Geoff Adams-Spink is a Thalidomide survivor, one of the children born in the late 1950s early 60s, with physical and sensory differences after their mother unwittingly took a drug during pregnancy that caused the impairments.
Speaking to your mum about why this happened can’t be easy, but Geoff did have that conversation. His parents had great expectations of him, his mother had a mantra to support him but make sure he developed resilience. Learning how to be independent was a fiercely protected element for much of his professional life and then one day he realised he could be even more effective with appropriate help.
It’s his work and life that makes him particularly interesting. After university and a Journalism course, he went to the BBC as a producer and correspondent and stayed for more than twenty years. Different roles took Geoff Adams-Spink to different countries exposing him to different cultures and sadly, in Rwanda, atrocities.
Geoff has a love of languages, particularly the romantic languages and recently studied Latin. He shares his passion for technology, both the regular kind and the assistive kit that makes his life easier.
He is the current Chair of the Board of Trustees for The Thalidomide Society, a Trustee with the Research Institue for Disabled Consumers and he helped us with our weekly news round-up during our COVID 19 Lockdown shows this Spring.
If you have any comments, feedback or suggestions, please email us at [email protected]
We hope you enjoy it.
This is The Way We Roll with Simon Minty and Phil Friend.
Welcome to The Way We Roll with me, Simon Minty.
and me Phil friend,
Our guest is a familiar voice to our regular listeners. As he gave us the news updates during the weekly COVID locked down, shows that we did in April and May,
and we chose him to help us then for two reasons, he was a news journalist by profession, and he's a friend and a colleague.
I'd also add he was available and very cheap,
A good point (laughter) for 22 years, our guest Geoff Adams-Spink worked at the BBC during his time there he was their age and disability correspondent for BBC news, a producer editor from Our Own Correspondent and a senior producer for the Today program and The World tonight,
Geoff was born in 1962and as a result of the drug Thalidomide he was born with one eye and substantial limitations affecting manual dexterity due to foreshortened arms and missing fingers. He's the current chair of the board of trustees for Thalidomide Society.
His interests include technology, both the regular kind and assistive. It's a shared passion of all three of us. Geoff can speak French fluently and has recently been learning Latin. Uh, Geoff, can you say something in Latin?
Not very easily. I don't think, um, I didn't finish my Latin a year ago and a lot of it has faded if I can get it back when I read it, when I read something in Latin it kind of all comes back to me, but, uh, you know, it's not something you go and practice in a coffee shop,
So QED quod erat demonstrandum, which is "thus it has been demonstrated" but he's forgotten it. Um, Geoff, I was watching the film Forrest Gump the other day, and when Forrest has achieved everything, he returns home and he sits on a lawnmower, cutting grass for people. Now I know that you love cutting grass on that lawn mowing app. Does that mean like Forrest you've achieved everything and now you're relaxing?
I don't think so. Um, I think I've always had a very restless mind and there will always be things that I want to achieve at the moment. Um, having already done my sort of foundation year in Latin, I'm pursuing my studies in Italian and one of my goals is to become as fluent in Italian as I am in French, my first degree was in French so my French even now is still pretty fluent. I want to get to the same stage with Spanish and probably Portuguese as well and then I'll even think about Catalan. Um, for me doing learning a language, especially romance languages, um, it's like doing a giant crossword, everything sort of slots into place so you get a little, uh, rush of, I dunno, what it is, dopamine or whatever, when you get a clue, right? When 12 down actually fits in, it fits in with all the other letters, you know, you think, ah, yes, my brain still works so I'm learning languages. Um, I'm doing, as you said, um, I'm Chair of the Thalidomide Society. I'm also chair of the national advisory council of the Thalidomide trust. I'm a, I'm a board member with Phil on the research Institute for disabled consumers. Um, I feel that I've got a long way to go and a lot to learn and a lot to do really so no, I, I, I haven't achieved everything I want. However, I do still enjoy mowings virtual lawns.
Well, Geoff, I mean, let's just talk for a minute. If we might then about this passion you have for technology, particularly assistive technology and those kinds of things. You and I did a show, my gear, gadgets and gizmos show where you came on there and you described the tech that you use and so on and so forth. But I mean the mowing app, I recall you selling it to us or talking to us about it as a way of relaxing and I think we were discussing it during COVID weren't we, when we were all locked down and stuff, but for someone with your impairment technology is hugely important. What sort of things do you use tech for?
