These might be the days of the gig economy, but I’ve been doing one every Tuesday for 27 years.
My particular white van (for US readers the delivery drivers of such are a British stereotype of the new Amazon order — or lack of it) is a comedy vehicle called “The Cutting Edge.”‘ It’s a live topical stand-up show I created in 1990 and still produce/direct.
Before that I’d been the U.K.’s first-ever, regular comedy critic. In those days I was used to pushing boundaries and landing on my feet. These days I push a walker and am always grateful if I manage to stay on them.
The home of my show is The Comedy Store (no relation to the one in Los Angeles, Calif.) in central London. It’s the leading stand-up venue in the U.K. and considered among the best in the world by many international comics with whom I’ve interviewed/worked/drunk.
I live at the edge of the Greater London area. A crow might get the distance down to eight miles, but my commute was a meandering 12: Walk, bus, tube (underground train) and then a final stroll across Leicester Square (known for film premieres at the famous Odeon cinema).
I don’t exactly know when it happened, but I remember it happening. I was basically at the venue, only 10 yards away when I clattered down. It shook me up, but in those days I could pick myself and go on. I ran the show, then tentatively made my way home.
By this time I was using a cane and driving my car to the tube station, parking was easy as I was a Blue Badge (disabled placard) holder.
But my cowboy days were over. From then on I was a passenger.
Everyone’s MS is different. I got it late in life. This, I’ve read, means it’s likely to be highly active. Mine certainly is.
My working day is terribly convoluted compared with writing a column like this, which is a breeze. OK, there’s rarely a breeze as I reduce the odds of a tumble and leave the windows closed. If someone opens them it’s a hassle to get them closed if it turns cold, which in Britain is nearly always.
I stay in bed and tap away. If only one could make a living as a writer. Maybe there’s a franchise about physically challenged superheroes? Or wizards with MS? That would be magic.
No, my working day starts the evening before with a shave and shower. Rest beforehand to have the energy to do it and then collapse after.
Stage 1 complete.
I try to take it easy during the day of the show, and it’s usually a forlorn task. Performers pull and need to be replaced, news needs to be clocked and, perhaps, jokes written. At 4.30 p.m. (my car is at 5 p.m.) I notice a breaking story that Prime Minister Theresa May, during that day’s visit to Saudi Arabia, had defended the U.K.’s ties with the country. Immediately jotted down “She would have driven her point home, but as she was in Saudi wasn’t allowed.” Used in the show that night and got a big laugh. (Like I’m going to tell you about gags that fail? Never happens!)
Getting dressed is like the shower; I have to build in a before and after. Now complicated by turning myself into a cyborg (OK, it’s my brand new FES device). This week it took me and my wife an hour to get right; the clock was ticking. he also has to feed me, bring files that I need (thinking ahead and endless lists become their own complication) and get my printing. Comedians are old-fashioned, as am I; notebooks abound. Youngsters turn up with laptops, but it never lasts. Paper is lighter and trustworthy.
I am ready. 10 minutes to get downstairs.
Stage 2 complete.
Use walker down path of front garden (wheelchair if really ropy) Clamber into car with the aid of my regular minicab driver Mithu (from Bangladesh and has three names, all long, all meant for differing occasions) who knows I need help in with my right leg. We’ve been together for two years now. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Tuesday is a quiet night and this is regular work for him, and for me it’s relaxing having someone I trust and understands my frailties.
One hour drive. Recovery time.
Stage 3 complete.
In the UK fewer than half of disabled adults are in employment (47.6%) compared with almost 80% of non-disabled adults. One scheme our government runs to help is called Access to Work, which pays for you to be driven to your job and, if you need it, have someone to assist while there. It’s something I don’t need yet — also because of the enormous and lovely doormen at The Comedy Store. They get me in, put me in a stair lift and ferry me about the building in the venue’s wheelchair. They tell me off if I go solo. I point out that I play wheelchair tennis, but this gets me nowhere. Anyway, these guys are too big to argue with even if you’ve known them for 30-plus years.
Stage 4 complete.
One of the joys of a job that requires mental agility is that if this aspect isn’t affected, then at least at this you’re equals. I’ll never make the coffee again (hurrah!), but no concessions are given or taken with backstage banter.
You try spending your working life in a a cramped dressing room with six comics in search of a punch line. The only defense is getting the odd good jab in yourself.
We have liftoff.
Run the show. Then reverse all the above to get home.
I am met by a family member to get into the house. It took a teeth-smashing fall for me to relinquish these final few solo yards.
I’m shadowed all day.
It’s important for me and, I think, good for society, that the disabled stay part of it.
My deepest thanks to all who help to make my job still possible.
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