My Life before and after Breaking My Neck
I was born in London in 1969. My birth mother was not in the position to keep me as she was very young and have no means to give me a suitable home. Unfortunately, she decided to take both the agonising and brave decision to put me up for adoption which took place two or three months after being born.
My dad was a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force for the first two years of my life. After leaving the RAF around 70/71 we moved to Germany where he worked with his brother Donald exporting car parts for BMC (British Motoring Corporation). After leaving Germany we moved back to the UK and settled in Luton Bedfordshire where dad became the manager of a couple of Esso petrol stations and car workshops.
Luton 1973 -1981
My parents bought a three-storey townhouse near the end of a cul-de-sac called St Joseph's Close. There were seven of these identical attached townhouses in a row. There was a garage built underneath the house and the living room was on the first floor. There was a massive lounge window which looked onto the street. Running the full length of St Joseph's close was a school playing field which belonged to St Joseph School. If my memory serves me well families who had children in at least three or four of the other houses. This meant that throughout the entire period of time we lived here there was always children playing outside on the road and in the field.
I think it was probably around 1973 when we moved to St Joseph's close. However, I can remember a little bit about attending Broadmead private school around 1974 when I was five years old. I think my parents had high hopes for me, therefore they decided to send me to a private school. I don't remember an awful lot about going to the school. I know that I didn't particularly like it though. I remember taking into school one of those little plastic whistles that used to get in Christmas crackers. One of the young boys in my class managed to swallow it. I don't think any harm came to him, I believe he was taken to the hospital and had it removed, whether that was with the help of a load of laxatives I really don't know. It was decided that my parents were wasting their money by sending me to this private school so I moved a little closer to home and started attending Norton Road school which was probably a 10-minute walk from home.
Growing up in the mid-1970s meant that we experienced a lot of these new phases that came across from the US. I distinctly remember when skateboards started becoming popular. If I remember rightly there was a young lad called Ian Straughan, thinking about it, he was probably about the same age as us and lived just up the alleyway from St Joseph's close. He always seemed to be the first kid that you saw trialling these new trends. In fact, I'm sure I'm right in saying that he was the first person I ever saw riding a skateboard. However, when I first skateboard, I'm talking about a piece of wood with a couple of roller skate wheels bolted to it. I think it was probably Christmas 1978 when I got my first skateboard. I still remember it now, it was called "The Land Surfer of California". Mind you, it was snowing that Christmas so my first attempt at riding ended up with me flat on my backside. However, that first fall didn't come anywhere close to when I fell off and broke my thumb. It wasn't very long before every kid in the close had a skateboard. I remember two of us enjoying doing what was called in the skateboarding world as the "catamaran". This involved sitting on our skateboards facing each other with each of our feet on the other person skateboard. We would then use a perfectly made pathway which ran the full length of the close and went downhill. During the colder months one of the swimming bath in Luton would completely empty out their outdoor swimming pool and it was then open to skateboarders who take advantage of the steep slope going from shallow to deep end.
These phases didn't seem to last very long because it didn't seem very long until rollerskating became very popular. I remember Mark Attwell from number 22 having a really fabulous pair of roller boots, I was so jealous. All I had was those old straps on roller skates, I think my mother must've first got them in the 1940s. I never did get myself a pair of proper roller boots.
Parents in the 1970s were not anywhere near as paranoid as they are nowadays. There didn't seem to be any worry that you would be kidnapped or sexually abused, even young children were allowed to go out and play on their own. Back in the 1970s none of us really wanted to stay indoors. I distinctly remember rushing my evening meal so I could get back outside and play again. I would be out there until mother shouted for me to go to bed. Mind you, the cul-de-sac that we lived in was fairly secluded and our parents could keep an eye on you whilst they were watching television.
One of my best friends was called Philip Boyle and he lived just around the corner in the close, in fact, his back garden backed onto our back garden. I can't really remember how old we were when we started hanging around with each other, but we must have been five or six years old when we first started playing together. In fact we both had tricycles, however, he had a really big one compared to mine, it was absolutely fantastic. It was Philip who actually introduced me to peanut butter. There was always a big pile of toast ready made up in his kitchen and Philip never seemed to be without a slice of toast smeared with peanut butter.
I'll never forget the time when Mark Attewell had me believing that these fluffy colourful worms lived in the drains in the close. In fact, he had got one of those slinky worms that have a very fine piece of nylon attached to them. Using sleight of hand you can make them look as though they are crawling through your fingers. I must have spent ages looking through all the drains, I really wanted one of these little worms for myself, talk about being gullible.
Those of us who grew up in the 1970s had that much more freedom than children do these days. Our parents didn't accompany us when we went out, even at a very young age. The places we would go would nowadays be considered to be very dangerous. I remember going to what can only be described with the benefit of hindsight as a junkyard with Mark Attwell one day to play. This place was full of junk, old bits of metal and wood and any kid could just walk in and do whatever they wanted to do. I remember me and Mark jumped off this platform and when he landed on the ground he got a big nail stuck right in the palm of his hand. But that's what it was like in the 1970s, I really don't think health and safety existed that much in those days.
