Posts from 17th February 2012

Feb 12

music, poetry, parkinson’s disease

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(This piece was written to coincide with Mike Dibb’s documentary on the jazz saxophonist Barbara Thompson, and how Parkinson’s disease affects her playing life. The first time I saw it, at a screening last year, I knew I wanted to write something about my father, his Parkinson’s and the poem printed below the fold. I’d hoped a newspaper would run it — because I think the general topic’s important as well as interesting, and because I know Mike likes the poem — but though I sent proposals to several, and the finished piece to a couple, it was always going to be a complex balance of getting the proposal right, getting the piece right, getting the right section of the right paper, and getting the timing of my pitch right (not too early, not too late). I knew it was a long shot — it falls somewhat between tidy journalistic categories (poetry & music & health & family) — and in the event, I missed too many lead-times to find time to hustle an appropriate slot for it. So here it is. Update: Barbara Thompson: Playing Against Time, aired on BBC4, Sunday 19 February, 9-10.15pm UK time, but should still be viewable on via BBC iplayer for a while.)

A scientist and teacher by profession, my father had been an excellent amateur calligrapher in his youth, and an artist in ink, as well as an occasional poet. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1967, but a badly shaky writing hand was the earliest symptom, some time before that, and he had to switch to his other hand to teach himself how to write from scratch, giving up drawing for ever. The condition takes you through cycles of capability — from flail to freeze and back — that mean that you are all too often not to be able to get your limbs to do the most ordinary things, such as picking up the pills which will cycle you through blessed mid-way periods of balance for a while, but then out again into the opposite unbalanced state. The effect on anything more deftly ambitious will eventually be devastating, but for some the slow on-set of the disease will mean — as my father’s poem below suggests — that the passions and possibilities of your art have become intimately tangled with Parkinson’s itself, how you feel about it, how you work with it; what you want to do, what you can no longer do. And in fact he lived with it — as did we, his family — for 43 years, an unusually long time.