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Two Tales Of Two Christys

August 17, 2010

I recently read two books about two Irish men. Both were called Christy and both had CP. Both are also very talented writers.

One has inspired me all my life. You see, growing up with CP in the 1990s, My Left Foot was all anyone could talk about. Well, actually, Christy Brown’s left foot. Mine only took footsteps- his did everything but- from picking up pens to writing books.

Christy Brown’s left foot is even the subject of a Hollywood movie. It was to this movie that my mainstream school teachers turned to teach my classmates about CP. It was only after reading the book that I realised how much this movie, like all others, had been fictionalised.

From the book, I learned that Christy Brown’s family loved him as much as he loved them and didn’t, as the movie suggested, lock him in a little bedroom under the stairs! His love for his family is obvious throughout, too, although he says he has so many brothers and sisters that he feels he doesn’t know half of them!

The part of the book that doesn’t explain how he learnt to write with his beloved left foot describes his adventures with the brothers who were closest to his age. With their help, he rode around in an old-fashioned wheelchair named Henry, feeling just like everyone else- until Henry broke.

He even fell in love with a local girl, Jenny, who didn’t return his feelings, and with his teacher Miss Delahunt, who married a man who, says Christy Brown, ‘was kind, but I was very jealous.’

Another constant theme in My Left Foot is treatment and the search for a cure. Christy Brown describes the people he met on a trip to Lourdes, which left him disappointed. He describes trips to London to meet specialist doctors, and  his physiotherapy centre, one of the first in Ireland, where ‘the people in the cool white coats have very warm hearts.’ In the end, they teach him to use his hands and tell him to stop using his left foot- but he sometimes uses it in secret anyway!

My Left Foot was, I have always thought, the only book of its kind- about life with CP, by a person with CP. I thought nothing could be better, until I read Under The Eye Of The Clock. When I heard that this was a book about a wheelchair user with CP, I had a picture in my head of a boy parked under a clock in a wheelchair. I wasn’t far wrong- the clock in the title was at the entrance to Christy Nolan’s mainstream school, Mount Temple. But it, like his wheelchair, is hardly mentioned in the book.

Instead, he describes in detail his love for his parents and the sister who loves him at times a little too much- once with embarrassing results! He describes family holidays around Ireland and the very simple things- breakfast in the family kitchen- with real skill.

Any reader who has ever been to a mainstream school will smile, laugh and cry at his descriptions of the adventures he shared with his many friends. They even helped him smoke behind the science blocks! I recalled forgotten memories, and truly sympathised, when he described how he hated being stuck in traffic in the mornings and missing the beginning of the school day.

Margaret Drabble calls Christy Nolan ‘a writer, a real writer.’ He is one of those from the start. He describes his joy at winning writing competitions run by the (then) Spastic Society and his trips to London to collect awards and give speeches. As a writer with CP who can only dream of this moment myself I shared his joy when he described the day the first copy of his first published book arrived in the post!

Unlike Christy Brown, Christy Nolan doesn’t seem to be looking for a cure for CP. However, also unlike Christy Brown, Christy Nolan constantly refers to the pain he feels for the ‘crippled brothers and sisters who had gone before him’ who could never share in his positive experiences. I couldn’t help wondering if he might have been referring to every CPer’s original inspiration- Christy Brown.

After all, although Under The Eye Of The Clock may be more relevant to the experiences of people with CP today, we must never be allowed to forget that the world’s recognition of our intelligence started with Christy Brown’s left foot.

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