Me, ME and MB
I thought that by the time I reached my mid-30s I would be too old for fandom. I'm not. And I'm so glad I'm not, because fandom has brought me enormous benefits over the last couple of years.
I haven't had posters on my wall since I grew out of Starsky and Hutch, but Michael Ball has so enchanted me, I once again have calendars and photos adorning my walls. OK, so they are fewer and more tastefully displayed than the wall-papering posters of my teens, but they are there all the same.
I've always enjoyed listening to Michael's voice, and always made a point of watching him whenever he appeared on TV, but a few years ago, he encroached deeper and deeper into my consciousness, and my fondness for the man became stronger, as did my desire to hear and see much more of this talented performer.
At this time, I was probably at the lowest point of my illness, not just physically, but emotionally, too. I was not happy, and I believe the attraction developed then because of the appeal of the romantic and sad songs, sung with the warmest, gentlest, most passionate voice you can imagine - all topped by the cutest smile!
A major turning point in my life came in March 1999, when I heard Michael being interviewed on Radio 2, advertising a forthcoming concert tour. Deeply discontented that I was no longer able to go to concerts, plays or films as I had once done, I became determined to attend one of Michael's shows. Over the next couple of weeks, I veered between determination and resignation at not being able to do anything very much at all. The nearest shows were at least 50 miles away, and I had no way of getting to any of them, without a lot of help. Finally, I decided to do something about it, and rang the Stratford Ticket Shop to see what they could offer me - the NEC, the following night.
At first I didn't think the NEC was at all feasible for me. Booking so late in the day, there were no more wheelchair spaces available. I suggested I could walk well enough to book regular seats, if I could be pushed to my chair, and the wheelchair left a short distance away, but health and safety regulations wouldn't allow that. So I had to make a quick decision: could I cope without the wheelchair? Only if I didn't have to walk across the car park, and could rest on my folding walking stick/seat when necessary. The booking agent took my number to call back later to see what she could arrange.
After an hour, I thought she had given up, but no, she had been working
very hard on my behalf, and had managed to persuade the NEC security to
allow the coach to drop off and collect all of their customers at the main
entrance, so that I wouldn't have to walk any further than was absolutely
necessary. She also booked me into the nearest available seat, which
meant being at the back of the hall needing binoculars, but I was there.
I was able to go to a concert - on foot - for the first time in years.
To finally be able to see Michael Ball in concert was a great treat. And it came at the right time for me. What a lift to my spirits!
So many people had gone out of their way to help me, but I still yearned for the health that would give me the independence to be able to go to a show without that help. In September 2000 that became possible.
By then I had joined the Michael Ball Fan Club and had got on-line. Contact over the Internet has brought great changes in my life. Having contact with the outside world again, means so much to me, having been stuck at home, rarely able to go out, and unable to speak for much of the last nine years. I first looked at the Michael fan sites to try to find out where I could buy some of his earliest recordings, and soon found myself joining in topics on the Fan Club Forum almost everyday. Mostly we discuss Michael related things, such as the records, the musicals, concerts, interviews. But very often the subjects are completely off-topic, as regular posters have got to know each other well enough to care about each other's lives. I have been able to make contact with people all over the world, many of them have become e-mail friends, some I have met in person. Michael Ball has become the catalyst for a great many friendships which know no barrier to country, age or background.
Early in September 2000, the Fan Club announced a draw to attend a video recording of a concert at the Cafe de Paris. This promised to be a very special event - an intimate venue in London's West End, with only 150 fans in the audience. I never win anything, but I entered a card, not really expecting that I would be one of the lucky ones, and aware that it would be very difficult for me to cope with a trip to the capital. When I received a ticket a few days later, I was filled with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I knew I could cope on my own in London if I would be able to rely on door-to-door taxis. I would have to spend a lot of money on the journey, the hotel, the taxis and a new outfit (most important!), but I could do it - just this once.