I was an active Cub Scout and would go to meetings once a week. It's horrifying to think that the prize given to the cub who collected the most money during bob a job week was a sheath knife. And remember we are talking about kids around 10 years old, can you imagine giving a young boy a knife in this day and age?
My Favourite Hobby
My angling passion began whilst living in Luton. I think it was probably 1978/79 when I got my first fishing rod for my birthday. To begin with, my dad would take me to a place called Wrest Park. I think you knew somebody who said he could take me there fishing. We would often go for a few hours on a Sunday morning. I don't think I caught anything big, I was more than happy catching small roach and perch. Eventually, I was allowed to go fishing with friends. I caught my first ever carp whilst fishing the Grand Union Canal at Ivanhoe. However, one incident stands out amongst everything else and that was the day Philip Boyle fell in the canal on a freezing cold winter's day. We had gone off to a location on the Grand Union Canal. I think it was very long into the session when Philip managed to combine casting with a pretty nifty dive headfirst into the canal, although not up to the standards of Tom Daley I must add. Obviously, I did my best to drag him out, but it's not that easy to pull a soaking wet young lad out of a canal whilst you are pissing yourself with laughter. I know that Phil made me promise not to tell anyone about the incident. Of course, I can keep a promise, but I can't vouch for all the people that I told.
Holidaying in Scotland
I think it was 1979 when a work colleague of my father suggested that we might like to accompany him and his wife on holiday to Scotland. My dad's colleague Bill and his wife Jenny would spend the summer holidays in a village called Corran. When I say village, that is probably somewhat of an exaggeration because from what I can remember there are probably no more than about seven houses in Corran. I believe they were first occupied by herring fishermen many many years ago before the herring fishery collapsed in Scotland. The main family living in Corran were the Mackenzies. Willie McKenzie was the father and he had several jobs including postman, policeman, fireman and even mountain rescue. You would often see him flying around in this red Land Rover. He had several children, one of which was called Roderick. Rodrick and I were about the same age and we built up a bit of a friendship and would often go fishing together. There were two caravans, both of which were probably dated from the 1950s. Bill and Jenny stayed in one of them, we would stay in the other one. I would get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and walk what was probably only about 100 yards down to the little burn, that's what they call a river that enters a Scottish loch. I would collect a box full of earthworms from a little plot of mud beside the river and enjoy catching small sea trout which Bill would then cook on his smoker. This photo of me wearing the orange waterproof top shows me at the age of 10/11 holding a small sea trout which I caught from the river at Corran. I think it was either the first of the second year of holidaying in Corran when I was finally allowed to have a dog. We went to a farm where they were selling some border collie puppies. I chose a little girl, a beautiful grey ball of fluff that I called Skye. I think it was 1980/81 when we spent the New Year at Corran. My God, if you think it's cold in England then you should go to Scotland in the winter, then you will know what cold is like. I remember taking my fishing rod with very but found a raging river that was completely unfishable. Luckily we didn't stay in the caravan this time, we hired a small bungalow off the Mackenzies and would enjoy evenings playing a board game called "The Great Game of Britain".
I can honestly say Corran is my utopia, it's probably the most beautiful place on earth. You don't go to places like Corran for the sunshine, you go there for tranquillity and peace and quiet. I recently found Corran on Google Street view and from what I can tell it's not changed an awful lot. I can see that the two caravans that we stayed in no longer there, there are a couple of other buildings that have appeared and looked somewhat more modern compared to what I remember. But all in all, it's remained near enough the same as when we used to visit in the late 70s early 80s. I don't think there will ever be another place that will come close to how much Corran meant to me as a child.
After leaving Norton Road primary school in 1980 it was time to move up to the big school. I started attending Denbigh high school which was quite the opposite of the small primary school I have been used. Denbigh high was absolutely massive, I believe around 1000 students attended. Whilst at Denbigh high both me and Phil came across a notice on the wall one day. It was advertising a 24-hour marathon charity dance contest. Well, neither of us were Wayne Sleep, but I think the thought of staying up all night the ground you are you are you are you was quite attractive so we put our names down for it. If my memory serves me right the dance was staged in a town hall somewhere in Luton. I don't quite know what we were expecting to achieve and to be honest, I don't remember doing an awful lot of dancing. However, there were a couple of kids who obviously had some kind of talent. One young lad was constantly doing the backflips, another lad slightly younger seem to have a good rhythm. At some stage in the evening, these two lads were called to the front and told that they had one an award for being the best dancers. They were then led away through a side door. At the time we didn't really think anything of it. However, it's only until recently that it dawned upon me that Jimmy Savile was part of the organisation and their prize for winning best dancers was to go and meet him. Thank God me and Phil couldn't dance all we could have found ourselves sitting on Savile's lap that evening.
