Tuesday 5 May 2009

Clear vision of a nearly blind man

This time last week (assuming that you read The Journal at breakfast) I was on my way to London for the memorial service of a man I hardly knew.

Patrick Pierre Max Wiener was what would now be called vertically challenged, and almost perfectly spherical. His curly hair was so blond that many took him for an albino, while at close quarters his breath smelt powerfully of garlic and Turkish cigarettes. And you always did get close if you wanted to conduct a conversation with him, because the most striking feature of the man was that he was practically blind.

I only discovered the precise nature of Patrick’s condition from his son’s eulogy last week. It was a form of exceptionally severe myopia combined with an acute sensitivity of the eyes to light. This meant that he peered at the world from behind a very thick pair of tinted glasses, and could read documents only when they were held about two inches from his face, or inspected through a large magnifying glass.

In many ways he resembled Mr Magoo, the chronically nearsighted cartoon character who was a popular figure of fun in my childhood, but has now been banished by the forces of political correctness.

His handicap naturally prevented Patrick from driving a car. But it also meant that, whenever he hailed a bus, he had not the slightest clue where it was going until it had stopped and he had spoken to the conductor or driver. This sort of behaviour attracted a certain amount of unsympathetic abuse, to which he was splendidly impervious. Indeed at all times he exuded total confidence that he was doing, saying and wearing the right thing, underpinned by an encyclopaedic if quirky knowledge of correct etiquette.

My own slight acquaintance with Patrick began 30 years ago when I was pretending that I wanted to be a stockbroker, and he was my employer. Although occasionally critical (“Hann, you are not intelligent enough to be an atheist!” was one of his more memorable pronouncements) he was encouraging, and he gave me the largest percentage pay rise I had ever received. It was so generous, in fact, that I wondered whether he had made a terrible mistake as he squinted at the papers in front of him. But, if so, it was honoured and it enabled me to buy my first flat. It was gratitude for this that led me to make the long journey to pay my respects.

Our careers diverged in 1983 and I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we met after that. Yet each time our paths crossed, I was struck by the fact that a man who could barely see had such a remarkable memory for faces. That was all part of what the priest who gave the homily described as Patrick’s “tremendous natural courtesy”.

The service underlined my huge ignorance of the man. I was dimly aware that he was a Roman Catholic, but not that he was so devout that he attended Mass almost every day. Nor did I have the slightest knowledge of his consuming passion for horse racing. Could he have chosen a less appropriate hobby than trying to watch animals thundering at high speed several hundred yards away?

Yet it fitted perfectly with his choice of a career that required close attention to figures. As the priest said, Patrick’s greatest contribution was in teaching us all to think positively. Even the most severe handicaps can be overcome: a lesson I thought worth sharing more widely.

He also said that Patrick was “an intensely good man” who will have “gone straight to heaven” and be waiting for us there. Well, we can hope; and there could surely be no more fitting tribute than to place a bet on it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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