Well, um, I've got my home pretty much rigged up with all sorts of smart devices based on the Amazon echo platform, principally so all of my lights, for example, my central heating my doorbell, my blinds and curtains, all of that can be controlled by voice and for me, that's brilliant. I can't go and manipulate the cord pulls to close the curtains on my bay windows or the blinds or, or, or, or take a great big window pole and close the blinds on my velux windows, but I can just say "A lady" close the blinds and they close and being able to alter your environment because I don't know the sun's coming in through a blind and it's bothering you or it's getting dark outside so you want some privacy so you want to close your curtains. Being able to control your environment is very important and for me having that technology at my fingertips or at the end of my voice is just fantastic. Um, I think it also brings to me lots of content that would otherwise be difficult if not these days impossible. I always had difficulty reading newspapers, for example, partly because the print is microscopic and partly because you remember the days of broadsheet newspapers, you know, you needed the wingspan of an Eagle to be able to hold the thing out and turn the pages, but now to go onto the Guardian app or the Times and Sunday Times App or various foreign papers that I read and, and to be able to display that content, or even have it read to me either by an electronic voice or by a real voice, it's just a pleasure and I consume far more print journalism now than I ever did because it's easy and because it's there and I love it,
But going back Let's just go back. I mean, that's obviously, we're very fortunate to be living at the time we do. Going back to when you were much younger, maybe starting out the BBCs 20 odd years, 30 years ago, what was the first bit of tech that you recall that you used to overcome a particular issue? Can you remember that?
Yes. I think for me, the abiding memory will be using the old RNI B talking book machines because they were massive. They played a great big custom made cassettes that looked even bigger and bulkier than VHS cassettes and they were proprietary media because the RNIB had done a deal with publishers and publishers didn't want, let's say me getting ordinary compact cassettes and sharing them with my friends so in order to make sure that this spoken content from books was only available to me as a registered blind person, I had to use this great big socking machine and a six-track audio cassette that would, uh, play the content to me and I had, uh, one of those universities. I had a little room in the university library because I could get a lot of my university books on audio as well so that was, that was the first bit of assistive tech that I remember having and I do remember thinking, well, it's great that I can have this content in, in audio format, but you know, it's not exactly portable. You couldn't exactly put it in your trouser pocket and walk down the streets and listen to it on your headphones.
I was thinking, I mean, do you, you know, we have that theory, like things like electric windows were developed for disabled people in cars, and then they became mainstream and I'm wondering whether that's the same in terms of talking books, talking newspapers and I agree that I I've got to read a book for someone I meant to me and I thought, just do the audio, but you can listen to it in the car. You can listen to it when you're walking around, it's fabulous and people can make these versions so much more quickly and easily now.
Yes and actually going back to vinyl, did you know that the long-playing record actually was invented or developed, uh, as one of the RNIB's first, uh, talking book formats, it wasn't for the music industry, the music industry came in afterwards and said, Hey, we can use this as well.
That makes sense. I've got under Milk Wood on vinyl, which is fantastic. Richard Burton reading it so you didn't take these huge cassettes out to your Cadillac and stick them in your eight track then in, in your car then Geoff.
you couldn't no, the only thing that would play them was the RNIB talking booklet and if you change the track with a little button and when you got back to track one, it made it a little ding, like a manual typewriter so you knew where you were with the tracks.
I should bring us up to date, Phil, Geoff and myself have for one of the better ways than WhatsApp chat group type thing. But we use iMessage. Of course, we do. Uh, now we talk about the tech a lot in that, and it's a very frequently used chat area. I'm very lucky listener because both Phil and Geoff are what I would call the early adopters. Uh, they always have a little bit more money, so it's fabulous. You can see stuff and they just go flying out and then I just sit and wait for about six months or a year and then I might be able to get something off them for half price that said I've had a bit of tech recently that I don't want and I put it on our little list and Geoff's been brilliant. You've snapped it up
For a family member. Of course not for myself. (laughter).
It works the other way there was that beautiful moment. I locked myself out of my computer. I needed the keyboard. Good old Geoff's got about four of them tucked away in the cupboard so , um, yeah, uh, our love of tech is quite strong. Isn't it
Interesting? Isn't it? How drawers have changed in households? Because in the old days you had a drawer didn't you, which had a screwdriver in it, a couple of nuts and bolts, a knitting needle, a sewing kit, whatever. Now it's got keyboards in it. Bits of cable, an old fashioned monitor. I mean, it's extraordinary. How quick, I mean, I suppose the serious point is Geoff, as you say, Simon, Geoff, he's very generous, but he's always recycling. It's going to a family member or somebody else, but there is an awful lot of tech that seems to me to end up in a skip now
I was surprised. I mean, the bit I was struck about, and this is, I have a friend who doesn't use standard keyboards because I didn't know why you had three keyboards. Geoff is only when you said I get, when you computer immediately plug in my accessible keyboard with the larger print so I bung out the old one. I don't need it and then it makes absolute sense. We're not asking you questions, we're just talking about you, aren't we? (laughter)
It makes it for me, it makes absolutely no sense to take an Apple keyboard that's brand new and say, Oh, well, I don't think I'd ever need this. I'll throw it in the bin. That to me is it's morally monstrously wrong.
