfer to the train itself is level so they are not essential but for a first-timer, why not?

We stayed in the ground-floor accessible room at the Kraft Hotel (krafthotel.it) on the Via Solferino. Three steps in Reception are negotiated via the slowest platform lift ever, but it arises from flush with the floor which will impress a small child. Meals are taken on the roof terrace with romantic views over the city.

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See Davis last or, so the legend goes, everything else will disappoint.

If you’re there for the art, the good news is that wheelchair users skip the queues (over two hours at the Uffizi when we visited) and get in free everywhere. Access to the attractions is good but the Ponte Vecchio is usually crowded and always steep; get someone to take a pic of it for you. We recommend the food at Mercato Centrale; browse the products on the ground floor and eat them on the first. They know their meat in Florence; Johnny had a great steak at Trattoria 4 Leoni (not far from the Pritti Palace) and Juanita’s spag bol contained five per cent boar and scored a palpable hit.

We also did opera (a new venue at Viale Fratelli Rosselli looks a bit like the Basingstoke Anvil, which is not meant as a criticism). It turned out to be a school performance of the Magic Flute; the principals were adult but, at the drop of a hat, 50-odd blooming kids were wheeled on to wave their arms about like Mr Gumby. Still worth seeking out a ticket if you can decipher the poster.

… to Lords

The Home of Cricket that is, not the House of. Johnny and his trusty sidekick seem to be establishing a trend, attending the first day of the first summer test match for three years in a row now. They have used the Grandstand’s disabled facilities but their favoured position now is in front of the Warner Stand, on the grass, behind the boundary rope and the advertising hoardings.

20170706_151236There’s room to stretch out; one nearby group enjoyed their picnic sat around a table. Just behind the stand are food and drink concessions and a couple of Radar loos. Overseeing the facility is Steve, a most excellent steward who gets to know the fans and, somehow, remembers their names from year to year. Top man.

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Johnny also watches international cricket at the Aegis Bowl with his trusty, rock ‘ard sidekick Granite McBoulder.

Oh, and new for 2017 are 25 new accessible slots in the Warner itself which, if nothing else, increase your chances of getting one in the annual ballot. To be in with a chance you need to register and state your preferences; the draw usually takes place the February before.

There’s not much more to say without talking about the cricket and that, of course, varies from tour to tour. But you feel part of something special at Lords; we arrived this year just as the five-minute bell was ringing, outside the Long Room, mounted metres above our heads. (We hope for invitations for 2018 from former naval colleagues who point out they were in said Room at the time)

And in 2017, we witnessed Yorkshire’s Joe Root score 184 not out, the highest-ever innings by a debutant England skipper (Johnny fielded one of his boundaries with his leg). It’s not called the Home of Cricket for nowt, lad.