Don’t disregard dementia

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Peter Vance Message to a Grandchild
Foreword by Anne Robinson
Sidgwick & Jackson 2003

Two thousand and three was for me a notable year: our second grandchild was born; after nearly three decades fulltime in post at one school I resigned my teaching post; and a former pupil, a 16-year-old student at that school, had his first book published. This book was the extraordinary Message to a Grandchild, a slim volume but one that I kept and keep on dipping into as the years go by.

Peter Vance was so affected by his Nan being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease that he was determined to do something positive in response. At the age of fourteen (and with the support of the Alzeimer’s Society of Great Britain) he began to write to famous people around the world — politicians, spiritual leaders, actors, sportsmen and sportswomen, authors, artists and celebrities — all people, as he says, who had done “something inspiring with their lives”. His request was simple: what one piece of advice or thought that they felt important in life would they pass on to a grandchild, either living or in the future.

Initially the response was slow; but then it increased, going from a trickle to a steady stream. First veteran racing driver Stirling Moss; then boxer Lennox Lewis; then he “received letters from Downing Street, the Vatican, the Dalai Lama and people in America and Australia”.  Although Peter’s intention was to publish a collection of these to raise money to help both his Nan and research into a cure for the disease his grandmother sadly died in 2001; nevertheless he persisted and this 140-page hardback was published in May 2003, with half the royalties going to the Alzheimer’s Society. From short epigrams to paragraphs, famous quotations to poetry, and religious morals to practical advice these 123 messages — for the most part one to a page — will variously raise a smile or strike a chord.

I could do worse than cite a few of my favourite sayings from these celebrated individuals; you may recognise some names, though they’re mostly native English speakers with the majority coming from the UK. The late Bob Hoskins wrote, “Always have the courage to go with your heart.” Writer Arthur C Clarke had a heartfelt credo, “Remember that you knew them, not that you lost them,” while Eric Clapton’s plain and simple advice was “Listen.” Comedian Bob Monkhouse contributed a fourfold note:

If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.
Always remember you are unique, just like everyone else.
Never reach out your hand further than you can withdraw it.
And the best way to kill time is to work it to death.

A couple of people, including Tony Blair and Ian Hislop, contributed the Latin tag Carpe diem, but I particularly like Lorraine Kelly’s version: “Never save anything until ‘best’. Seize the day and live life to the full.” Olympic gold medallist Sally Gunnell contributed the Biblical “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” a sentiment echoed by golfer Arnold Palmer. While TV presenter Davina McCall advised that “Mistakes are only bad if you don’t learn from them,” J K Rowling drew attention to words from Hilaire Belloc: There’s nothing worth the wear of winning | But laughter and the love of friends…

A decade and more later and the internet is awash was little homilies and wise saws that we all post on social media, aphorisms that people claim to live by, many true but also many trite. In 2003 these messages to a grandchild come over less as celebrities blowing their own trumpets than as real people trying to connect with other real people. By passing on to later generations their genuine and sincere thoughts on how to live a good life they demonstrated hope and concern for a future that it’s all too easy to be cynical about.

The final word must come from Peter Vance himself, echoing the Dalai Lama’s plea to “develop the heart … Be compassionate … Never give up”: Many of the people who wrote back, including world champions, talked about the value of persistence and never giving up. That’s something I’ll always try to remember. Because Peter, in persisting with his seemingly impossible project, demonstrated his compassion for his grandmother and for other suffering from dementia, who in 2003 numbered over three quarters of a million in the UK. I hope that in my own way I’m also passing on the spirit of these messages to my grandchildren before it’s too late.

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