Paignton 1981 - 1985
My parents decided that a move was in order and in the spring of 1981 we sold our house in Luton and moved to Paignton in Devon. My parents purchased a little corner shop in the St Michaels area of the town. My dad's parents, my grandparents and his sister all lived in Torbay so it was really nice to finally move down here. We would come down for holidays most years and Christmases when we lived in Luton but to finally be down here was really nice. If you've lived by the sea all your life then it's difficult to imagine what it's like to move from a large city completely away from the sea to then suddenly have it right on your doorstep. I absolutely loved it, it was fantastic taking Skye for walks along Paignton beach. Obviously being an avid fisherman I would be down at Paignton Harbour or Goodington promenade at every opportunity I got.
I started school at Paignton community College lower school and went into the first year. Our teacher was called Miss Elphinstone. Unfortunately, some of the kids didn't altogether treat her very kindly and she would often end up in tears. When I look back now, she was a really lovely lady who didn't deserve it. Christmas 1981 was quite eventful for me. It's rather hazy but from what I can remember a group of us were in the corridor trying to make ourselves dizzy. I know, why on earth would you want to do that for? Anyway, what we would do this do squats up and down and then get somebody to squeeze you tightly from behind. To this day I really don't know what happened that day, but all I remember was finding myself in the hospital with absolutely no memory of what happened.
I got my first paper round in 1981 delivering the Herald Express around the area I lived. I never forget one incident that happened one evening when I was delivering papers. There was an old lady that was probably in her 80s, we would knock on the door and walk straight in because she wasn't really able to come to the door. So I knocked on the door, walked straight into the living room and what did I find? A family of four sitting there watching the television. They just sat there looking at me. It then dawned on me that I had walked into the wrong house.
Paignton community college was split into two halves. You spent the first two years at lower school, then you move to the upper school for third fourth and fifth year. I moved to the upper school in 1982 to start in the third year.
My dog Skye disappeared from the house on Valentine's Day. Thankfully we managed to get her back a day or two later. However a few weeks later one dog turned into five dogs, yup, she gave birth to for little puppies. We decided to keep one and rehome three of them. We kept one of the males and called him Sam.
Just before going on holiday to Scotland again in 1983 I had shaved all my hair off and was now sporting a crewcut. Come Christmas time an acapella group called The Flying Pickets were in the charts doing a cover version of Yazoo's "Only You". Don't ask me why, I couldn't tell you but for some weird reason I wanted to model myself on the look of Gary Howard, the skinhead type character from the Flying Pickets. So using my paper round tips that year I bought myself a pair of 14 hole Dr Martens. A friend of mine sold me his black Crombie coat. Then I took a pair of my jeans, cut them off to just about the level of the top of my boots and bleached them. Finally to my mother's absolute horror I came back with the shortest crewcut you could possibly get without actually shaving all your hair off. I was now remodelled and with the benefit of hindsight looked like a real thug. But at 14 years of age, I thought I was the bee's knees. I remember a friend from school telling me that he saw me walking towards him, not recognising me at the time actually crossed over the road to avoid walking past me. Fantastic, job done, I was now officially a hard bastard.
My Best Friend Gary
Just after Christmas whilst out, I bumped into a guy from the school who would become my best friend. His name was Gary and he was in the same year as me. He was also a shaven head skinhead like myself so we bonded instantly and would spend most of our time together. Another couple of lads from school, Darren and Ryan were also skinheads and we would hang around town trying to look hard. Our skinhead days didn't really last for a long, in fact by July we were actually sporting flattop haircuts. I was very much into Madness and wanted to try model myself on Suggs, the lead singer. I think my mother was probably a little bit more happy as I didn't quite look quite as intimidating anymore.
Gary had never been fishing before so it's a hobby that I introduced him to. I remember the first time I ever took him fishing, he lost one of my floats and was absolutely devastated, you would have thought it was the crown jewels that he'd lost. I said, "Gary, calm down mate, you'll get used to losing fishing tackle, is just part of the hobby". He became completely hooked on the hobby and every weekend we would be out there. We used to love going all night fishing and would often spend the whole night at Brixham Breakwater, it was such good fun. I will never forget the day when he lost what I would describe as the biggest wrasse I have ever seen. We were fishing underneath the oil jetty on the breakwater one day and he hooked into quite a big fish. When he got it to the surface it was a massive wrasse with barnacles on its head. I said, "do not try and lift it out of the water, I'll go and get the drop net". What did the silly bugger try and do? You guessed it, snap. If he head-butted that concrete support post one more time I think he would have given himself brain damage.
Gary and I had such great times together. As they say, boys will be boys and we would get up to all sorts of mischief. I recall the time that we abseiled off the top of Paignton car park using a fire hose. I'm not altogether sure what the fascination was with the car park at Victoria Park in Paignton, but we seem to like hanging out there quite a lot. It's a shame I haven't really got many photos of Gary from the 80s, nobody really carried cameras around with them like they do nowadays. But I am so grateful that we did take the time to take a few photos of ourselves when we were out and about in Paignton. Having said that, the photos aren't brilliant, especially the ones of me, Gary didn't seem to have the knack of taking a photo without it coming out completely blurred. This photo shows the two of us standing on top of a Ford car. I know a very naughty thing to do. I recall the time that myself Gary and our other good friend Ryan went night fishing one Saturday evening and then on Sunday got absolutely wasted on whisky. That landed us all with a caution from the police for being drunk and disorderly in public and buying alcohol underage. We would often play tricks on each other which with the benefit of hindsight is quite funny. For instance, when I used to do a paper round and had to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning. I arrived at the paper shop in the dark and wondered why Barry hadn't opened up. I was there for 45 minutes worrying about where he was only to find that Gary had only set my clock back by one hour. One day we were fishing and rather than discarding how old bait, I slipped it into a side pocket on Gary's fishing bag when he wasn't looking. He couldn't understand why his bedroom stunk of fish two days later.