Of course, I hadn't bargained on the fuel crisis and blockades.
Two weeks before the concert, I had had a particularly deep healing session. Things had happened during that session, that made me think I would possibly see some improvement in my health in the near future. I sincerely believe that I could not have coped with that trip to London any earlier in my illness. I walked more during those two days than I had done in years. And, except for a deeper tiredness for a couple of days, I felt no real ill effects.
I decided to travel by coach rather than train, as the route was direct, with no changes. I couldn't face the idea of changing trains, up and down steps, carrying my bag. On the journey, we saw blockades slowly travelling in the opposite direction. Thankfully, there were none on the way in to London. With petrol stations closing because of the excessive demand and blockades, all the travellers were concerned about getting home after their breaks, but National Express assured us that they had enough fuel to last a few more days.
From Victoria coach station, it was only a short distance to a taxi, and I was soon dropped at the hotel in Bayswater. Just a few steps to the lift, and my room was literally three steps away. Perfect.
It was difficult to get to sleep knowing the concert was only hours away, but I finally nodded off. As always happens, I woke up voiceless. That I expected - it has become normal - but it meant that I had to write messages in order to communicate.
(What follows is a slightly adapted review I wrote, which was published in issue 26 of On the Ball, the Fan Club magazine.)
THIS TIME.... ITíS PERSONAL
Video Recording at the
Café de Paris - 12 September 2000
"Our eyes met across a crowded room. He smiled and mouthed Ďhelloí. Thatís where the dream-coming-true bit ends and he carried on with the show...
What a night! The following is what I wrote in the early hours of Wednesday morning, still too excited to sleep:
Well, itís over an hour since I got back to the hotel and thereís no way Iím going to sleep whilst my mind is still at the Café de Paris, so I thought Iíd write about some of the eveningís events, ready to type up when I get back to the computer.
I had a rather eventful time getting to and from the venue. As some of you know I have ME/CFS and have very limited mobility, so I needed to rely on door-to-door taxis. One of the peculiarities of my illness is that I always need an afternoon nap (to restore the batteries) but am unable to speak for a few hours afterwards, as my body wakes up very slowly. I had to explain in writing at the hotel reception desk that I could not speak and needed help getting a cab. The man at the desk, for reasons best known to himself, assumed I was also deaf, so he wrote down his questions and replies on my notepad, so it seemed to take forever to get him to arrange a taxi. At least he didnít talk in a loud voice or pat me on the head, which has been known. I was trying to gesture that I could hear, but when the taxi arrived he told the driver to communicate with me in writing. The driver only realised I could hear after a road rage incident which involved some rather blue language!
I was eventually dropped off at the stage door of the Café at 6.30pm. We had been asked not to queue before that time, but naturally, I was near the end! It took about half an hour to get us all in. You can imagine there was some chaos as the seating was unreserved. The last 28 of us were counted up: 177 had already been admitted, and only 150 seats were allocated. Our tickets werenít checked, so anybody could have got in - you could have all come!!! We were told we would have to stand. Still unable to speak I wrote that this was not a possibility for me, as Iím partially disabled, so I was parked at the side temporarily until a seat was found. I joined the VIPs at the tables in the upper gallery. With eight people at each of the three tables, short side on to the railing, only six of us had Ďfront rowí seats, and I was nearest the stage! Being an invalid occasionally has its compensations. The two men searching for a place for me were great. I wish Iíd got their names. One of them checked on me a couple of times during the show to make sure I was OK. He must have been surprised when I spoke to him later in the evening!
Michael was joined by six backing singers: three who Iíve not seen before joined Anne, Shéna and Mick. They all stood to Michaelís left. As on the last tour, Mick backed Michael alone for a couple of numbers. Many of the band youíll recognise from earlier concerts, and Callum McLeod conducted from the floor.
