Friday, 17 September 2010

Son of Budleigh returns to tell a story

Raw and solipsistic as only teenagers can be, I was an immature 17-year-old when the doctors diagnosed possible TB and carved out bits of my spine. It turned out to be osteomylitis but the result was the same: a spinal fusion followed by three months of lying flat on my back in a plaster cast.

The event, coming from out of the blue, should have made me older and wiser. But it obviously didn't because not so long after leaving hospital it was teenage crazy bravado wanting to test the surgeon's work which inspired me to hitch-hike to Iran. I remember sending him a postcard from Teheran. Possibly out of gratitude but probably there was a bit of the adolescent "Aren't I clever?" showing off in the gesture.

I thought of my confused teenage years when I read that a guest speaker at Budleigh's Literary Festival, the journalist Alex Wade had also recently had to undergo spinal fusion following a diagnosis of cervical myelopathy. And then, as if that was not enough for the poor fellow, his operation in December last year was followed a few months later by a diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease.

I noticed on his blog at Alex's joking comment that he should have been treated as something of a celebrity at this year's event: "As a Son of Budleigh - I was brought up in the East Devon town - I reckon I ought to have been given headline status but then again this is the first lit fest to which I've been invited so I guess I'm just pleased to be rolling up."

Well, I thought I owed Alex a bit of a debt for mentioning my blog in his Coaster column in The Times in June last year when I met him by chance during the pebble-building competition on Budleigh beach.
So here in return is a little plug for his talk on Sunday 26 September at 11.30 am in the Salterton Playhouse.

Readers who are familiar with his journalism, his books and his blog will know that Alex's passion is for surfing, a youthfully mad activity if ever there was one. And rather like my adolescent passion for hitch-hiking, it's been behind the crazy bravado which since leaving hospital has made him want to test himself and the surgery by throwing his battered body against the waves.

But Alex, unlike my teenage self, is a sensible chap. He trained as a lawyer and is used to facing facts. A mature 44-year-old, he's aware of a midriff heavier than ever telling him he's too old for this sort of behaviour. And although the op went well he's conscious when he surfs of "a lot of twinges and weird shaking" in his left leg and hand, and knows that an injury to a post-cervical discectomy neck could mean that he spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

There's no mention of these health problems on the Budleigh Literary Festival site at Yet Alex has got possibly even more famous for writing about them than about his prowess and expertise as a surf dude

His talk on Sunday 26 September is entitled 'A Colourful Life', which I find somewhat ambiguous. Is it going to be a kind of farewell to Alex's high-energy past life as a media lawyer, amateur boxer, author and surfing journalist now that he's facing up to medical realities and gracefully sliding into middle age as the editor of Cornwall Today, a regular speaker at literary festivals and amateur gardener? Anything to keep him away from the dangers of surfing. There's even that novel he's been thinking of finishing.

As recently as last month he was reflecting on such matters in his blog. "What's the point in surfing when the risks are so high? When paralysis might come my way?" he wondered. "As I write those words, the answer is obvious." And sadly his recent entry mentions his "left leg wonkiness, left arm weirdness, hyper reflexes in my left foot and hideous shooting pains in my right leg" caused by problems which have now arisen in the discs underneath the one which was removed in his operation almost a year ago.

Or will his talk prove that he is indeed an exceptionally colourful character who sees such recent setbacks as little hiccups in the face of the big challenge? After all, his book Wrecking Machine, about his time as an amateur boxer, dealt with facing one's fears and living one's dreams. As one reviewer put it, "Just as Wade had (and maybe still has) continued reservations about putting himself into a position where he could get seriously hurt, it is overcoming those reservations by sheer willpower and physical training just to step into the ring, regardless of the outcome, that is truly inspiring..."

And surfing, as his boxing did in the past, will surely continue to tempt Alex into such risk-taking as long as he is inspired by superbeings like Florida's Kelly Slater. "To watch Slater surf is to be mesmerized by a blend of suppleness, power and elegance allied with an uncanny wave-reading skill," as he wrote recently.

Many people in Britain have been considering recently how much we have lost as a nation through our aversion to risk-taking. The crippling effect of too much attention to health & safety in areas such as education has been recognised, while exposure to danger has been seen as playing a vital part in a truly enriching existence. Prudence in life can so often mean cowardice, and I'm sure that this surfing Son of Budleigh is no coward. So my fingers are crossed for Alex, while I wish him all the best for a speedy recovery.

For details of Budleigh Salterton's second literary festival including Alex Wade's talk on 26 September click on

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