Suddenly, everything changed. My father got home from his work at the fruit-and-veg warehouse, complaining about how seedy he felt. Rough throat, general aches. Mum thought it was flu. He went to bed early. I didn’t hear the ambulance arrive in the middle of the night, or understand why a neighbour was there when we woke up. But just 12 hours later, my mother came back from the Royal Infirmary and told us – aged ten, five and two – that he was dead. We never had a chance to say goodbye. She was gaunt and stoic. And then, a couple of days on, it happened all over again. I went down with polio, too.
For a week, encased in a great, heaving, yellow box of an iron lung, I drifted between life and oblivion, somehow light-headed, constantly dreaming, unable to register the faces that looked down at me, barely understanding the voices that talked above and around. But one morning, the drifting stopped. Now I was awake, fully awake, alone in a small, white room, propped on pillows, hands tightly tucked under the sheets. A fly buzzed around my face. I needed to brush it away. Yet, strangely, the hands wouldn’t move. They were trapped, inert, limply useless beneath the sheets. In fact, I could only roll my head from side to side.
This was, of course, all a long time ago: the time in the late 40s and early 50s when polio became the “summer plague” of newspaper banner headlines, killing or paralysing in epidemics across the developed West. The time before Salk, Sabin, and their American vaccines that have gradually pushed infantile paralysis – its victims, its terrors – to the brink of extinction. But while I and thousands of others here in Britain live on, for many of us grappling with the cruelties of post-polio symptoms (crippling weaknesses that return decades after supposed recovery), the legacy of those years remains. We remember what it was like. We live with its consequences every day. Meanwhile the world keeps spinning and we are gradually becoming mere relics, leftover reminders of horrors past. “When did you have the stroke?” a young GP once asked me. “I didn’t. I had polio.” Probably 40 years before he was born.
It was 1948, the year the NHS was born, and I was far from home, locked in a cast of plaster of Paris, arms stuck upwards in the deluded medical fashion of the era. I had to be fed. Sometimes, when the nurses were rushed, they’d pour tea into my mouth and miss it, dregs running down my neck, mingling with the crumbs of breakfast.
I wanted to read, I needed to read. I learned to turn pages with a bit of wire and plastic clamped between my teeth. And this state, slowly amelio- rating, slowly seeing some strength return, lasted for well over a year, punctuated by an operation to pin a useless shoulder so that it had a little traction to offer.
You can’t begin to explain to your own grandchildren how long ago and far away that seems.
No television, just films once a week, beds pushed into the ward next door. Headphones with Workers’ Playtime and The Adventures of PC 49. Mum, with two small children, spending her weekends catching three different buses to make the 25-mile journey to my bedside (visitors grudgingly welcome: 2 til 4). But life in Harlow Wood Orthopaedic Hospital, near Mansfield, wasn’t all grim or crushing.
You learned to get on with the boys in the beds next door: Ernie the miner’s son, Kevin the ballroom dancer; both TB hips, both strapped into place. There was no point in arguing because there was no chance of moving or winning. Co-exist, make friends, find a wavelength. You also learned how kind people could be.
Here was Tommy Lawton, England’s iconic centre forward, touring the ward, pausing and chatting. Here was the old Duchess of Portland, her face a haunting melange of white powder and scarlet lipstick. There were the young Elizabeth and Philip, driving by at the bottom of the road and pausing to connect with the gaggle of wheelchairs and stretchers brought out to greet them. You were not alone. The outside world did not forget you. But you were also, in the most urgent sense, on your own.
There was one obvious battle against polio: that of America’s researchers and politicians to find a vaccine. This is the story told in a brilliant new documentary, The Battle to Beat Polio, presented by former BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders. Her father, Michael Flanders, of the comedy duo Flanders & Swann, contracted polio five years before me, in 1943.
But there was also a solitary personal battle: to walk, to bend and lift, to laugh, to compete, somehow to catch up with a year of missed schooling. In a way, to re-invent yourself. Before I had polio, I thought of little but sport. After polio, I had to find something I could do; I found journalism. Without polio, I’d never have lived this life, had this family (or seen a son edit Radio Times). There is always another strand of the story lurking somewhere, a story of change and opportunity you hear many times over when you meet old polio victims.
The virus that killed or blighted generations was an enemy. Rejoice that at last it has almost gone. Rage at the extremism and war that keep is alive in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria to the extent the World Health Organisation recently warned that polio has re-emerged as a public health emergency. A religion that condemns hundreds of children by denying them vaccination lies beyond comprehension. But I think there’s a deeper lesson here amid all the fear and the heartache of epidemics past, one to remember as new health scourges lead the news bulletins and fresh panic spreads.
We are oddly vulnerable when disaster strikes. Governments cannot save us at the snap of a finger. Science may take decades to get its act together. In the meantime, sickness can blow us away. There are no sure defences or instant solutions, just a stubborn will to survive and to help each other. One more battle, if you will, as natural as life itself: the battle of and for humanity.
The Battle to Beat Polio, Monday 9:00pm, BBC2