Every so often, we make a decision that reaches out and grabs all sorts of unexpected things by the ankles, and drags them kicking and screaming into our living room. Naturally, we have no idea what these things actually are until they recover from the shock of being accosted, shake their legs free and unfold to their full height. They look around the room for the offending ankle-grabber, but the decision is long gone. It just invited a whole tribe of beasties round for tea before scuttling off into the past. Via the back door. It’s only you left. And the beasties are big and wildly pissed off.
So. You stare at them; they stare at you. You realise that you really ought to say something. But the words, the words just won’t come. What’s most annoying is that this isn’t even a dream. You dragged these buggers in with this ‘decision’, and now they’re in your head, sprawling over your mind sofas and leaving coffee mug rings on the french-polished table of your intellect. The problem is, of course, that it’s in this room that all the real work takes place, in cricket just as in music. And when the yips (for that’s what they are) come to stay, they upset everything, demanding your attention, so much so that you drop whatever ball you happen to be juggling. Even if you’re merely juggling the one ball, it’s in trouble.
The decision I made was to show everyone just how bad my guitar playing has become. Because I was on the verge of my fiftieth birthday. Because, damn, I have no idea. But decide I did.
Disclaimer So. When I started playing the guitar, aged fifteen and at boarding school, I practised in an alcove between the main boarding house and the library where we worked. I was playing a piece of shit guitar friends of my parents had brought back from Spain. Practically unplayable. Every time one of my fellow institutionalised personages walked past it was ‘can you play smoke on the water/stairway to heaven/blah blah … no? you’re shit, then.’ My response was a silent ‘fuck you I’m going to be amazing’. Reader (etc). When I mentioned to someone (who shall remain nameless) that I was thinking of playing a wee giggette for my 50th, [their] response was ‘that means you won’t, then.’ My response was a silent ‘fuck you I’m going to do it, even if I’m shit.’
So, I assembled a band of rare talent, booked the venue, concocted a set list and sorted my guitar … and with two weeks to go began to learn the tunes and try to free up my fingers. It was depressing, though not as depressing as the two hours spent in a studio getting my head around playing with an amp for the first time in twenty years … oh my. I was with the bass player, an ex-guitar student and a very fine guitar player, because I was using his amp. He was very kind about my playing (amazing considering how I used to treat my students), but I was now close to being in a condition of abject terror. What the fuck had I done? The knowledge of how unutterably bad I was shocked me into a position of being almost unable to play.
Cricket, like music, takes place predominantly in the head. As players, both on the field and onstage, how we approach our performance is of paramount importance. The other week one of our bowlers got a serious attack of the yips. His first over was fine, but the second … his hand wouldn’t let go of the ball or it pitched by his feet or rolled towards point. After the first few balls the body language of everyone, home team and opposition alike, was astonishing. We stared at the ground. Hummed. Hawed. No more shouts of ‘relax’, ‘get back in the groove’, ‘just means an extra ball to get him out’, and all that. As Henry Newbolt might have said:
There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight,
Ten balls bowled and none quite in,
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and … no. no. no.
No. no. no. no. no. no. no. no.
That’s all you can hear.
We were torn. We wanted it to be over but knew the bowler had to deal with it. With each ball it got worse. We all wanted the ground to swallow us up.
The bowler retired ‘injured’ (which he plainly was), and his over was finished by another. I suffered from a similar problem many years ago when, if I digressed from my intensive practive schedule in the morning by, for example, starting 5 minutes late, I couldn’t allow myself to play until the afternoon. At other times my fingers simply refused like a pony at Beecher’s Brook.
And now, gig imminent, a gig in which I would play like a complete idiot in front of past students who were now fine and lauded players, I was suffering from a similar problem, only now Parkified.
My brain and my fingers disagreed with regards what could be done. My brain assumed the status quo of twenty years ago in which my fingers would instantly carry out any instructions sent their way. My fingers, on the other hand, simply stuck out a sample representative of the demonstrative kind on receipt of said instructions. My challenge was less to get my fingers working (practically impossible) than to work out how I could match my wildly truncated digital facility with my brain’s expectations … or how could I get my brain to accept the new fingers and work within their capability without getting carried away and signalling the digits to do the sort of stuff they used to.
So I didn’t practice much other than to persuade brain and fingers to at the very least talk to one another. Judging by the responses at the gig (which was unrehearsed), I didn’t do too badly.
Parkinson’s is like constant, full-body but moody yips. The only way through is by negotiation. Embrace what you used to be but only to celebrate it in its passing. Get your brain to accept what you can and can’t do now – it’ll change soon enough.
Work with yourself, because Parkinson’s may feel like an alien invader, but it’s part of you.