You also did that brilliant bit and I have told one or two people in jest. Cause you, you did say you had five of everything that's how you operated. Then you got into the decluttering or that sort of, and you did it brilliantly and then lockdown happens and you went, Oh no, I want it all back. (Laughter)
Yes and I have to say, you know, the, the, the sort of the, the OCD stocker in me, I always say to my sister, I'm not a hoarder. I'm a stocker cause there is a subtle difference. You know, I don't, I don't, I don't hang on to newspaper cuttings for 1974, but I do like to make sure that for example, when my toothpaste runs out, I don't have to go to the shop and buy another tube because there's always a spare one in the cupboard and I said to my sister, you know, the pandemic proved to me that I was right all along! (laughter)
I I'm sort of agreeing with you.
This is The Way We Roll with Simon Minty and Phil Friend.
Actually, you mentioned the 74, let's go back even a little bit before we mentioned you're born in 1962, your impairment came about because your mother was prescribed the Thalidomide drug, which was happening at that time. Now for some of our listeners, they may not be aware of the issue surrounding the drug. Can you tell us something, you know, what the effects were on a generation and the families?
Yes. I mean, it was, it devastated a lot of people. Of course, I'm one of the lucky few who survived. Most women who either took Thalidomide on prescription or in Germany over the counter, or were given it by a friend or whatever most of those pregnancies didn't come to term or they were, or they gave birth to still born children so , you know, we are the tip of an iceberg, a much bigger iceberg. It's, it's reckoned that as many as a hundred thousand babies worldwide could have been affected. But for example, in the UK, I think we're now as of today, we're at about 455 survivors. Of course, some of them we've lost some over the years, but you can see that there's a, there's a huge number, more who didn't make it. Um, and I think that the thing I will never forgive the accompany, Grunenthal who developed the drug thing, I will never forgive them for, is that number one, they rushed it to market without proper testing. Number two, they lied about the testing because they said, Oh, we didn't test it on pregnant mammals because that wasn't part of the regimen at the time, that's a lie was companies like Roche were regularly testing drugs on pregnant rabbits had they done that with Thalidomide, it would have produced a mutant, uh, you know, offspring and scientists would have been alerted. Thirdly, when they got side effects, reports back from clinicians, they hushed it up rather than acting on it so they, they, they rushed it to market. They lied about it and then they ignored the early reports of side effects and so they damaged a whole bunch of more people than, than they should have done. Had they actually been thinking about humanity rather than the bottom line.
This was an anti morning sickness drug. Is that the original intent?
Not just that, no, it was, it was a sedative. If you, if you remember back to, you know, imagine Europe postwar, there, there were thousands, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people with what we would now call PTSD because they lived through all sorts of horror horrors during the second world war, you know, whether it was their being firebombed or whether it was, you know, they were displaced or they've lost close family members. I mean, you know, I don't need to tell you the, the horrors of the second world war it's very well documented. Now at the time, the only sedatives that were around were barbiturates and barbiturates, you can very easily overdose with so a lot of people were dying because they were just popping too many pills and suddenly their, their bodies couldn't cope with them so the race was on for a safe sedative and that's what Thalidomide was. It was, they thought a safe sedative
You've answered my supplement, which is why the rush I'm thinking of something like COVID now and the pressure to get, um, what's it called a vaccine out, but the complication is if you do it without the testing. Yeah. I couldn't work out why it was rushed.
Geoff, am I right in thinking too, that after the settlement or at least during that process where it's quite clear these companies that acted in disgraceful ways, it was still being prescribed in Africa. Am I, am I write in thinking that?
Actually you're right. It was, it was, it continued to be used, um, by scientists in Israel who were treating leprosy. It's been, it's still being used in Brazil now, and it's still damaging people.
Is that right?
I have a kind of big question. It's a personal question. As someone who has short who has a genetic condition, I have spoken to my parents about why I am the way I am and how they felt about it. Did you have that conversation with your mum and I'm trying to get my head around that's a complex conversation.
