Sunday, 9 November 2014

Thank You to the Unknown Doctors

Forty years ago my life was saved by an unknown Doctor in a village in East Africa. I would like to say Thank You.

On Saturday mornings there is a BBC Radio 4 programme called "Saturday Live". One of their segments is a piece called "Thank you" where listeners have the opportunity to say thank you to someone who did a good deed for them and they never had a chance to thank. Every Saturday, when I listen  to this, I feel I should say thank you to the young Doctor who saved my life after a car accident out in the bush.

Forty years ago my father and I went on safari. At the time we lived in Kampala, Uganda. We set out in my dad's Volkwagen Type 3 with the aim of driving from Uganda, through Kenya and ending up in Tanzania. Just the two of us, driving for thousands of miles. Father and son ROAD TRIIIIPPPPP !

We had some fascinating experiences on that trip. We were almost crushed by a bull elephant in the night as rain crashed down around us. We sat with pygmies and chatted about life. We met our first ever real life Black America who sat as bold as brass on the veranda of an ostensibly whites-only Nairobi hotel and invited us to join him for a drink.

But one day as we drove along a bumpy, dusty road towards the the Kenya/Tanzania border tragedy (nearly) happened. In the blink of an eye, we hit a bump at high speed and the car flipped over. Amongst the dust and the wreckage I remember hearing my Dad's voice saying "are you okay, boy?". I pushed him and we struggled out of the car.

Amazingly, he was fine. Not a scratch. I. on the other hand had blood streaming down the left side of my head. I had not been wearing a seatbelt and my head had smashed the side window. My whole left side was covered in blood and I fell to the ground as my Dad looked on in horror.

We were miles and miles out in the savannah. Not a car, person, building in site. No mobile phones in those days. Nothing but a wrecked car in its roof, a terrified father and a young boy in a very bad way.

Two things happened.

Firstly a Maasi man with a stick and a spear appeared in the distance. My Dad called him and he walked towards us. This was risky. Was he friend or foe? But there was really no option. The man came. We didn't speak his language and he didn't speak English. My dad cried, shouted, gesticulated towards me and the car. The man looked silently for a while, then without saying anything he turned and walked away leaving us alone. He didn't help us. But nor did he kill and rob us.

Some time later a coach came down the road. My Dad jumped into the road, waving like a mad man. The coach stopped. It was filled with local folk, baggage, chickens, even some goats!

In what he freely admits was one of the oddest decisions he ever made, my father simply lifted me up, walked over to the coach, placed me on the floor of the coach, stepped off and begged the driver "Please take him, please take him".

He told me much later that as the coach drove away, leaving him standing alone in the bush with the smashed car as evening drew in, with his bleeding, dying son being driven away in the company of strangers to God knows where he thought "what on earth did I just do?"

But those strangers took me to a village. In that village there was a Kenyan medical student who had been sent to serve in the village for a few months as part of his training. He was the only medically trained person for hundreds of miles on any direction.

I have flashes of memory of this episode. There was no anaesthetic. No pain killers. I remember five or six strong men holding me as I screamed. I remember the first stitch going into the side of my head. Then nothing else.

Much, much later I heard my father's side of the story. After he hitched a ride along the road, he had started dashing from village to village searching for me. Asking questions. "Was a boy brought here?"

Eventually he arrived at the village. They took him to a hut. It was literally a hut. It was late evening The whole family was sitting outside the front of the hut. Inside, they had made up a bed for me and left their home for me to lie in, waiting until someone came for me. That is where he found me.

We rested there for a time. I don't know whether it was a day or two days. But finally we left and as we left, that young Doctor came to see me. He showed me the large, curved, wooden needle that he had used to sew up my head. He said he put in eight stitches and forty years later I still have a long, ugly scar along the left side of my head.

That Doctor was a young man. Early twenties I think. I hope he had a wonderful career as a Doctor in Kenya. I never knew his name but I want to say "THANK YOU" to the unknown Doctor for being there in that village when he might have avoided such duties and stayed in the City. For saving my life without a thought when a group of strangers dumped a bleeding boy on his doorstep. And, when my father thanked him tearfully and tried to give him some money as a gift for what he had done, for laughing and saying "ah ha, Sir, I am a Doctor. This is what I do".