I would often stay at Gary's house, and he would stay the night at mine as well. My parents really liked Gary and I'd like to think that his mum and dad liked me. Mind you, I do remember one morning when I was just waking up and I heard Gary say "don't panic but look to your left" there was a massive spider on the curtain right next to my bed. For some strange reason, we were both terrified of spiders in those days. Mind you, it didn't stop us spending the whole night sitting in the little concrete hut that used to be on the breakwater, my God there were some absolutely huge spiders living in the concrete.
My two cousins Matt and Nick were also avid sea anglers and we would often all go fishing together, quite often it involved me staying overnight and getting up in the wee hours of the morning. When you are a very young teenager, 12 or 13 years old there is something very exciting about riding your bike through Brixham at 5 o'clock in the morning when nobody is around. I recall one incident that happened when I and Nick were fishing at Berry Head. Nicholas needed to go off and answer the call of nature. I'll never forget it, I just happened to look up behind me towards the path and there was a bunch of old age pensioners standing there pointing at something. It then dawned upon me that Nicolas had not gone unnoticed in his quest to evacuate his bowels. I never knew he could move so quickly with his trousers and pants around his ankles.
Gary and I met a couple of girls during the summer holidays in 1984. I'm afraid that we told them a bit of a porky. Because they were both 16 years old we decided it was probably best if we didn't let on we were only 15 and still at school. So as far as they were concerned we were both 16 and had left school. We had a couple of weeks with them, they went back to Buckinghamshire and after a short time corresponding via mail, I never heard from her again. Mind you, that might have been different if it wasn't for Gary meeting another girl. They were due to come down and see us, but that never happened.
In late August 1984, I managed to land a fantastic job working as a deckhand on one of the summer fishing boats that work out of Paignton Harbour. I'd been down earlier in the year enquiring about jobs and had completely forgotten about it. The boat was called Boy Richard and have been working out of Paignton Harbour for years. I think we would do between three and four 2 hour trips every day depending on the weather. We would use hand lines consisting of a wait and a small silver spinner that attracted the mackerel. It was a very lucrative job for a 15-year-old boy. The wages were £80 a week, however, if I sold drinks as well I could cop my wages up to £100 a week, not bad for 1984. I will never forget the trip where we happened upon a large shoal of jumbo mackerel. Most people who fish for mackerel will probably never even catch a 1 lb mackerel. The mackerel that we were pulling out on this trip was truly gigantic. I'm talking about mackerel that overlapped a fish box. I remember estimating the mackerel we caught that day to be 3-4 pounds, they were monsters. It was very close to the end of the summer so I only did the job for a few weeks. However, the money I earned at that time was more than enough to buy me some really top of the range fishing equipment.
Falmouth Fisheries College
1985 was the year that I left school for good. Further education or university didn't really interest me in the slightest so I decided to travel down to Falmouth on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS). So on a baking hot day in June my mum, dad sister and I drove down to Cornwall. It was very surreal when they left, this was going to be the first time that I was my own person and didn't have adults looking over my shoulder. I boarded with a nice couple call Val and Mike. There was another young lad called Mark who was studying at the same college who shared the room with me. Val was great, she looked after us like your own children and made my stay in Falmouth very special indeed.
The course I was on consisted of everything that was needed to become a commercial fisherman. We did seamanship, net making, and repair, rope and cables splicing. We went to the Carn Brea leisure centre and did our safety at sea training to obtain the appropriate certificate. We also went to the local fire station and did a fire training course which was quite fun. For some strange reason we also did a cookery course, I remember making a massive pasty about 18 inches long, it was actually disgusting, although the Swans enjoyed it.
There were whispers about the massive Conger that inhabited the underwater structures at Falmouth docks. Being a very keen conger fishermen at the time I thought I may take a look and see what was down there. So I took all my fishing gear down to Falmouth with me and planned an evening fish at Falmouth docks. Now there was one thing that did worry me slightly, although it didn't actually deter me from going there, that was Falmouth docks is completely off bounds to the general public and therefore I would be trespassing if I did enter their grounds. So I set off on one dark evening and travelled to the outskirts of the docks where I could gain access by scrambling over a wall. I was all on my own, nobody was with me where I found myself walking through all the scrubland in complete darkness. Unfortunately, I only had a couple of herring to use for bait. I did have six initially but I made the mistake of leaving them where the cats could get at them. I don't think I fished for more than half an hour before I lost my bottle and decided to pack up. I knew I wasn't supposed to be there and I was convinced that somebody was going to see me. So I headed back a slightly different way and found myself walking through an area with lots of little huts dotted all over the place. I was on my own in the darkness and it started to unnerve me slightly. I then shone my torch into a small hut that didn't have a door on it. There was a chair just inside the doorway with a large sack sitting in it. Well, that's not what appeared to me initially, my brain translated this sack into an old man sitting in a chair. My God, I nearly shit myself, it was like being in the middle of a horror film. I reckon if Linford Christie was there I would have left him standing I ran so fast.