Yes, I did. I mean, I think, I mean, we had a number of conversations about it, not surprisingly, but I particularly remember when I was about 12. She told me the whole story of, you know, how she came to take the drug and she begged my forgiveness and of course, you know, when you're 12, you kind of, that's quite difficult to, you know, when your mother saying, I'm so sorry, it's sort of, it's disconcerting to say the least and of course I said to her, well, how would you have known that it was going to cause damage? And she said, well, I didn't know. She said, in fact, when I took the tablet, I didn't even know I was pregnant and in my mother's case, actually it was prescribed to my grandmother whose husband had died. My mother's father, my maternal grandfather died and my mother was also very badly affected by, you know, uh, profound grief and I think she went something like three or four weeks without sleeping properly and my grandmother said, look, take one of these tablets that I've been given by the doctor so what you see, the damage you see in me was caused by one instance of somebody taking Thalidomide on the wrong day of pregnancy.
And that, you know, people go, don't share other people's prescriptions and, uh, that's it,
I'm pretty hot on that. Not surprisingly so ,
Yeah and so your mum, I think it's great that you had that conversation. I think it's really hard for someone who's got a condition and, you know, it's through their parents in that sense, genetic or drug or whatever it may be. Uh, do you think that made you closer? Do you think that was a strength strengthening thing?
Yeah, so I think that there's always been a very close bond between me and my mum. I mean, but you know, um, I was organizing her care up until she died last June, uh, at the age of grand old age of 98, still living at home with 24 hour care, which guess who got to manage all of that and referee all the disputes between the staff and, uh, you know, make sure that she had the help at the time when she needed it and all of that. Uh, so yeah, I think my mum and I've always been very close. Um, I did, when I was 40, I made a, an archive hour documentary for radio four and I interviewed my mum for that and we had a quite difficult conversation again about Thalidomide, uh, when, which was sort of on the record and I know that I think I stopped the recording three or four times because she was choking up and I said to her, look, we don't have to do this. I, you know, I can just stop this and we never need to use this audio because it's, it's obviously very raw and very painful and she said, no, she said it's difficult, but we have to do it.
Geoff, can you remember how she dealt with you as you grew up? Did she, was she one of these mums who let you just get on with it and you're out there doing all the things that a kid of your age should have been doing? My, I mean, obviously there will be difficulties for you and challenges around that, but, or did she tend to be very protective and keep you close? I mean, what sort of childhood did you have?
Okay, well, she, um, her, one of her famous catch phrases and I still use it now with other people is, you know, I used to want not to hold her hand. Once I got to sort of three or four, she say, hold my hand, hold my handand I, you know, being a little varmit that I was, I didn't want to, and she would say, okay, if you fall don't bawl, (laughter).
I thought you were gonna do a Forrest stupid is stupid does. (laughter) Be independent, but, uh, you're gonna, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You know, you have to, you have to know how hard the ground is, and there's only way only one way you're going to find that out and that's to fall over and see, of course she was there to help me when I needed help, but she knows she did encourage me to be independent and I think both of my parents always had an expectation of me that I would, you know, complete, further and higher education and I would work and all of that and it was only afterwards that I sort of chatted with other Thalidomide survivors that, um, I realized what an advantage I've been given in life. Because for, for me, sitting at home, doing nothing was never an option. I was always pushed.
It's something I really push for parents now, which is don't have low expectations of your kids. It's worse, try and have high and push them. Um, you know, always simple. I'm not parent!
In the sixties when you were growing up and then in the seventies, the early seventies, the support and the devices and the things that were available to people with all sorts of limb disorders would just minimal. I mean, I know Thalidomide kickstarted, a whole generation of doctors, didn't it in inventing stuff.
I always think of those limbs. Everyone had to have these limbs clipped on. Did you ever do that?
The enforced prosthetics? Um, I have a very dim memory of something, but my mum told me that and again, I think this was, uh, why she was a brilliant mum. They were tried on me when I was a very, very young child, probably two or three and she saw me struggle with them and she said, take them away. He doesn't need them. Yeah. Um, and same with my, I've got a, I've got a finger on my left hand that's fused and the doctors wanted to separate these fingers, but one side of the finger, the fuse bit, hasn't got any bone or muscle there and she said, well, why do you want to separate it? And they thought it would look better and she said, what are you able to use it? No and she said, well, forget it then. Why, you know, why are we going to do that?
I've got a flashback. Geoff, you came on a show. I did for abnormally funny people. We gave you some accessible pens that were better for people with different grips. Geoff being Geoff went, this is disgusting. I'd never use it. It's not Montblanc. I only use Montblanc pen, take it away from me, (laughter)
A man with impeccable taste. Geoff. Can I move us forward to the Thalidomide society and your role there? You're the chair. It is the society, not the trust, the society.
Yes it is the society.
