1st Broadcast 26th July 1986 BBC Radio 4
2nd Broadcast 28th July 1986 BBC Radio 4
On a scout outing in the mid-50's author James Follett was pushed into a gorse bush.
His eyes were scratched and infected, and from the age of 14 until a successful operation four years later, he was blind.
Although the characters are fictional, the play is based upon his experiences.
|DR Kaplan||William Eedle|
|Mrs. Keith||Melinda Walker|
|DR Scranton||Paul Nicholson|
James Follett Comments
You were blind and you got better? How did that happen?
It was a plant, a gorse bush during horseplay on training hike in early 1953 for our dear Queen's coronation. A thorn punctured right through the cornea of my left eye, through the lens, and into the anterior chamber.
Thanks to Dr Harold Ridley  at Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, my left eye did not have to be removed apart from the lens that had to go. The problem was the nasty bugs on that gorse thorn that caused infection to spread to my right eye and damage the cornea -- exposing it to further infection. In those days there weren't the narrow spectrum anti-biotics that there are today; to prevent infection causing further damage, my eyelids were stitched down. Eyelids were considered the best dressing. What I thought would be two weeks with stitched eyelids became many months so I was packed to yet another hospital for pre-op intermediate care where my talent for being an obnoxious cunt stood me in good stead because I wanted to teach myself Braille.
Why all the frigging fuss about learning Braille? I wanted to know. It was just raised letters wasn't it? A patient nurse explained about Braille cells and that it wasn't worth my learning Braille because my eyesight would be restored after my 'operation'. Besides, the hospital didn't have facilities to teach Braille. I wasn't having that. I wanted to read. The obliging nurse fetched me the only Braille book they had: THE CRUEL SEA by Nicholas Monsarrat. Three massive volumes with a collective weight of about a quarter of a ton. She explained the Braille cell system to me as best she could and I was off. No Braille first readers; no Braille tactile exercises. Straight into the book. Do you know what the first line of THE CRUEL SEA is? I do. I'll never forget it because it took me about a week to read it: "Lieutenant Commander George Eastwood Ericson, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve."
My eye operation was delayed and delayed but I didn't mind. With THE CRUEL SEA I had a book that gave me bouts of tremendous action and bouts of tremendous sex. My feverish fingers flew over some passages. Mr Monsarrat was my new hero; a writer who knew exactly what pimply boys wanted. The intimidating length of the book didn't matter; the great thing about blindness and Braille was being able to read after lights out without the aid of a torch. The disadvantage was having to keep one's fingers on the pages during the juicy passages when they wanted to be off doing other things.
The infection wasn't clearing fast enough so I was packed off to a special needs home where a blind kid was paired with a polio victim kid -- there were a lot of polio victims in those days. Thus the two could get out and about and be independent: the blind kid providing the muscle, and the polio victim acting as the eyes. Thanks to Mr Ridley I eventually ended up with one good eye and a defunct left eye. His last words to me around 1955 were: "Come back in 25 years and we might be able to plonk an artificial lens in your left eye."
25 years later and such an operation was still impossible because there was no tissue to support the lens.
It became possible in the late 1990s with the development of a technique that involves making an incision in the side of the cornea and injecting a rolled-up acrylic lens through the side of the eye and positioning it in front of the pupil, immediately under the cornea.
I had the operation at Moorfields in 2000 and the next day, after the dressings were removed, I was in permanent gobsmacked state having near perfect vision in my left eye after nearly half a century. That's the nice thing about ophthalmic surgery. With a broken leg, you go into the hospital with a broken leg, and you come out with a broken leg. Eye ops can be instant cures.
On my last trip to the consultant in 2002 I was declared to be in possession of what he called "RAF vision".
For this reason, I always urge those with a little spare cash to donate to "Sight Savers International" (IIR, formerly the Royal Commonwealth Institute for the Blind". GBP20 buys a cataract op in India or Africa -- the worst affected regions for eye diseases in the world. Don't make the mistake I made and get involved in their CES scheme. It's a long term thing because not only do you pay for the ops, but, in the case of a kid who has lost out on their education, you can get talked into providing private tuition fees, high school fees, and so on.
Much of this boring informationwas related in the last play I wrote for Radio 4, "A Darkening of the Moon" -- a Saturday Night Theatre -- and the only play of mine that was not recorded in BH. It was produced by an old colleague, Shaun MacLoughlin, who had taken over the Network Production Centre at Bristol. He'd been on at me for sometime to write it and I had always stalled. Too bloody close to home for comfort. It's one that the BBC haven't lost.
 Harold Ridley is worth looking up
on Google or Vivisimo. He was the great pioneer of cataract ops. In fact he
performed the first successful lens implant during the last war. As a young
doctor he was puzzled as to why the eyes of crashed Spitfire pilots did not
react to canopy splinters whereas the eyes of Hurricane pilots did. He discovered
that Spitfire canopies where made of "Perspex" -- acrylic. The stuff
was inert -- the body did not react to it -- so he ignored opposition from his
colleagues and made some artificial lenses out of this new plastic, and they
worked. His technique is now performed routinely all over the world and has
restored the sight of millions. He was knighted in (IIR) 1999 shortly before
his death when he was well into his nineties. The news shook me; I had no idea
at the time that he was still alive otherwise I would've written to him. James
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