I was at Falmouth College at the time Simon Le Bon capsized in his yacht Drum. We had a good view of the sea from one of our classrooms and I remember the day that it was towed into harbour completely upside down in the water, all you could see was the hull poking out of the water.
My parents had decided to sell the shop and move over to Brixham, much to my delight. They bought a property in Dashpers that was something like three or 400 years old. The walls were about 3 foot thick. It had five bedrooms and only had a coal fire in the living room, suffice to say it got damn cold in the winter.
going to sea for the first time
The first part of the course came to an end in September 1985 and it was time to start the second course which was practical. This meant I was going to work on a fishing boat for the rest of the course. I started working on a 30-foot crab fishing boat which was owned and skippered by Dave Langdon. I had to get up at 5:30 AM every morning in order to be down at the boat by 6 AM. We would then go out and haul something like 300 pots which took about seven hours.
To be honest I got a little bit bored with crab fishing by the wintertime and decided that I wanted to find a job on a larger trawler. It wasn't very long before I was offered a job on the 79-foot trawler called "Onze Linquenda". Now, this was a bit of me, this is exactly what I imagined I would be doing as a fisherman. It was sometime in December just before Christmas when I went on my first ever trip. It didn't take very long for me to get to grips with how things ran on the boat. There were six of us who would alternate each shift. I would work from 2 o'clock in the afternoon through to 8 o'clock in the evening, then sleep from 8 o'clock to 2 o'clock in the morning and so on. Our main quarry was scallops that we would catch in special dragging devices that are called dredges. A dredge is basically a chain mesh bag that is dragged along the seabed. You have a set of sharp teeth that dig into the sand and dislodge anything that gets in the way. We didn't just catch scallops, we caught a large variety of flatfish including sole, lemon and Dover, plus plaice, turbot, monk, dogfish and also the odd crab and lobster as well. We would normally spend about five or six days at sea depending on weather and how the fishing was going or how much Clive the skipper was craving a pint. It wasn't very long before I realised that you have to make the best of those six hours you got in your bunk. Also, I never realised how much food you need when you are working on a fishing boat. We used to use a square baking tray as a plate so the motion of the boat rocking didn't mean your food ended up on the table.
Life on board a trawler does have its hairy moments at times. These type of trawlers have fairly low rails so it doesn't take a lot of rocking and swaying of the boat to have the water pouring over. It's also quite stressful on the back as you spend hours bending over picking up the catch. Occasionally we would trawl up bombshells that have been discarded by the Royal Navy. The most dangerous time was when we brought the dredges back on board. You had the best part of a ton of metal flying around in the air that could cause serious injury if you got in the way. Linquenda was an old girl with not many luxuries, but I have very fond memories of going to see on her. It's just a shame that she no longer exists.
In May 1986 our trawler Linquenda went over to Holland for an extensive refit. This meant that it would be away for several weeks. I decided that it would probably be a good idea to try and find another job in the meantime. Whether I would go back when it returned from the reset is something I will never know because on May 18, 1986, my life changed forever.
the day my life changed forever
I still remember the morning of May 18, 1986. It was a Sunday, my mother came into my bedroom just after I had woken up. I said that I would be going down to the harbour to enquire about finding a job on another boat. I didn't have any luck finding a job so decided to take our two dogs for a walk to Berry Head. May 18, 1986 was a nice warm spring day, I can remember lying on my back enjoying the warm sun shining on my face whilst at Berry Head. I then decided to head home, unfortunately for me I took an alternate route home through the woods which took you down to Berry Head road. When I got to the bottom of the pathway I bumped into a few guys that I knew. Leigh, John and Keith. We meandered back slowly and found ourselves walking past the outdoor swimming pool at Shoalstone. I have absolutely no idea who it was, but somebody suggested that we should go for a dip in the water. John jumped in first and as he was coming back to the side I dived over his head. I don't remember actually hitting my head on the bottom of the pool, all I can remember is lying facedown in the water not being to move any part of my body apart from my head. I don't think I realised just what I have done to myself, I was just panicking because I was laying face down in the water and I couldn't breathe. I know that I shook my head trying to attract attention. Not many people can hold their breath for more than a minute, especially when you are in the situation like I was. However, a very strange thing happened whilst I was laying face down in the water. The panic seemed to leave me within what was probably only a few seconds, I accepted my fate and basically prepared myself for death. Even though the incident happened 30 years ago I can still remember saying to myself "how the hell have you got yourself into this position Penn?". I remember thinking if there is indeed an afterlife. Some people say that drowning is a horrible death. All I can say is I don't remember suffering at all. I don't actually remember taking my last breath, that was obviously when I fell unconscious.