I've met you as a result of your work with that group, but obviously your now you're now leading conversations on all sorts of things, affecting people who were affected by Thalidomide What do you think the challenges are now? I mean, many of them must be getting older. Um, what what's going on for this generation of people now, as they, as they're, as aging begins to have its effect.
Well I think we're experiencing, um, accelerated aging because we've been using our bodies in ways that they weren't designed to be used for, for example, if I want to unlock the back door to let the dog out at night. I wouldn't dream of bending down to the lock. I stand on one leg and turn the key with the other foot. Um, now, you know, if you think about other people who use their legs and their hips like that, people like let's say gymnasts or ballet dancers, they retire in their twenties and early thirties for a good reason because they know they can't be doing that when they're in their fifties and sixties so there's a lot of wear and tear that's going on amongst some of us, there are some lifestyle issues as well, like, uh, you know, diabetes and I would say smokers are still over representative in our cohort. Um, so there's all of that going on. But I think for me, the Society's real mission now is to capture people's stories and we're doing a massive oral history project funded by the heritage lottery fund to capture everybody's stories while everybody's well and alive and compus mentus and, and ready to tell their story. We've been doing parents and we're now doing us and we've trained a whole bunch of other Thalidomiders to go out, to eat, to see each other and to record each other's histories. Because I think this is really important and capturing our, I think our legacy for future generations is going to be really, really important because we've, we've all hit certain obstacles at the same age, like parenting getting your first car. I dunno, getting your first hip replacement, um, you know, uh, gardening, all of the things we all tackle them at roughly the same time and I think it's really important for future generations of people who are born with various kinds of impairments to see that collective lateral thinking and how we've all coped, cause everybody's cope differently, but to capture the best of it and to distill it for future generations is a really, really important piece of workand that's, that's really what we're about that and providing somewhere for us all to meet once a year,
I've seen one or two people with Thalidomide talk about the history, and I've also seen one or two documentaries and if you are someone who doesn't know the history, seek them out because this whole concept of, and forgive me, Geoff I'm misremembering. But I remember, I think it was one parent was ready to settle for a fixed amount, um, quite early with the, the drug making company. But there's other saying we're holding out and then the Sunday times did this big campaign and journalism and it's, it's a kind of, I want to say David and Goliath type thing, but it's, uh, and it was all real risk. Do you take the money and run or do you hold out for something different, but it seems like the compensation and how it's done now made a huge difference in people's lives and forever, not just then.
Yes. I mean, there of, at the beginning, you've got a whole bunch of families, fairly ordinary people who were not terribly well advised by their legal counsel up against a major corporation, which was Distillers, which then became Guiness, which then became Diaggio PLC, which is now the world's largest drink company. They rather sensibly got out of biochemicals, but you know, you really had got David and Goliath and it was Sir Harry Evans who saw this injustice about to happen him and people like the late Jack Ashley Lord, Ashley of Stoke.
Harry Evans Editor of the Times ?
Editor of the Sunday Times. Yes and Harry is still the patron of the Thalidomide Society, I interviewed him a couple of years ago and he's a sharp as a tack and he is absolutely delighted still to be involved with us. But if, if they hadn't weighed in on our side, I think people would have been fobbed off much more quickly.
So it's, I mean, when we look around, what's sad about this story in many ways, not, not the same, but there are so many examples today of similar, you know, scurrilous activities where people or things like Grenfell, you know, where terrible things have been done. It's quite clear there's negligence in all sorts of ways and yet the people are still struggling to get some kind of sense of justice out of all that so we, we, I mean, maybe we've learned in some of the drug areas, but perhaps we still got much to learn. What's the Thalidomide society tells us and the idea of the legacy is fantastic because what it tells us is don't give in, you know, keep fighting because there's something at the end of all this,
I mean, somebody once asked me what I would like to have on my, on my headstone if I ever have a headstoneand, uh, I said, well, I think he never gave up or he never stopped. Trying would be, would be good actually. Cause I think, you know, you don't ever stop trying, you don't ever stop pushing or struggling. You, you, you know, I think it sort of forms your character in, in a sense you've, you've got to have something to reach for that slightly, slightly beyond your reach that makes you stretch that little bit more.
I was thinking the other day, Uh, I would like, he was very humble to be written on my statue! (Laughter) it's a stolen joke!
Sounds, like Uriah Heep,
Spike Milligan famously said on his stone that he, it said, um, "I told you I was ill".
