Friday, 27 February 2009

Monday 23 February

One of the big disadvantages of sight-loss is that ordinary little things can become very complicated and things that sighted people take for granted become riddled with difficulties and pitfalls. It’s quite remarkable how some organisations and institutions can be very helpful and others less so, often based on ignorance and a failure to think about the needs of all the people who use their services.

Some examples:

I recently visited a different branch of Tesco from the one that I normally shop at - a branch in Regent Street, just a few metres from Piccadilly Circus - presumably therefore, one of their flagship stores. All went well until I tried to pay for my purchases with my debit card and came up against their chip and pin technology. Somebody had thoughtfully secured all the keypads to their metal holders so that they could not be removed, thus making it impossible for me to use, as in order to see the numbers that I am keying in I need to have my face really close to the keypad. In most places, these keypads are on a piece of curly cable so that you can remove them from the holder and use them; however, in this store not only were they secured to the holders, but the holders were incredibly badly positioned so that there were major obstructions in the way: at the checkout, every time I tried to get my head close to the holder and the keypad, I ended up banging myself against the Perspex screen separating customers from the till itself!

The manager had to be called and we traipsed round the store trying to find a chip and pin machine that I could use. Both devices at the customer service desk had been screwed to the counter; the first one was also inaccessible because of an ice cream freezer that had been thoughtfully (!) positioned there. The second was clutter free, but of course had I been a wheelchair user it would have been impossible to use. So the upshot of this is that with the help of the Equalities Commission, I shall be taking action against Tesco under the Disability Discrimination Act. It’s one of those little things that they could so easily fix and just do not think about.

Another instance was on a recent train journey from London Paddington to Weston Super Mare, in order to attend a conference on sight loss - of which more about at a later date. At Paddington, the assisted service for people with disabilities worked really well. After reporting in to the Service Centre at platform 1, I was soon escorted by a friendly and helpful member of staff, put on a buggy, and driven across the station - to the accompaniment of flashing lights and a beeping noise - to the platform from where my train was leaving. Furthermore, I was driven to the correct carriage and escorted to my pre-booked seat. And at the other end of the journey, station staff was there to greet me and help me to a waiting taxi.

The big problem on this journey was the quality of announcements – or lack of them! From London as far as Bristol, there were plenty of them; clear and informative, passengers were left in no doubt as to the stations they were approaching and where to get off. However, after Bristol there was a change of crew, and the announcements seemed to disappear. For several station stops I was left wondering whether it was soon time to get off. It was only by checking the time that I knew roughly when it was time to get off because of the timetable. So again, it was a case of alerting Great Western trains to this problem and making them realise how important those announcements were for customers to know where they were and where to get off!

Simple and small things yes - but easily fixed and major inconveniences when your life is impeded by sight loss!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Monday 16 February

I often wonder what a visitor from another planet would make of life in modern day Britain and London, if they suddenly arrived here and had to draw conclusions from some of the detritus and abandoned media that they would find.

For example, if they were to judge diet and culinary habits based solely on the leaflets that come through my front door, they would assume that people live on a diet consisting specifically of delivered pizza - in a wide variety of flavours and special stuffed crusts - and free bottles of cola. They might also conclude that on special occasions the inhabitants of London - when not eating pizza - feasted themselves on a variety of take-away Thai food and perhaps occasionally Chinese. Thus, visitors would conclude that the inhabitants of London clearly did very little cooking, relying instead on a fleet of delivery vans and motorcycles scurrying round the nation’s capital, bringing hot food at all times of day and night. They would also think that many more people than actually do so live behind our communal front door, given the vast quantities of leaflets that cascade through the letterbox on a regular basis.

Even stranger conclusions might be drawn if these visitors based their understanding of the British on recent headlines in the tabloid press. These days, the hoys of reading physical copies of The Sun, Daily Mirror, and Daily Mail are but a distant memory (thankfully, in the case of the latter, with its “little England” views), but I am still familiar with what they are saying through the reviews that I hear on the radio.

Two stories dominating the tabloids caught my eye, metaphorically speaking. Firstly, the nation reeled with moral indignation recently when a 13-year-old boy was pictured with his 15-year-old girlfriend, pleased as punch over the birth of their new baby. Both parents looked young and apprehensive - despite their radiant happiness - but it was the youthful father who received most of the attention with accusations that he was barely out of primary school and that he was just “too young”.

Now I suspect our interplanetary visitors would have been a trifle confused. Why, they might have mused, was there this enormous fuss when clearly both parents were physically mature enough to go through the process of reproduction and birth? Why was society fixed on an arbitrary age at which young people suddenly became regarded as suitable for having children and engaging in sexual activity? And if blessed with the gift of time travel as well, our interplanetary visitors would have found great variations in what was regarded as an “appropriate age” from century to century, country to country, and civilisation to civilisation. Here is probably not the place for a discussion as to the appropriate age to which a young person becomes both physically and emotionally mature enough to engage in sex and the act of reproduction, but I do think that an observer from another planet would be astonished at the furore that this case provoked.

The other story that kept popping up was that of the unfortunate Jade Goody, and her losing battle with cancer. Leaving aside the fact that the news coverage is being manipulated by Max Clifford, and that she unashamedly is trying to make as much money as possible in order to provide for her children after her death, the curiosity is why this woman should apparently have captivated the nation’s hearts!

This is another of those stories where a visitor from another planet would be nonplussed. The extent of the coverage would suggest that Jade Goody was a great national figure - perhaps someone who has served as a leader or has been a huge inspiration to the nation - or through public service, has won an affectionate place in people’s hearts in the same way that Diana, Princess of Wales became the “people’s princess”. But no. Jade’s great claim to success is having been a contestant in Big Brother and having become notorious for her bigoted and racist views, her colourful choice of language, and being the archetypal Essex girl who had managed to achieve notoriety as a C list celebrity.