I Thought I Was Going to Die
Apparently, I was in the water for no more than a couple of minutes. My friends then realise that something was wrong got me out of the pool. Somebody must have been watching over me that day because at that exact moment a couple out on an afternoon walk came across the incident. They were Pearl and Barry Savage and were trained lifeguards. If it wasn't for those two remarkable people I would not be here today. Whilst one of them gave me the kiss of life, the other one performed heart massage and managed to bring me back to life again. I was then rushed to Torbay hospital where tests and x-rays showed I had suffered a compression fracture at the C5/6 level in my neck. I don't remember an awful lot about being in the intensive care unit at Torbay hospital apart from eating a little bit of scrambled egg and asking my cousin Nick if he could see if I was naked underneath the covers, funny what you remember.
nine months in the hospital
I was transferred to The Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre at Salisbury on May 21, 1986. I remember distinctly being taken from the ambulance into the hospital because it was raining slightly and not particularly warm. The spinal unit has two wards, both of which are named after rivers, the Avon and the Tamar. I was put in the large eight-bed ward on Avon, this is where all the acute patients would be put say that they were very close to the nurse's station. All patients have a primary nurse, I was appointed a young nurse call Wendy. However, I didn't see her for the first two weeks because she was on her honeymoon. The first few days of my stay at the spinal unit are very blurry and I don't really remember too much about it. I was drugged up to the eyeballs and kept having these strange dreams that I could move my hands, it was very weird. I had suffered a compression fracture in my neck region, this basically meant the vertebrae in my neck had been pushed together, rather like a concertina. In order to reset the bones, I needed to be put in traction. So they drilled two holes just above my ears, attached a clamp to my head using two small screws and then hung 10 lb of weight off of this clamp in order to pull apart the bones in my neck. I had to lay in bed for six weeks like this in order for the bones to heal properly. Nowadays each bed has its own television which is attached to an adjustable TV wall bracket. Back in 1986, we had to make do with a mirror attached above us on the frame of the bed, we could then watch the television which was placed behind the bed through the mirror. Having a mirror attached above you facing backwards does have more benefits than just watching the television. When you are laying in bed for that amount of time you have to be turned on a regular basis. In order to keep your neck from moving a nurse would have to stand behind you with her hands on your shoulders. The mirror was placed in such a way that you could see right down the nurses top, great for a 16-year-old.
By August I no longer needed to be in the eight bed ward so was moved into one of the smaller four bed wards. There were four other lads in the ward with me. David Higgs who had also broken his neck in a diving accident, Philip Holder who had broken his back on a motorbike and an old chap called Sid. Spending so long in hospital with these other guys means that you all become so familiar with each other and the four bed ward was almost like living in a house with other flatmates. Normally when you go into hospital you're not spending very long there, but when you have a spinal cord injury you'll probably spend nearly a year in hospital so inevitable you will bond with certain people. I was finally discharged from hospital at the beginning of February 1987. It was a very scary day indeed, I'd spent the best part of nine months surrounded by people who maybe feel safe and secure. As soon as you leave that environment you feel completely on your own without that safety cushion that you've had for the last few months. However, as much as I wanted to, I couldn't stay in hospital forever, it was only there to rehabilitate me and prepare me for the rest of my life in a wheelchair.
A visit from the Trotters
My claim to fame is that I have actually met Delboy and Rodney, a.k.a. David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst. In 1986 they were filming parts of the Only Fools and Horses Christmas special in Salisbury. Someone on the ward suddenly announced that David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst were coming in to say hello to everybody. I remember sitting by the nurses station and seeing David and Nicholas walk in. Both were dressed in their traditional Only Fools and Horses clothing, David was wearing his sheepskin coat and Nicholas Lyndhurst was wearing a camouflage coat. They suddenly appeared on the ward and I basically just froze and didn't say a single word. I'm so annoyed with myself nowadays, I didn't even ask for their autograph, even though they were signing autographs for everybody else.
One very funny moment which saw Nicholas Lyndhurst improvise his brilliant comedy acting was when one of the male nurses who was called Eddie walked up behind Nicholas Lyndhurst. Now Eddie was a massive guy, probably about 6 foot six. Nicholas Lyndhurst is not exactly small, but Eddie towered above him. Nicholas Lyndhurst didn't see him at first. Then he turned around and said "what do you want? My watch, my wallet" it was a comic genius. So that's my claim to fame, I've been in the presence of brilliance. And it just so happens that Only Fools and Horses is my absolute favourite sitcom of all time, even pips Fawlty Towers, "sorry John"
back home to Brixham
Our family home in Brixham was not suitable for me at all. Being a home that was probably 400 years old you can imagine that he had a very narrow staircase and the was nothing in the house that was geared up for somebody in a wheelchair. I had spent Christmas 1986 at home which was really nice, albeit a little bit strange because it was the first time since my accident I have been taken out of the hospital environment. I actually slept in the dining room that Christmas but obviously that wouldn't be suitable as a long-term arrangement. My parents managed to get a grant to build a small dwelling on the back of the existing house, this is where I would live. In the meantime, I went to live at the Cheshire Home which ironically is opposite where I live now. The Leonard Cheshire disability was set up in 1948 by ex-World War II pilot Group Capt Leonard Cheshire. Its purpose was to provide support disabled people all around the world. There are now Cheshire homes in countries all around the world. Douglas house Cheshire home here in Brixham was then run by Tom Fallon, an extremely jolly and likeable Irishman who would bend over backwards to help the residents under his care. Every resident has his or her own room at the Cheshire home, you certainly don't have to share. I'd already visited the Cheshire home previously just have a look around and speak to some of the residents. I remember they stuck me in with the poor chap called David Cartwright. I felt a bit sorry for him because he was right in the middle of watching a football match and they didn't really give them any choice but to have me in his room. This was probably the first time I've spoken to a really disabled person. David had an accident on a motorbike and lost an arm and suffered various other very serious physical injuries. But anyone who knows Dave Cartwright will know that he is a great guy with a wicked sense of humour. So there I was with my own room in the Cheshire home not really knowing what was ahead of me in life.