Speaker 1 (29:23):
This is The Way We Roll hosted by Simon Minty and Phil Friend,
Geoff, I mean, you've throughout your life. I'm guessing you've had a lot to do with doctors and, uh, and the NHS and so on and so forth and I've, I've got a quote which I'd like to read you, that you said once about the National Health Service, you said, I consider the NHS to be a much loved, but slightly dysfunctional aunt. You have to make allowances for the fact that she sometimes puts a cardigan on inside out, or she turns up in her slippers. She's still much loved. Now that's a really nice warm thing that you've said there some time ago now, but what's your sense of the NHS? I mean, at the moment that we know through COVID and all that stuff has been under incredible pressure, but your own experiences, what's your, you've obviously got some warm regard for dear old.
Yes, I do. I, I mean, you know, I think if you want to see the value of the NHS go to a society where they don't have one, um, I'm as you know, romantically involved with a lady in the USA and we did have a quite long discussion about where we were going to live our lives together when we finally do get to be together and I'll be honest with you. It was really healthcare that swung it. I could live in the USA. It, you know, it'sdysfunctional, you know, the UK is dysfunctional, but you know, I could almost cope with the gun culture and, uh, and even the sort of abhorrence of Donald Trump temporarily, hopefully. But what I couldn't do was, uh, get nervous each time I fell ill with something and let's face it Dawn and I are both in our fifties, I'm in my late fifties and she's in her early fifties so , you know, the expectation over the next 20 years is that we're going to need probably more rather than less healthcare so really for me, it's all about universality and I, I know the NHS can't provide everything. I mean, I do have a private health care insurance and when there's something non-urgent that needs attending to like, I don't know of a varuker or an ingrown toenail or, or something that the NHS might put me on quite a long waiting list for. I'm quite happy to say, okay, you know, I'm going to get my health provider to pay for this and get it sorted out now. But I know that if I fall down in the street with a heart attack an ambulance will come, I will be taken to hospital, I'll be in ICU, I'll get the best possible care and nobody's going to follow me up with an invoice.
I do get your thinking and I, um, my American Friend, they have a phrase is socialized medicine that's what you have socialized medicine as though this is really horrible, but are instinctively we're so used to it being a good thing. I mean, I dunno, I have American Friend who say, yeah, but it's a bit hit and miss there and we want to pay, we pay more because we think it's slightly better in the U S and I think there's a very interesting bit about depending on your condition and what sort of treatment you get and now I can't quite imagine that being over there and I know they pay 50% more than we do. It's a, it's it did Dawn say I don't get socialized medicine or did she just see it straight away?
She saw it straight away. She saw it straight away because she's been on the rough end of, you know, being scared of going to the doctor.
It's always amazing in the U S to be self employed in the UK, you set up your business and off you go in the U S you want to keep your job because they'll give you the health insurance. I always have a huge admiration for entrepreneurs in the U S because they're going out and suddenly they've got no health care cause they don't have a big company, but
And that's a major big deal. I mean, we, we've got, we got two neighbors across the road where we, where we've got a house in Georgia and they both drive school buses for the, for the, for the County and what the major drivers, uh, perhaps inappropriate or very appropriate meaphot but one of the main reasons that they want to have that job is because of the health benefits.
My first memory, Geoff, of you is when you were at the BBC, um, 20 plus years ago, I was a whippersnapper in the disability movement, whatever that meant at that time, kicking up a fuss and I happened to be asked to do some work for the BBC on disability, equality issues and that's when I ran into you. Um, how did you get into the BBC? How did that come about
To get to work for the BBC at all? Do you mean? Um, well, in my final year at university, I hadn't really chosen a career path. I did, uh, I did a degree in French and politics, um, at Loughborough Um, and I loved the way they taught French and I loved doing the political science side of my degree, but I hadn't really given enough thought to my career and then I sort of remembered, uh, not that I could ever forget that I'd been a lifelong lover of listening to intelligent speech radio. I mean, radio four was my friend, even when I was, uh, even when I was a teenager, I used to listen to drama. I used to listen to current affairs. I was all very, always very interested in international relations and I found a lot of the information I needed and in an accessible format, you know, it wasn't, you know, written in, in six point type in the times, it was, it was there on radio four for everybody to have. Um, and I thought, hang on. I could be a journalist I could go and work for the BBC so I, um, made some applications. I was interviewed actually to be a trainee, local radio reporter, and they didn't accept me and that, and they were quite upfront about it. They said, the reason we can't accept you on this scheme is because you can't get a driving license and a reporter is a big resource in radio in local radio and if, you know, if there's a fire at 4:00 AM, you need to get in your car and go there and start reporting and
They'd not heard of taxis? (laughter),
At that time, it was perfectly legal to say to somebody, you can't do this, therefore you can't come in, but there were people in there sufficiently enlightened people in HR and editorially in the BBC who kind of thought I'd been given a bit of a bum deal so they put me in touch with people in network radio, who said, go and get a postgraduate journalism diploma, come back here and you'll be very well placed to apply for a network radio traineeship and that's exactly what I didand I got the traineeship so that's how I started.