With Ebola striking countries in West Africa and young Doctors volunteering to risk their lives to save lives, I want to say THANK YOU to all of you on behalf of the people who you have saved and tried to save who may never know your name.

To The Unknown Doctors. Thank You. It's what you do.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Restroom Rules of Being A Man

The other day I stood at a urinal in Westfield Shopping Centre. A chap came in and stood next to me DESPITE THE FACT THAT THERE WERE AT LEAST SEVEN OTHER FREE URINALS.

Yes, people, he broke one of the basic rules of BEING A MAN.

It is pretty obvious to me why he made this fundamental error. He was brought up without a MAN in his life. I know this because the rules of the public toilet are completely different when it comes to men and women. For a start, women are not even aware that there are rules, whereas every man knows there are rules that must not be broken under any circumstances (except, obviously, for this poor chap).

Let me highlight the key differences. I was at a Christmas Party in December and at one point three of the four women got up and marched off to the toilet together. What's that about? When they returned, a colleague and I interrogated them to try and gain a rudimentary grasp of their rules. It turns out there are none!

For a start women chat to each other in the restroom. They actually talk out loud!! One even told me that she goes into the cubicle with a friend and they keep chatting whilst they swap position. Have you ever heard anything like it!!!!

So, I assume the friendly fellow at Westfield must have been briefed by his mother on these issues. As a MAN, I will share some of the basic rules and I invite all women to share these with their sons so as to avoid future embarrassment of this nature.

Firstly - there must be no speaking in the restroom. The Men's Room is like a Religious Order that has sworn a vow of silence. No one speaks. Even if you are walking towards the door with a friend, discussing football, women, beer or other things of great male importance, you must fall silent as soon as you pass through the portal.

Secondly - there must be no looking sideways. When standing at a urinal, you must look straight ahead, with a level of intensity that implies you can actually see through the wall in front of you. Resist the temptation to allow your eyes to flicker to the left or right. If necessary, pluck out your own eyeball but never, ever glance to the side and down however strong the desire to compare. (Frankly, if you feel the need to compare, you are liable to lose anyway).

Thirdly - when complete, you must perform the completion rituals. You have two options. You can "shake". Or you can "tug". The choice is yours so I will give no further advice on this matter, except to say that you must restrict yourself to a maximum of five consecutive "actions". Anything over and above that total is likely to result in your instant arrest by the authorities.

Fourthly (and this step depends on your location) - you may spit. If you are attending a football game, you "flob". This is a particular type of spit, involving phlegm being fired out at about 100 miles an hour. MEN can do this. It is a skill that we learn from a young age. But do not do this if you are at a five star hotel such as The Savoy.

Finally, we come to possibly the most important area. Where do you stand?

This is complicated because there are not firm rules here. But it is understood intuitively by MEN.

Let us assume that there are five urinals - A, B, C, D, E. You enter the loo.

Scenario 1 - someone is standing at position C. This is relatively easy. You can choose A or E. Both are fine. (It gets a bit more complicated if you take into account the position of the door, but we will keep it simple for now)

Scenario 2 - someone is standing at position A. You may think E is the best option. I would not advise this. If you go all the way over to E you are basically saying "I am not confident in the size of my manhood, so I will hid as far away as I can". You obviously cannot go to B. So you consider C or D. This is tricky. Each has its merits. The advantage of C is that the next person can go to E and still leave a space between you all. However, C is an aggressive play. It is surprisingly close to A. So, my judgement is that you go D and live with the risk of The Next Man.

Scenario 3 - there are two people "in action" when you arrive. One at position A, one at position D. This needs careful and rapid thought. Let me explain what would go through my head if I encountered this tricky scenario.

If I go B and then D departs, that leaves me and my fellow occupant standing next to each other in the corner. Not good. Even if A departs, and me and the chap in position D are left, that forces The Next Man to stand next to one of us. So B is not a good option. Do not be tempted.

If I go E, and A departs then that leaves me and D squeezed up at one end. Again, not great. But if D departs then there is a lot of distance between me and A and The Next Man can go to C. So, you see, that E is a better option that B.

Personally I would go C. I know, I know, some men reading this will see this as a radical move. But stay with me. If D departs, we are fine because The Next Man can play E. If A leaves then me and D are standing next to each other, but we are next to each other, confidently in the middle rather than huddled up in a corner. So, yes, I grant that it's a bold move but I think that C is the optimal play.

