Yes, it’s that time of the year again, as this coming Friday it’s the 16th of November. Now, anyone with a calendar is going ‘so?‘ but people in the UK will know from the television adverts that it’s something far more special than just a usual Friday, because its Children In Need night. And anyone who knows me well will know my absolute, total and utter unconditional love for BBC’s Children In Need. Two years ago I donated my personal copies of my Tenth Doctor run of the Doctor Who IDW comic, all signed by me for several hundred pounds as part of the Children In Need Ebay auction, and this year at Starfury’s The Eleventh Hour convention I (with Jim Swallow) auctioned off a first edition Star Trek: TNG / Doctor Who – Assimilation2 #1 signed by myself and Matt Smith, with Jim agreeing to name a character after the winner in an upcoming Big Finish audio. The winning bid for this was £2,013.
Ever since I was a kid I would watch it, and it was the only show that I was allowed to watch until early in the morning. But that’s not the main reason why both Children In Need and Pudsey the smiling bear have a special place in my heart for me. Actually, it’s because Pudsey Bear helped me through one of the toughest periods of my life. He literally saved it, twenty one years ago.
1991 was unarguably the worst year of my entire life. I’d fallen hard and fast and I had no way of stopping. By August of that year I was twenty one years old, alternating between cash-rich and broke on an hourly basis due to the fact that I was 24/7 street performing in Central London and, to ensure that I was already ‘ready to perform’ in case a performance slot opened up, I was snorting coke like there was no tomorrow to keep me alert. And when I say coke, I mean a lot of coke. I was addicted in a big way, spending my show takings to feed the habit, having to use it to keep me ‘up’ so I could do another show to make more money and I was this close (and by this I mean a very small indeed amount of space) to finding myself dead in a gutter. And until the day that I die, I believe that during this point in my pathetic life something really bad happened to me. But I’ll never know what it was. Because I cannot remember three months of it.
Twenty one years ago this month, I woke up with amnesia. One minute it was the 31st of August, the last night of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – I’d been there as a performer that year, and while the fireworks went off and the street parties continued, I walked into a bar off Princes Street with some friends. We had a couple of drinks - and then the next thing I remember is finding myself lying on the floor of a friends house in Cardiff, seemingly the very next day yet actually the twenty first of November, almost three months later, a table having collapsed on the back of my neck while I’d been under it in a sleeping bag. The table was pulled off me by strangers who seemingly knew me, and when I found that I couldn’t stand, they called the ambulance for me.
I was paralysed from the waist down with a short-term nerve / spine damage and had a memory loss of three missing months that I have never managed to get back, not even under hypnosis. I had dropped to seven stone (and for an idea of how thin this made me, I was the same height as I am now and almost half my weight, as I’m thirteen stone now) and I had no idea why I was in Cardiff, of all places. The house I was in was the house of an old friend of mine and all that they could tell me was that I’d arrived on their doorstep a day or so earlier, had asked if I could rest in the living room for a while, had passed out for close to thirty six hours and, from my possessions (which weren’t many) and demeanor they’d deduced that I’d somehow been living in Cardiff for a couple of weeks by that point and had kicked the coke habit that was still with me before the memory loss.
I was in shock, however. And I couldn’t move my legs which terrified me, not to mention the fact that my mind was equating nothing more than a drunken night as the only thing between August and November. An ambulance was called, I was taken to the hospital, I was placed onto a hospital bed and, to be brutally honest, while I was hysterical while lying in a ward in Cardiff Royal Infirmary (while doctors kept asking me if I felt anything to confirm paralysis, only afterwards showing me that they had prodded my legs with what looked like knitting needles until they were awash with blood to confirm my response), I would have been even more scared - if there hadn’t been a Pudsey Bear walking around the ward and chatting to us.
You see, that years Children In Need happened to fall upon the day of my arrival in the ward. And therefore a link to my very childhood was there, standing beside me as we watched Terry Wogan on the screen, while I wondered whether I’d ever walk again. I found myself telling this, speaking my fears to Pudsey, the medication that was running through me at this point seemingly making him into the real thing, a furry father confessor that listened patiently and calmly to my delirious words - and I wish I knew who it was so that I could thank whoever wore the costume that day, because he sat beside my bed all evening, constantly ‘in character’ as this painfully skinny, crying boy begged forgiveness in a vain hope that he would regain his legs and memory.
Of course, I got better. By the time I left the hospital, a week before Christmas 1991, I had feeling in everything except below my right knee (I had to walk with a cane until the feeling returned in mid 1992) and still no memory of September, October and most of November. I moved back home and built my life back up from scratch, but I found I had abject terror when approaching Covent Garden and didn’t return there for close to a decade. I’ve been to Edinburgh during the festival twice since then, in 2009 and 2011, both as a guest of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and even now it brings back dark memories of a time and life long past.
(In 2009 I finally returned to Edinburgh for the Festival season and, while walking through the town I saw a performer, one of the ones who almost twenty years earlier I would do drugs with in London, and I had a minor panic attack. They looked broken and ancient, even though they were only a year or two older than me. They didn’t recognise me, didn’t see in me the small, thin, scared boy I once was, and I was glad. I finally had closure, had finally faced my demons. I thank my amazing wife Tracy for keeping me sane and helping me along that day, and by the end of that moment, I was fine once more.)
All through the nineties, I built back my life. I like to think that I made something with it. But I always remembered Pudsey Bear for saving me, because I believe that he did. I feel to this day that if it had been just a normal night, if something familiar hadn’t been in that hospital ward, the weight of everything would have broken my mind, I might even have continued down that path to that end of the line reservation in the gutter. I might be wrong. I’ll never know. What I do know is that a porter, a helper, an off duty doctor, whoever it was in that Pudsey suit – they kept me sane that night. Children In Need is the only reason I’m here today, in my opinion.
Over the last twenty one years I’ve managed to see the local film crews live on Children In Need night a few times, mainly in Birmingham in the years I was there, and if I can, I’ll always watch the show. And even though Tracy’s more of a Comic Relief girl, she understands too why I have to do this.
And so Friday is Children In Need night. And I’ll be staying in that night, even though there are events and parties and conventions that I’ve been invited to. Nothing personal, I’m not being unprofessional…
It’s just that I have to meet with an old friend. Someone who kept me going when I’d lost everything else.
Someone called Pudsey.
If you’re touched by this story, spread the word. Retweet it. Facebook ‘like’ it. Tell your friends and then go out and put some money in a collector’s bucket. Go to one of the many, many shops that endorse Children In Need and buy a wristband, a pin, anything that helps the cause. Or, go to the Children In Need’s website and make a donation. I just have, as I do every year.
Because if we don’t, then there’ll be no Pudsey. And if there’s no Pudsey…
…then someone like I was twenty one years ago might not get that second chance.