So another case where those observers from another planet would be left scratching their heads, as am I, wondering what it is that makes Jade Goody’s terminal illness something of a national tragedy!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Monday 9 February

It seems to have been a splendid night on both sides of the Atlantic for those involved in the creative industries. News from the Grammy in the USA is that British bands - particularly the excellent Coldplay, much loved by the younger middle-aged and middle-class Brits like myself - have won awards along with a host of other UK artists.

Even better news in the BAFTAs, where British films and performers do strongly - especially the much-lauded “Slum Dog Millionaire”, which gained the best film award and hopefully will also do well at the Oscars in Los Angels next week.

For those who have not seen Slum Dog, it’s a must see as it is a truly remarkable piece of cinematography, lovingly shot by British Director, Danny Boyle and using a whole host of British and Indian talent. It has deservedly been doing excellently at the box office. Once again, it shows how relatively low budget British films can be world-beaters and how proud all of us should be at the work of Film Four in making sure that such movies are made and seen on the big screen.

So why is it that I can both praise the film, recommend that friends and acquaintances see it but at the same time remain unsatisfied by it? The answer comes down to the old phrase that: “Radio has the best pictures”. I first came across Slum Dog in its original dramatization for radio as: “Q and A!” - a broadcast a year or so back on Radio 4. Recently, the original dramatization was re-transmitted in the run-up to Slum Dog being released.

The radio adaptation vividly and faithfully transported listeners through the stories evoked by the original book into the sights and sounds of Mumbai and other parts of India, using authentic sounds and actors to bring this exciting story to life. Day by day over a two-week period, I would settle down with the radio for the next, literally, thrilling installment of the story, awaiting eagerly the final d̩nouement Рand listening raptly as the tale reached climax after climax.

And so it was, in my mind’s eye at least, I had a very clear image of how the story would unfold, as well as the look, feel and sound of the characters. And so it seems, like every other screen adaptation of books - either well known of not - even the most skillful director cannot recreate what is in the minds of other readers and listeners! Some are better than others, as I think with pleasure at BBC adaptations of Jane Austen, and cringe at contemporaneous film adaptations! And when it comes to Shakespeare …!

So it comes down to that old conundrum as to whether cinema can faithfully transform a boom or play into a successful screen version. In the case of Slum Dog Millionaire, I have to say yes, even though the movie’s pictures and sounds are rather different from the ones initially cast in my mind, and if truth be told, they will remain the best pictures.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Monday 2 February

Last week’s edition of In Touch on BBC Radio 4 asked its audience at the end of the programme whether they wanted to hear more about scientific research and development of cures to blindness or not. I was intrigued by this, as it seemed utterly impossible to me to comprehend that anyone should want to retain his or her disability. It turns out that there are those who been blind from birth and have never known what it is like to be sighted who are not interested in such developments. This struck me as very strange – rather like members of the deaf community who would rather have a deaf child than a hearing one. So, I fired off an irritable letter to the BBC, which resulted in it being read out with suitable acknowledgement of my points about the existence of a two-tier blind community: those who are relatively young like me and who have recently lost sight, and those who had been blind from birth, or were very old, and did not want to undergo the hassles of operations and all the clinical procedures.

It does seem incredible to me that people should not wish to have a sense restored - that most people just take for granted - and raises some of the spookier aspects of disability politics. Apart from the allusion to deafness, I have also come across instances of parents with profound physical disabilities who would rather not test their unborn children and would prefer them to undergo lives of potential pain, misery and discomfort. It does beg the question of quality of life and how much, given medical progress, should be done to keep people alive who in earlier generations who not have survived childhood or infancy.

Like millions of others, I woke up on Monday morning to a world of whiteness and cold. Like others, I initially greeted the collapse of our public transport system in London and the South East with disbelief and incredulity as the capital city of one of the world’s most developed nations ground to a halt!! As Boris [Johnson] admitted on the news on Monday evening, it had not been TFL’s finest hour, and although it had been the right sort of snow there had just been too much of it!

A Russian friend of mine phoned me up in great glee as the chaos that had bestruck London has been a major item on the Russian TV news. He and various friends had been falling about with laughter at the effects of 10cm of snow in London and temperatures of -2/-3 degrees taking such a massive toll, whilst they were carrying on life as usual with temperatures of -20 and snow a metre high! A Midlands-based friend told me how he had driven home from Sweden last Sunday as the snow began to fall in Britain, and how on the other side of the Channel graters and snow-ploughs were out in force, however, and as soon as he hit the English motorway network his journey got slower and slower.

It’s a difficult one to call. Should a major country have the fleets of snowploughs standing by and vast reserves of grit and salt ready for the rare occasions when snow does fall in England, and fall badly? Or should we shrug our shoulders and realise that such events only take place every few years and that the economics of such planning may be more than we can afford? Either way, it is embarrassing when other European countries seem to carry on life as usual after a bit of snow and the UK grinds, shuddering, to a chaotic halt!

On a happier note, I am pleased to report that snowballing and making snowmen is an ideal pursuit for the sight-impaired male!! Soft, white and clean, with a very good contrast against darker materials. I joined neighbours and friends for a happy half hour of fun, before that much needed standby in times of snow and ice summoned me to the warmth of some Heinz Tomato Soup! And I pondered on memories of how, when I was at Swansea, my students made a giant snowball and rolled it in front of my front door on campus, to which I had to summon the University grounds staff to come and dig me out!!