It didn't take very long for me to feel right at home at Douglas house. Mum dad and my sister could come and visit me anytime I wanted, I wasn't very far from home either. My cousins would come and visit me and we would often have a Chinese takeaway in the evening. Mealtimes were always fun at the Cheshire home because I was sitting at a table with five other people. To the right of me, I had John Bennett who had a similar disability to myself. He was a very quiet man who really didn't say an awful lot and would often fall asleep whilst eating his meal. Right opposite me was Martin Fuller who suffered from multiple sclerosis. Next to sat David Johnson who really reminded me of Eric Morecambe. David had suffered a tumour on the spinal cord and had lost the use of his legs some years before. He was the very intelligent man who loved doing the crossword and fancied all the young foreign girls who were volunteers from overseas working at Douglas house. David Cartwright used to sit beside the table and like to be as independent as he could which would often mean him not getting an awful lot to eat for dinner. He used to try and feed himself but most of the food went on the floor. And then there was Chris Spick who was ex-Royal Navy and was also suffering from multiple sclerosis. What I really liked about living at the Cheshire home was that there were no rules about when he had to go to bed. So I would often sit up with my girls till 2 o'clock in the morning talking, there was a great freedom which was fab. The Cheshire home also used to have a policy of bringing over volunteer workers from abroad. So we had never ending supply of young Danish or German girls which was a real bonus. These young girls typically between the ages of 17 and 21 had to do volunteer work for some of their qualifications back in their own country. Apart from being incredibly gorgeous, the girls were really brilliant at their work, even though some of them had never cared for the disabled before.
moving back into the family home
By the end of 1987, my new dwelling on the back of my parent's house at Dashpers was complete and ready for me to inhabit. So on Christmas eve 1987, I went through a similar process to what I had done when I left the spinal unit. Once again, I left behind a safe and secure environment that I'd grown to love. I remember leaving the Cheshire home like it was yesterday. It had been pouring with rain all day and I got Chris from the physio department to completely cover my legs with black bin liners. By the time I was ready to go the rain had stopped, typical. Christmas was good, although those still quite a lot of work to do in the lounge and dining room area.
new hobbies and new friends
1990 saw me rekindle a childhood interest that would change my life more than I would ever imagine. After leaving the Cheshire home I really didn't do an awful lot, I would just sit in my room watching television. In the week I would travel back to the Cheshire home so I was seeing people. However, I think I craved something to do so I thought why not get myself a CB radio. CB stands for citizens band and it's basically a free radio frequency for people to communicate with each other. I went over to Exeter CB supplies in Paignton and bought myself a brand-new CB radio. There was still quite a lot of people using the CB back in 1990 so there were lots of people to talk to. It wasn't very long before I started making new friends on the airways, some of which are still very good friends to this day. In fact, I would say that all the friends I have now originate from the old CB days. The CB enabled me to communicate and make friends with people not just in Torbay, but all around England and Europe. The beauty with using this type of communication is the person on the other end can only hear your voice, they can't see you, they don't know you're in a wheelchair so they only have your voice to make a first impression of you. It was absolutely fantastic, by the time I actually met most people face-to-face I was already friends with them. I actually spoke toa guy in Poland on CB radio in 1990. Remeck and I are still friends nowadays, although neither of us really use CB radio anymore, with the beauty of Facebook and Skype it's possible to keep in contact very easily.
Almost 6 years after my accident in 1992 I successfully sued the local council for damages relating to my accident in a council owned outdoor swimming pool. The payment allowed me to purchase my own house and also a vehicle which I hoped I would be able to drive myself. I bought the bungalow where I live now within about a month of receiving my compensation. To cut a long story short I purchased Chrysler Voyager which was shipped in from Arizona USA. I didn't have the benefit of the Internet in 1992 and therefore one with a company that had been recommended to me. Anyway, things didn't quite work out when my car was fitted with hand controls and it wouldn't be until 1994 until I finally had a proper disabled driving system fitted that enabled me to drive the car properly.