You've been very helpful to us when, if you think our sound has improved, listener to that so down to Geoff and his fury, when we sound rubbish, um, but yet we've had some amazing jobs at the BBC and you had a particular interest in international affairs, uh, affecting Africa and for a time you were the BBCs in country project director for Rwanda, kind of what were you doing there? How was that?
Well, um, I had been in Rwanda very briefly for the today program during the genocide in May, 1994 and I saw things that I hope you will never see, or I hope my kids will never see. I mean, it was, it was quite extraordinary and, um, and devastating and it gave me bad dreams for several years actually. Um, I would often wake up, you know, sort of sweating or shouting or whatever and my then wife, Caroline, who was also a BBC staffer, uh, was on the train on the way home. I just, I just looked at the in house magazine Ariel, which apparently no longer exists. Um, I found the perfect job for you and I said, okay, tell me about it and she says, well, you need to be able to speak fluent French. I said, yeah, check that box. You need to have any interest in training, which I already did tick that box. You need to be an experienced journalist tick, that box experience of working in the great lakes area of Africa, tick that box as well so not surprisingly, I guess I wrote my application and I got the job to, to, to be a project director, to help journalists in Rwanda, to become more professional, to, to, to, to learn about objectivity and to learn sort of that, to be public rather than state broadcasters in a way really, that was, that was the idea so the project was funded by the British government, by the now defunct DFID and it was delivered by the BBC world. Service is trainingso I did it on their behalf
And just cause we do that, was it ddpartment for International Development as was, but you also remind me, there are some people with disability who talk a lot about disability now, but they had this whole hinterland is a non-disability job. You were just doing your stuff who happened to be there.
Now, when I joined the BBC, which was always a fairly enlightened employer, despite my early experience there, if anybody had said to me, is there anything you need to, you know, help you to do the job effectively? I would have bitten their head off. When I joined the BBC, I was in denial about my impairment, right? And I remember distinctly there was a job because I joined after my traineeship, I joined the radio newsroom as a sub editor and one of the jobs, one of the shifts in the newsroom was something called coffee tasting and really you have to read every dispatch that comes in from every news agency, you're the filter and then most of it goes in the bin, but the important stuff goes across the desk to the editor who can then decide, do they want to make a story out of it? And in an hour, every hour of copy tasting was just reading reams and reams and reams of tele printer output in really small type and not surprisingly, I got the most fierce headaches from doing this and the newsroom editor, John Williams came to me at the end of a shift one day and he said, Geoff, um, would you want me to arrange it so that you don't have to do copy tasting anymore? Now, you know, the temptation was overwhelming. It would have been so easy for me to have said, yeah, actually I find it a bit challenging. Could you, would you mind? You know, but I thought, no, because it's a hard thing to do my peers wouldn't appreciate having to do more copy tasting because I don't do it so I said, no, thank you. I will, I will carry on and do it and that was my approach until 1996, when I had a disc prolapse and the reason I had a disc prolapse with, because I refuse to have an ergonomic desk. So I was bent over either a paper editing machine or a desk hunched over for several hours, a day, 12 or 14 hours in a shift sometimes and I remember my friend Malcolm Brabant saying to me, you know what, Geoff, you're gonna really wreck your back doing that and I turned around to him and I said, well, you know, well, couple of expletives, you can imagine what I said, bugger off Malcolm. I said, mind your own business and within a year I was in hospital, had to have a, a discectomy and the physios in the hospital said to me, when I was doing the sort of rehab or postop rehab, they said, look, you probably didn't enjoy this surgery. Did you? And I said, well, of course not and they said, well, unless you make some substantial changes to the way you live and work, we'll see you back here quite soon.
I always say that 96, the law starts coming inso there's, you almost have to apologize. You, you have some rights and probably there was Phil Friend in the other room training the managers saying, ask your staff what adjustments they need so
It's very interesting because Geoff and I met at a time that one of the conversations I have with Geoff, I always remember it was about the disability programs unit, because that had been set up and Geoff had dealings with the disability programs unit. Um, and I remember some very interesting conversations with him about that, that, that thing, but in its, in its day, it was pioneering beause it was giving people an opportunity to work behind cameras and all sorts of other things. Geoff was very safely ensconced in his role by that time with a back that was shot to hell and stuff, but it was, it just showed how far the organization had come actually. Um, and, and let's begin to wind up by saying, and also how far you came Geoff, because now you're very, very much on your disability impairment front aren't you and embracing it in a way you never used to do when you were younger.