Iíve given up trying to remember all that Michael sang - there were so many. Just When and Walking in Memphis are the two that have really stayed with me. I can hear him singing them now - not at the same time!
There was no evidence that he was still bothered by his recent ear infection, although I think it is still a problem. He looked fit and well, dressed in an open-necked light blue shirt and dark suit The first section consisted of all new material: at least new to Michael, some of them completely new. I tried to remember the titles, so I could tell you, or at least guess the titles, but itís all a whirl at the moment. There was a lovely song written for Michael by Paul Carrack, and others by Trisha Yearwood and Reba McIntyre.
One of the biggest surprises of the night was a gorgeous blues-type number, which weíve never heard before - written by none other than Michael himself. Never Coming Back is very different to the other songs heís written to date - more complex. I canít wait to hear it again.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face turned out to be a double pleasure. Michael said that itís a song heís always wished somebody had written with him in mind. Itís always been one of my favourites too, and to hear him sing it in that liquid gold, kiss-my-ears voice was just sublime. Then, joy of joys, something was wrong and he had to sing it all over again. Shame!
The Ďnew countryí section was followed by a selection of songs from recent musicals, including Love Changes Everything, All I Ask of You, Last Night of the World and Losing My Mind. After a few false starts, because heíd forgotten the words, he performed No Matter What from Whistle Down the Wind, with a different arrangement to that recorded by Boyzone. There were also the two songs heís recorded from Les Miserables. Could there ever be a more appropriate venue for a concert performance of Empty Chairs, Empty Tables than the Café de Paris?
Someone Elseís Dream followed -or was it before the musicals - sorry, canít recall already. All of the ground floor audience got up and danced along to a rock and roll medley, which included loads of songs, but off the top of my head I can only name Great Balls of Fire.
The concert came to an end with If I Could Dream and The Wonder of You. One of these was interrupted almost as it began, with Michael saying he was shattered. Hardly surprising. It must have been a long hard night for him, but he finished in grand style. A problem in the earlier recording meant that Losing My Mind had to be repeated once the show was officially completed. Everybody retook their seats to maintain continuity for the video recording. He gave his all, ending with his head back, eyes closed for a moment, and he did look completely exhausted afterwards.
There were numerous interruptions during the show, mostly for technical reasons. Once a song had to be restarted as his ear-pieces werenít working properly. Another time the battery attached to his back had to be changed. He made us all laugh, as he suggested he was being frisked as this was going on. At each break his face was patted dry and one lucky audience member managed to get to him with a wet-wipe before the official face-patter. The breaks also offered the opportunity for some chat with the audience. Youíll all be delighted to know heís still off the fags, though he had dreamt that heíd taken a puff and broken his promise. He was Ďfurtivelyí asking the audience if they had any cigarettes. A couple of times there was some banter with family and friends who were sitting upstairs, especially with Tony, who was obviously very proud of his younger son, cheering as loud as anyone.
It was great to see Michael walk through the audience to and from the stage, coming on unannounced some of the time. I was extremely jealous of those downstairs who got a kiss and managed a grope!
Apart from going home gropeless, my only regret of the evening is that I didnít meet more of my Forum friends who had also been lucky enough to win tickets in the draw. As one of the latest admissions into the venue I was upstairs, away from most of the fans, so although I was looking down, wondering if there was anybody there I should know, they didnít have the opportunity to spot me. I had planned to meet up with Kerstin and Julia, who had come all the way from Germany for the evening, but didnít see them at all. [Iíve since found out that they must have been sitting directly below me!] I did meet Sue and Bernie once the show was over. Sue had thoughtfully e-mailed a photo the day before, but I still had to ask around before we got together.