1995 - present
1995 was a memorable year for many great reasons. In January 1995 I received the fantastic news that the radio amateur exam I had taken at the end of 1994 was successful and I was now a fully licensed radio ham. I'd been having driving lessons since around September October 94, on May 1, 1995 I passed my driving test first time around. The next day we were on holiday in France which is where I first drove independently on the road by myself.
In October 1995 I decided it was time to move into my bungalow and start living independently. So for the third time in less than 10 years I was leaving somewhere that felt safe and secure and was entering into the unknown. It didn't take long for me to settle in and start enjoying my independence. One thing led to another and I started a relationship n 1999 with one of the girls who had been caring for me since 1995. In 2000 we decided to live together so she moved in. Unfortunately that relationship came to an end in 2006. On a more cheerful my she is still my carer and we remain extremely close friends.
Goodbye my dear friend Gary
On August 24, 2005, my dear friend Gary passed away after a short illness. I have many fond memories of the times Gary and I spent together as teenagers. I still think about Gary quite often, something will happen, I may be driving through Paignton, the Specials or Madness will come on the radio and he will pop into my head and I will instantly remember something silly that we did 30 odd years ago. Oh Gary, the great times we had, thank you, my friend.
Close to Death
October 2008 is a month I would rather forget. It was a normal Saturday like any other Saturday, my mother was on a short break to Italy and Chrissy, one of my carers was due to visit me in the evening for our fortnightly Chinese takeaway. I think it must have been sometime in the morning that I developed this tremendous unquenchable thirst. I had literally drunk every bit of available liquid that I could get my hands on, and believe me I am always left with several glasses of water and I'm able to make myself beverages. Throughout the day things were obviously not right and I felt increasingly more ill as the hours went by. Chrissy must have arrived by about 5 PM, however I was in a pretty bad way by this time and asked her to ring the Bay Dr straightaway. It was decided that it would be best if I went to hospital straight away. Chrissy took me to accident and emergency where I was examined and transferred into one of their beds. That's about the last thing I remember for the next two weeks.
It was quite surreal, I wasn't quite sure where I was or what had happened. I was aware that my parents were present but I don't recall recognising their face. In fact I was isolated in the intensive care unit at Torbay hospital. It turns out that I have developed a very serious illness called "sepsis". A lot of people develop sepsis and recover fairly quickly with mild antibiotics. However, in quite a lot of cases the sepsis is severe and can be a killer. I was very very lucky, the doctors told me after that they were really not expecting me to survive. By the grace of God I did survive and got through the worst of it. Slowly I became a little more aware of my surroundings but initially wasn't quite sure what had happened to me. I wasn't able to talk because I have been fitted with a tracheotomy which in some cases affects your vocal cords and completely cuts out your ability to speak. If you've never experienced this before then it is extremely weird. You try and talk but absolutely nothing happens. I can tell you that it's very frustrating trying to make yourself understood to people. Chrissy told me after that I thought I had a stroke because they were using the special alphabet chart that was made for stroke users to help with communication. Having the tracheotomy removed was absolutely wonderful. From not being able to talk, to suddenly being able to communicate normally was a great feeling. I have nothing but respect for the people who looked after me during those three weeks, they saved my life and I will be forever grateful.
In Memory of My Dear Dad
Sadly on January 1 my father Rob passed away peacefully at the Rowcroft Hospice in Torquay. Dad had not been well for several months and had been in and out of hospital with severe pains in his abdominal area. He'd also suffered a broken hip which had to be replaced over a year ago. The doctors thought that they had found the problem and he came home not long before Christmas after a three-week long spell in hospital. A few days before Christmas he went back into hospital with severe abdominal pains. They then finally diagnosed pancreatic cancer which was unfortunately untreatable by this stage. It was my parents 50th wedding anniversary on Christmas Eve and dad was absolutely determined that he was going to celebrate it. By this time he was in Rowcroft and it was very evident that he had little time left. But he did celebrate his wedding anniversary and even managed some champagne and a couple of chocolates, he absolutely loved chocolate, although he would never admit it. One of the best things about Rowcroft is that they care just as much about the families as they do the people who they are looking after. Therefore, mum , my sister Gabrielle and myself enjoyed our last Christmas Day with dad, Rowcroft cooked a Christmas dinner and even pulled Christmas crackers.
Exactly a week later at 2 PM dad passed away peacefully with me, mother and Gabrielle at his bedside. On January 12, 2016 we all attended dad's funeral at Stockman's in Brixham. Seat capacity at Stockman's is 60, 10 people had to sit in the foyer. Dad wasn't a man who liked people fussing around him so his funeral eulogy didn't involve people standing up saying how wonderful dad was, he would have absolutely hated that. His eulogy actually surprised a lot of people because some of them weren't aware he was a fighter pilot in the 60s, and even fewer people knew that he was a musician on the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner in the late 50s. But that's dad for you, he did a lot of fabulous things in life but he was not a man who would go around talking about it or trying to big himself up.
My dad will be missed by more people than you would ever believe. The amount of people who attended his funeral only goes to show how well admired and liked he was. Life is going to be very different from now on, but we will all cope because unconsciously I think we've learned a lot from him over the years and his legacy will definitely live on for as long as I'm around anyway.