Melanie Reid: Counting her blessings
- Credit: Ben Gurr/The Times
Melanie Reid lived life at 10 million miles an hour – a working mother, keen horse-rider, award-winning journalist – until a riding accident in 2010 stopped her in her tracks. Ever one of life’s commentators, she has turned her experiences into one of The Times’s most popular and well-read columns. Katie Jarvis spoke to her ahead of an appearance at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival.
The landlady of Melanie Reid’s local is busy baking. The pub is technically closed but, when she hears who I’ve come to interview, she sits me down with a croissant and a steaming cup of coffee.
“Ah, Melanie! She’s a friend. She had a party here recently and she told me, ‘I’m just going to let it all wash over me; relax and enjoy myself.’ David, her husband, is wonderful, too.”
She’s making cakes for the coffee shop she also owns down the road in Aberfoyle, deep in the heart of the Trossachs. “Melanie wrote a piece about it. Before her accident.”
After my impromptu breakfast, I wander through the village, killing time. This is horse country, for sure; I watch a young girl walk her pony carefully over jumps, the rugged Trossachs mountains dwarfing them both.
In this land, humans seem irrelevant. The religious might celebrate God’s hand in an imposing grandeur. Atheists might dwell on a self-absorbed universe. Good things happen to bad people; very bad things happen to the good.
As I pass back by the pub, a man accosts me, kindly and mischievous. “I was told a woman was waiting for me. That hasn’t happened for some 40 years,” David says.
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The carers are still getting Melanie up, but he gives me directions. “It’s down the road that says ‘No unauthorised vehicles’, because that’s the kind of guy I am,” he adds, in a genial bluff.
Down the road that says ‘No unauthorised vehicles’, there’s a descent through silver birches and oaks, tinted and crusted with mosses and lichens. I reach a farmer and his lad, eying up a cattle grid. “Are you going to be long?” the farmer asks me, in an accent almost as impenetrable as the surrounding wilderness. The fact is, he explains, they’re about to take the grid up, to clean away the clumpy soil washed down by recent rains.
So I abandon my car and walk the rest of the way up the rough path, suffused with an earthy smell of the outdoors, trying not to think the obvious: if you wanted to design a place perfectly unsuitable for tetraplegia, then don’t bother – nature got there long before you.
And then I see her, sitting on a terrace high above this wildness. Oh, gosh – I’m going to be fanciful now but I’m only saying what I feel. Firstly, her calm stillness seems somehow to quieten that wildness around her; I don’t know – maybe like a lion tamer with a beast underfoot. And secondly, she seems strangely familiar, as if I’m popping by as I do each week.
“Hi,” she calls down, and I find her, (sitting in her chair, of course), looking softer – younger, actually - than the photograph in her column; fair hair haloing.
She makes us coffee in the kitchen warmed by her blue Aga – occasional star of her columns - chatting about the wonderful horse country that lies around us.
“I used to go riding with the reins in one hand and a fag in the other,” Dave growls.
“I wish I’d been a bit worse at it and given it up,” Melanie counters.
And then I carry the coffees out to the table (“Every hand’s a help”) drenched with yesterday’s rain, to sit and talk, with the sun-warmed world at our feet.
And it’s not the only sense in which the world is at Melanie Reid’s feet. Since she started her Spinal Column in The Times in 2010 – some three weeks after she broke her neck and back in a horrific riding accident – she’s become an inspiration. Not only to similarly disabled people (“I don’t actually think of myself as disabled – that’s maybe part of my on-going identity crisis”) but to readers of every kind the world over. They’re captivated by her honesty, her humour, her refusal to give in. When she appears at Cheltenham next month, I’d wager her audience will be one of the most eclectic of the literature festival. Yet, if you’d tried to sell me her column before I read it – horsewoman confined to wheelchair writes about her life – I’d probably have politely demurred.