On the way out we saw Michael's manager. Sue called out Ďwhen can we do this again?í. He replied ĎNot for a very long timeí. He said this partly in jest, but it was the end of a hectic evening, the organisation for which must have been pretty frantic, but Iím sure heís right: it seems very unlikely that Michael will find the opportunity to do anything like this again. I feel so privileged to have been present at what was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
So far so smooth. Too excited to sleep, it was late when I finally got off. Happily, the exertions of the previous day and the short night left me with no ill effects whatsoever. Just as well, considering what followed. Believing I had plenty of time before catching the midday coach, I took time over breakfast and packing. As I checked out I asked how easy it might be to pick up a taxi outside, and found out the awful news that blockades in Park Lane and around Victoria meant that hardly any traffic at all was passing. All traffic was either in a solid jam or the roads were inaccessible. It was suggested that I walk to Hyde Park corner to catch a bus, but that wasn't an option. After a couple of fruitless calls to private companies, one of the clerks finally managed to find a taxi who was willing to tackle at least part of the journey. Between three members of the hotel staff and the cabbie, we worked out which underground station would be the most convenient for me: the fewest steps, and on a direct line to Victoria. One of the hotel staff accompanied me to the underground, carrying my bag for me. He very kindly saw me onto the train, in the firm belief that I would find someone at the other end to help me at the other end.
It felt very strange to be on the tube after all these years, and I must admit to getting rather emotional. I couldn't see any guards at Victoria Underground, so I made my way out on my own, where I found to my horror that the coach station was much further away than I'd been led to believe. It was the bus station that was next door, not the coach station. And no vehicles at all on the road, so there was no chance of getting a taxi. So I began to walk. And I walked, and walked, and walked - uphill even. I was able to take frequent rests, sitting on my folding seat which doubles up as a walking stick, and I could rest my arm which was beginning to ache from carrying my nightbag.
Just as the station came into sight, traffic began to move again. The blockade must have cleared. As I crossed the still relatively empty road I looked at my watch - ten minutes before the coach was due to leave - if it could leave.
It felt strange even to cross the road. Using a pedestrian crossing was something I hadn't done in a long time, except in a wheelchair.
Into the station, I didn't dare waste time sitting down to check the boards, but as soon as I saw the gate number I made my way to the waiting coach. Five minutes to go. I gave the ticket to the driver who told me it was the wrong ticket. The hotel had taken the return coach ticket, and left the hotel booking slip in the folder. Off to the help desk, where my panicky state must have encouraged a swift response. Back across the forecourt to an official who cleared my ticket with the coach driver. The minute I sat down, the engine started and we pulled out.
I can't decide whether everything was conspiring against me or for me that morning. I faced so many obstacles, but I overcame them all, and amazingly, there was no myalgia, no muscle twitching, no pain at all. In a way, I feel that everything happened as it did to show me what I could achieve. I would never have tried to go to London, let alone walk so far, if it hadn't been for Michael Ball. And I could never have coped if it hadn't been for that particular healing session two weeks before. Not a week sooner could I have achieved what I achieved over those two days.
Only a few weeks later, Michael's Tour 2000 began. Back in February I had booked tickets for concerts at Bristol, Oxford and Cardiff, not really knowing how I would get to the shows, or who I would travel with. At the time of booking I knew no other fans but as the tour approached I found many e-mail friends who were travelling to the same concerts, and was able to travel with Ros, who I met on-line, but who lives only a few miles away. Trudy, who I'd never met before saved me from having to book a hotel in Cardiff, by offering me a bed in her holiday cottage. And I met many other friends, most of them for the first time. Encouraged by my ability to cope with the concerts, I booked a ticket for the late addition to the tour, at Blackpool, and met my first e-mail friend, Ali, at last. We'd been writing regularly for months, so our meeting was as eagerly anticipated as was the concert!
And now there are more concerts to look forward to, and more e-mail friends to meet for the first time: two charity shows at Harrogate, an open-air concert at Audley End, and another night in London, during a two-week run at the Donmar Warehouse.
I won't be taking my wheelchair to any of those concerts. I don't
know how I will cope. Audley End in particular is going to be difficult
- but I can't wait.