All these considerations must be made in a split second. You cannot go into the restroom and get out a calculator to work out the options. You must stride in, take in the whole situation, weight up the options, consider what The Next Man will do and make your choice. Split second timing is vital. Eyes front. Three shakes. Confident spit. No messing about.

If you can master these rules, then you are a MAN, my son. A True Man.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The First World War Ended My Acting Career

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the First World War. Contrary to popular opinion I did not fight in that war. I'm not that old.

However, I do have a connection with the First World War that goes back forty years (so perhaps I am pretty old after all). The First World War ended my acting career.

In 1974, on the 60th anniversary of The Great War, my school, Teddington decided to put on the musical production "Oh What A Lovely War", a hard hitting satire on World War One ( and the vulgarity of war in general).

It was the first and in fact the only play that I have appeared in. It could have been the start of a great acting career. Other great actors started their careers at Teddington. Whenever I see Kiera Knightley on screen I delight in saying "I went to school with her". (My annoying children then feel obliged to point out that she was not actually born at the time I was at that school, but these are minor details that should not get in the way of the fact that both Kiera and I went to Teddington and performed on the stage there).

I was a tender, impressionable, young first year pupil (okay, I admit it. I wasn't very tender). I was excited to be chosen to be in the play and even more excited that I was given the part of Young Johnny Jones. I loved the play and forty years later I can still sing along to most of the songs, which have delightfully re-surfaced on youtube!

Young Johnny Jones was an important part. I like to think of it as the lead part in the play (others, including the original writers, might well disagree but, hey, what do they know?). The song "Row, Row, Row" is the first song of the play and Young Johnny Jones (that's me) is the first person to appear on the stage and dance around with an umbrella. A big responsibility for an 11 year old, first year student I think you'll agree. But, fear not. I was up to the task. No pre-opening night nerves for me. I was ready to wow the crowds.

As we prepared for opening night, I took my turn on the chair in make-up. Now before you read on, bear in mind that this was 1974. Things were a bit different in 1974.

The make-up ladies were doing a tremendous job. They wanted to make sure we all looked our best under the stage lights. Fake blood for the lads who were going to die in the battle scenes. Lipstick for the lads who had to play the part of girls (we were an all boys school then. Before Kiera's time).

When it came to me, the make up ladies had a bright idea. They thought it would get the play of to a tremendous start and have the audience laughing in the aisles if Young Johnny Jones (aka me) was "Blacked Up" like a minstrel. Bear in mind that this was 1974. The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on TV in 1974 and it was very popular. So, why wouldn't you black up the 11 year old Young Johnny Jones on the opening night of Oh What A Lovely War and stick him on stage in front of the whole school and everyone's parents, including his own mother, whilst they screamed with laughter? I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. The time was 1974.

So, I did as I was told and sat quietly whilst I was duly blacked up. Then, with satisfied giggles, they sent me out of the room to wait with the other actors. As I stepped out of the room with my shiny blacked up face, the whole cast fell about laughing! It was the funniest thing they had seen in ages.

Sad to report, I couldn't quite join in the hilarity. Sorry about that, chaps. Perhaps I was just too young and tender to embrace it. Instead I'm afraid to admit it but I burst into tears and ran away to hide. The play's director, our drama teacher, a really nice chap,  arrived on the scene and asked where Young Johnny Jones was as it was nearly time to open the show. Someone told him that Silly Johnny Jones was sobbing in a classroom somewhere and wouldn't come out.

When he saw what they had done, the Director hit the roof. He had them wipe the nonsense off immediately and shouted at the lads who were still throwing sambo jokes in my direction (bear in mind this was 1974. The odd sambo joke was par for the course in the good old days).

There wasn't time to put new make up on me before the show started, so I was launched onto the stage as Young Johnny Jones for the jolly, opening number "Row, Row, Row" with only dried tears for make up. I performed for the masses. The masses loved it.

My mum mentioned that I looked a bit pale on the stage. Yes, I explained, I didn't have any make up on.

Oh, What a Lovely War. I love that play. I really do. I can sing almost all the tunes. The last song still brings a tear to my eye "And when they ask us, how dangerous it was, oh we'll never tell them, no we'll never tell them". Bear in mind this was 1974. Things were different then.

I haven't been in any plays since.