“Can I be very honest? I don’t think I would have read my column either. Does that sound crazy?” she asks, with a wry smile. “When I was busy and fit and active and mistress of my universe - Mrs Arrogant, Mrs Ten-million-miles-an-hour – I don’t think I would have spent time reading about somebody who was in a wheelchair. And then, when it happens to you,” she laughs, genuinely, but with an undertone of sadness, “you realise how close you are - how narrow the gap is - between a fabulous life and a very, very different sort of life.”
And, yes, it was a very different sort of life: the other Melanie Reid was an award-winning writer at the Herald in Glasgow; a journalist at the Times in Scotland; busy mother of teenage son Douglas; passionate horse-rider. Then, one Good Friday four years ago, her big chestnut horse refused to go over a jump at a cross-country training practice. Melanie fell, face first, body contorted. Conscious throughout, she realised almost immediately something terrible had happened; “Everything went bright red and my whole body was suffused by this intense feeling of warmth and I knew I’d done something catastrophic.” Yet almost from that first moment – ever a documenter of life - she was writing about it in her head.
“Oh, yes! I was in the MRI scanner, thinking, ‘I’ve got to tell people how awful and weird and frightening all this is.’ And I think it was great therapy for me. Being a journalist helped; it helped to process the shock, superficially. And it helped to process the suddenness of the change. Because from being someone who was busy, busy, busy, I was precipitated into the life of someone who’s 30 years older than I am.”
No karma there at all. Yet it’s odd. A universe where terrible things happen at random is a dreadful place to live; but when the person it has happened to becomes an inspiration, then maybe there is a hidden strand of wisdom. Somewhere.
For from the start, her column attracted readers by the tens of thousands. It was her openness – her lack of pretence – as well as her emotive writing that captivated. Rotting toenails, clawed hands, persistent bladder infections…
Ah yes - bladders. In a couple of hours, she and Dave have to make their way to Glasgow for a pre-op appointment as a result of the horrific incident she wrote about recently. With her trademark humour, she described to the world how her catheter blocked internally and the urine was forced out of her paralysed urethra, flooding wheelchair, clothes and stone floor, as she sat helpless.
“The frustrating thing about this condition is that it’s a constant fight to keep your insides working properly,” she says. Until Melanie started writing, it seemed that colostomies and catheters were ‘c’ words, never to be mentioned in polite society. Now millions of us know about the suprapubic urinary catheter below her tummy button; the colostomy bag she had fitted last year when she further broke her leg.
And then – who knows; maybe as a result of that - a beautiful young woman named Bethany Townsend recently tweeted a picture of herself in a bikini, with two colostomy bags. It was a much-feted photo that went viral.
“We live in a world of body fascism,” Melanie says, with a gentleness that contradicts her feelings. “Sometimes, when I look at glossy magazines and see nothing but gorgeous, airbrushed women; people fretting about the shape of their feet” – she laughs – “or that their hips are a bit too wide; I just think, ‘Gosh! It’s so unreal’. I genuinely now understand that there’s a parallel world of very ordinary people, who have illnesses, who aren’t pretty, who don’t have beautiful bodies; who are just trying to make their way. And this is the beauty myth – this madness that prevails in the media and on the internet.”
Did she always plan on being so open about her own body?
“I never plan anything,” she gaffaws. But she’s also amazed she’s managed to sneak so many unpalatable truths from darkness into the light. “It astonishes me. I used to be an editor and I know how editors have a built-in aversion to putting anything into the paper about poo and pee.”
Is she ever gently nudged by the Powers That Be?
“On the contrary. The Times has been amazing. It actually did a leader calling for improved catheter care, as a result of what I’ve written.”
She would like to campaign more about catheters, about improved awareness of stomas and bowel issues, but she won’t; she needs to stay mainstream or, she knows, she won’t achieve anything. So she continues to back others by telling her own story with her self-deprecation and her wry outlook.
And it is humour that gets Melanie and Dave through the bleakest days. Humour based around Dave forgetfully leaving her all-important wheelchair cushion on the pavement outside the hospital; or forgetting to fit stabilisers to the chair.