Absolutely and I think another, another sort of watershed moment for me in my career was a friend of mine asked me, would I go to Thailand to deliver some training there for a couple of weeks? I began to imagine all the access hurdles I would have to overcome, you know, dealing with my luggage, getting dressed in the morning, you know, dealing with a whole day of training and all of that and at the time the BBC had an access unit full of people that would, you could almost hire them out like a cab, you know, like for a day or for an hour or whatever and I said, yes, I'll do it. Uh, but I need to take somebody with me to help me. I need a personal assistant to help me and they said, well, is it going to cost us anything? I said, no, it's not going to cost you a penny. Okay. They said, and working for two weeks with a PA was enough to convince me that, okay, I can be so much more productive if I worked like that in the future so when I got back, I went to see the access unit manager and I said, can I apply for funding to get this, to be my way of working? Because I'm, you know, I'm finding things increasingly difficult, carry heavy bags, you know, not being able to see my way around, not being able to find people, not being able to, you know, there are so many things that I needed, uh, just a leg up with and by that time I'd been in the BBC long enough that I could say, well, yes, I need this help and if you don't like it, tough luck. Whereas at the beginning, I think I felt much less confident to ask for that kind of assistance and the law had changed anyway.
I was going to say, I think that's a massive watershed moment. Geoff. I think a lot of people would struggle with that. I think Phil and I might struggle with that because, you know, there's this perceived notion that you lose some independence, but actually, you know, for a fact that's when you get your independence back because we now can do these things, but you would have said no to Thailand otherwise. Um, but that's a big thing. I'm impressed that you did it and it,
So Geoff, as we begin to wind up now, I mean, what's, what's, I mean, we've heard about your various language pursuits and, and so on going forward onto those, but what else is there for you? What, what's your next big thing other than learning 47 languages?
Well, I've, I've had a third of my autobiography written for about seven years. I need to just give myself a really massive kick in the backside and get on and deal with that and finish it and get it published so that's it.
Does it have a title?
Well, it sort of doesn't it doesn't um, and I've, I've, I've already cleared this with Steph Cutler. I originally wanted to call it making lemonade. I may not go for that title in the end, but the reason I wanted it was because I did a series for the BBC world service back in the early noughties and the observer's radio critic, Sue Arnold said, uh, the best thing about this series is, is the presenter Geoff Adams-Spink life, handed him lemons and he chose to make lemonade so I thought, well, you know, that, that sounds pretty appropriate. I know, I do like to think of myself as somebody who can pull something positive from most situations.
so the autobiography, any idea when that will see the light of day, or I.
let's just say, if I'm still talking about doing it by the time I'm 65, there's going to be something very wrong with me and I've got seven years left now. I'd like to get it finished pretty soon, actually. Um, yeah.
And because you're you, the first edition will be an audiobook and then we'll get the print version. That'd be Cool.
Yeah and I think the audiobooks should be by default should be one and a half times speed.
And maybe you can have your friends narrate it for you.
Exactly. Exactly. No, I think, I think I'd quite like to narrate it myself, but yeah so there's that, and there's an awful lot of travelling I'd still like to do. Um, one of, one of my many ambitions travel wise is to visit every state in the union and I think the last, at the last count, I'd only visited 12 so I've got 38 left.
And for the listener, we were going to go to Vegas next January, because what is it? There's this sort of world tech conference,
CES, consumer electronic show.
So me Phil and Geoff, we're going to have a boys trip to go and report on this. Cause this is where all the major tech is. We're realizing we might need about six other assistants to come with us, be able to do otherwise.
There is Covid, of course, [inaudible], that's the question.
There's no point. I don't think it's going to happen. But my point is when we were planning it, we needed all the other bit and then I started squabbling. Cause I thought I'd have to do all the subtitling for every video we make and I thought I'm never going to get out of the hotel.
Yeah Geoff and I will be going around the show. While Simon is stuck in the room somewhere with headphones on. Well look, Geoff, what can we say other than we're always grateful when you come on, you're always so entertaining and, and there was much in what you said this afternoon that I didn't know about you particularly your early life and so on so thank you for being so, so open about that and telling us about it. Cause that's great. Um, so we will, uh, we will wind things up and maybe see you again very soon. Who knows?
Thanks guys it's been a pleasure and an honour thank you.
From me, Geoff. I, uh, it was lovely speaking to you and it's good to delve a little bit deeper. We wish you ad multos annos,
Several more years.
Yeah. Ad infinitum. Yeah.
Cheers. Geoff, take it easy.
Speaker 2 (48:19):
This is The Way We Roll presented by Simon Minty and Phil Friend. You can email us at [email protected] or just search for Minty and Friend on social media. We're on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.