Author Andrew Bradford talks about his parents who were both disabled by Polio - and were remarkable people.
AB: First of all let me thank Helen for inviting me to post on her blog and share this story. I haven’t known Helen for long; we got to know each other when for a short time we were published by the same company. Earlier this year I published ‘Live Eels and Grand Pianos’.
‘Live Eels’ is both a family memoir and, I hope, an important contribution to the social history of the twentieth century.
HH: Tell me about your family Andrew?
AB: My parents, Charlie and Kathy Bradford, were both seriously disabled by Polio when they were young children. Charlie caught the virus when he was three, in 1909, and Kathy when she was ten months old in 1912.
HH: How did it affect them?
AB: Charlie was less than five feet tall and he was disabled in both legs, his left arm and he had a severe curvature of the spine that meant he had to wear a leather and steel spinal corset that weighed over twenty pounds. Kathy was disabled in both legs. They both used crutches and leg –irons to walk around the house, and used wheelchairs outside.
HH: But they married and had a family?
AB: Yes. They met in 1940 when disabled adults were evacuated from London. They married in 1945 and I was born in 1948. We lived in Edmonton, North London.
HH: Were they able to work?
AB: Charlie left school in 1922 and for the next eighteen years he peddled sweets from his wheelchair outside the local grammar school. Kathy left school at 14 and found work as a tailoress. Her first job lasted one year, as did her second job and then her third. When she was sacked for the third time she asked her employer why, and she was told that the boss had found out that due to her disability, the employer would have to pay extra national insurance contributions, backdated to the day that she started. Kathy’s employer said that he couldn’t afford to pay that. Somebody else could do the job more cheaply. She had to go. She therefore came to an arrangement that she would reimburse the firm for the extra national insurance stamp.
She did this for ten years until the start of World War II, and she recorded all the payments she made in a series of notebooks. In 1938 she attended one of the first meetings of what became the British Polio Fellowship, a self-help organisation for people with her disability. A few years later the Polio Fellowship submitted these notebooks as evidence to the Beveridge Commission, and the national insurance rules were changed.
World War II changed their lives forever. Charlie was conscripted into the labour force and worked in a munitions factory. After the war he found work on the assembly line at the British Oxygen Company and he stayed there for the next twenty two years. He was very proud of that.
HH: Kathy must have been very proud that her evidence changed the National Insurance Rules. Did they campaign to change other things?
AB: They were always campaigning for improved access and mobility. They were committee members of the local branches of the British Polio Fellowship and the Disabled Drivers Association.
HH: What did they drive? Adapted cars?
AB: No, motorised invalid tricycles, known as trikes. The trikes only had one seat, and could only do about 40 miles an hour on flat roads. It was illegal to carry passengers, but they had to break the law if they wanted to take me with them when I was a small child. I had to sit in the space that was provided for a folding wheelchair. We had to travel in convoy, Charlie leading with me by his side, Kathy following with Charlie’s wheelchair by her side. It meant we could only go to places where Kathy could manage without a wheelchair, as Charlie depended completely on a wheelchair outside the house.
HH: What were other people’s reactions to your family?
AB: Many people showed us great kindness and gave us practical support. Some others didn’t. We were so unusual that the National Press often wrote about us. After “The People” wrote an article in 1950 Charlie was verbally abused and spat at by a man in the street who accused him of having a child that would grow up crippled, just like him.
HH: I hope times have changed. Could that happen now?
AB: Unfortunately it can and does happen today. Today you can read in the press about ‘disability hate crime’; which is mainly targeted at people with learning disabilities. But on the whole attitudes are much more informed and positive today. There’s less ignorance and prejudice.
HH: So Polio isn’t hereditary? What causes it?
AB: It’s a virus, similar to flu. In the twentieth century there were lots of severe epidemics in the UK that caused 4,000 deaths and left 58,000 people with disabilities. It was eliminated in the developed world by a vaccine in the 1950s, but it still affects people in Africa, India and Pakistan.
HH: So what made you write the book?
AB: I am so proud of what my parents, and other disabled people of their generation achieved. I wanted to tell the story in a way that it could be understood by a younger generation.
HH: Where can people buy “Live Eels and Grand Pianos”?
AB: From my website, www.andrewbradfordauthor.com or from Amazon.co.uk or Waterstone’s Enfield branch
HH: What are you writing now?
AB: I’m writing another non-fiction book. It’s the story of Dorothy O’Grady, the only woman to be sentenced to death for Treason during World War II. There’s the strong possibility that she wasn’t the German master spy she said she was, but a complete fantasist and an attention seeker who made it all up.
HH: Finally Andrew, which ten people would you invite to a dinner party and why? You can have anyone, alive, dead or fictional.
AB: I’ll invite nine people to make it a round number. My guests would be George Orwell, Dave Eggers, Joan Baez, King Juan Carlos of Spain, John LeCarre, Australian novelist Kate Grenville, travel writer Norman Lewis, and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. You can come too Helen.
HH: Thank you, I’ll be there – I’d love to meet Joan Baez
Orwell has always been my favourite author since I was a teenager, and as well as being remembered for “1984 and “Animal Farm” his journalism and non-fiction writing is still admired today. Dave Eggers is an American writer who is following in Orwell’s footsteps as a non fiction writer and campaigner. Joan Baez has had a remarkable career as a singer, songwriter and peace activist spanning five decades. I hope she’ll bring her guitar to this dinner party and sing to us.
King Juan Carlos was chosen by Franco as his successor, and everybody expected him to continue as absolute rules of a Fascist Spain. Instead, he was instrumental in restoring democracy and making Spain a modern European nation.
I’ve read every book that John LeCarre had ever written, and I cannot fathom why he’s never won the Booker Prize. Nobody writes about moral ambiguity better than he does.
Norman Lewis was very under-rated a travel writer who wrote about Spain, Vietnam and Cambodia in the nineteen fifties, and was instrumental in the founding of Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of aboriginal people all over the world.
Kate Grenville’s “The Lieutenant” is a historical novel about the settlement of Australia. It’s deeply moving and also well researched. It’s about an Englishman who sets out to learn the aboriginal language, but more than that it’s about what makes us human. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche writes about modern Africa and makes themes such as the Biafran war of the 1960s accessible to a European reader.
Andrew’s website website