“Dave is completely blond; a ditsy blond. But he’s been amazing. He is the most amazing man to have coped with what he’s coped with because he didn’t marry me for this.” Melanie has, from time to time, offered him an ‘out’ clause – “almost etiquette”, she calls it. It’s moments like that that leap out from the humour; moments that are stark and uncompromising; that occasionally make the column difficult to read.
“Some of my friends can’t read it. It’s just raw emotion, Katie. It comes out. But, to be absolutely practical, in order to live in this lovely place, I need to keep working and keep writing; and I’m very blessed that I can still work and that The Times still employs me.”
“This lovely place” is, indeed, gorgeous: a 300-year-old smallholding that’s as impractical as they come. “We came here 22 years ago and it’s just impossible to leave. We should have moved to a little bungalow in suburbia with a tarmac drive that I could have rolled down to go to the local shop and get my own papers, instead of being up in the hills in my eyrie, looking at the view.”
The view is not only mesmeric; it puts things into perspective. We talk about all sorts: the politics of disability (briefly; it’s a thorny subject); about risk-taking: “I don’t believe in cotton-woolling people. I was very unlucky but I could have broken my neck slipping in a supermarket car park.”
And about the extraordinary reaction to her writing: “I’m just an ordinary person but I get an extraordinary number of emails from people – nice, good people – saying, ‘I’m healthy; I’ve got a good life; and thank you for writing because, every Saturday, I read your column and it puts all my moans into perspective. It stops me shouting at my kids for nothing or getting excited about things that don’t matter.’ And that’s incredibly flattering that people think that.”
And we also talk about the positives (I’m amazed I can write that) that have resulted from her awful, catastrophic, painful, humiliating, life-changing accident. I read a comment, from someone, somewhere, saying that being in a wheelchair is very Zen; that it makes you stop and think in a way that ordinary, fast-paced life doesn’t allow. And maybe that’s why we love Melanie Reid. Because she does that thinking for us.
“I would be immensely flattered if even that was half the case,” she says. “But there are compensations: I have enjoyed so many things since my accident that I never thought I could enjoy. The sound of silence; the stillness; the minutiae of life; watching the birds. Watching insect life. I never had a bird table before my accident; I was too busy.”
And so she watches the siskins, the goldfinches, the redpolls, the yellowhammers (“I’m boasting now”) – birds she would never have seen when her eyes were shut to them.
“That rowan tree, last autumn, was covered in the most extraordinary red berries. I was in the kitchen when I heard a cacophony of birds squabbling and shouting and arguing, like a sudden fight in the playground. And I looked out and a whole flock of thrush-size birds were going crackers around the tree.”
She got out her binoculars, clocked a paleness of underwing, and identified a flock of fieldfare.
“And in two hours, they had stripped the tree completely. And I thought to myself, ‘If I’d been at work and come home, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed the berries had gone’. Yet the experience was so precious; like witnessing one of the mysteries of the world.”
There’s so much I haven’t asked her – questions about assisted dying (though she’s written strongly enough in its favour); about stem-cell experimentation; about the mostly-invisibility of disabled people in the media.
But, there again, there’s enough wisdom to be gained in simply listening to Melanie Reid talk about the changing shades of her copper beech, her pink and yellow roses, the beautiful hydrangea someone brought to her recent ‘no-presents’ party.
And even though she has to go to hospital shortly, she makes me feel so welcome. “Have a sandwich! You can come with us, if you haven’t got all you need!”
And so... I realise you can’t all come to this secret forest. Or sit on a sun-soaked terrace, in front of a white cottage, from which the world looks both catastrophically small, and limitless, all at the same time. But in the absence of this, go to Cheltenham and hear this woman speak. In the absence of that, read her columns. In the absence - or presence - of all of the above, sit in your garden or a public park for a few quiet seconds, immobile, and watch. Watch a dragonfly hover; watch an ant carry a grass stalk, while a blackbird pipes to its mate. Be calm. Be ordinary. And count your blessings.
Melanie Reid will be in conversation with Libby Purves as part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, from October 3-12; www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the September 2014 issue of Cotswold Life. For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis