The theme of disability with Ben Elton has been handled in a very direct manner. From the outset the novel has a confrontational manner in the way the central character, Dr Geoffrey Peason, deals with being a spastic.
“He proclaimed himself a ‘spasmo’. He had the words ‘Geoffrey Spasmo: Satan’s Hell Dog’ written on his first leather jacket and worn it to school.”
Throughout the novel there are many different points and examples of Geoffrey Spasmo battling against popular opinions of disabled people in his one-man crusade to have universal public access for the disabled community. The first chapter deals directly with the prejudices of people by pointing out that the killers, who have been sent out to dispose of Geoffrey, discard him as the physicist that created the engine due to the way he looks and speaks. Also the assumption that the disabled are helpless is also dealt with in the way that Geoffrey manages to kill his assailants whilst they hesitate in his home. Helplessness in this case is a state of mind and whilst the brain remains functioning then the victim, able bodied or otherwise, still stands a chance. Disability does not make a victim.
Ben Elton also challenges the popular stereotyping of the disabled by the able bodied community by creating this particular spastic and making him the man who could revolutionise the motor industry forever by creating the ‘hydrogen engine’. In this way he is creating a positive image in so far as how disabled people are perceived in the readers mind.
Geoffrey’s approach to his disability is laid in strict contrast to the other disabled character, who is central to the plot, especially after Geoffrey is murdered. Deborah deals less with a moral crusade for the disabled community, and more with acknowledging peoples beliefs about her. She does, however, hate being described as a fire hazard!
Deborah is different from Geoffrey in that she does not have cerebral palsy; she is in a wheelchair after the driver of a ‘Global Moritz’ knocked her down. She is resentful for her disability but copes with it reasonably well now that she realises that in the eyes of the world she is now a fire hazard.
“The reason Deborah was so specifically a fire hazard was that in those two little words, the able bodied community let itself off the hook.” “To deny someone access because they are a fire hazard â€“ well, there is a sensible and public spirited action.”
The way in which Deborah deals with the able-bodied people shows her utter disgust for being made a fire hazard comes across with her encounters at the tube station and at the pub.
Deborah’s encounter with the ‘punky hippy’ at the pub also reflects societies attitude towards the disabled, that the disabled are in some way de-sexed. Elton himself makes this observation and suggests this is why “they all have to use the same toilets.” “The idea of Deborah making gags about blow jobs embarrassed him.”
Throughout the novel the author challenges the way that the disabled are thought of, in one respect to change popular opinion of what disability means, and in another to change the way able bodied people treat the disabled.
“‘You won’t get anywhere feeling sorry for yourself,’ said the Heathrow traveller’ and all the other pushers and shovers turned away. They personally would be too embarrassed to talk to a cripple, let alone argue with one.”
The quote above illustrates the fact that the public does not understand how it is to be disabled and therefore treat them, and especially speak to them, differently. Sometimes this is done in the same way as it is seen to treat a young child.
These issues are covered in a degree of depth some may find too sensitive to deal with in the same way as has been implemented throughout “Gridlock”. The humour, which runs through the story, emphasises the points made, again, especially illustrated in Deborah’s conversation with the ticket salesman, to gain access to the upstairs room of a pub. The use of language is very confrontational, especially through the first part of the novel whilst Geoffrey is still alive, with the continual use of the word spastic, which in this age of political correctness is very un-P.C.
“The Cone Gatherers” deals with a different aspect of disability, that of the mind. The suffering character in this book being Calum, who also carries physical deformities. However in this book there are themes of different types of disability. The disability of Neil, Calum’s older brother. Then there is Duror who is disabled by hatred of Calum’s form, and the disability of his wife.
Calum, a simple man who works with his brother, is not concerned with his disability, possibly because he may not understand it, however, his brother does and takes offence on Calum’s behalf. The incident in the public house in Lendrick indicates this. Throughout the book, the author makes clear his feelings and intentions towards Calum, he is a kind and forgiving man who is honest and truthful towards others and to himself.
Neil on the other hand could be seen to be disabled by his brother. By this I mean that Neil, through his feeling of duty to look after his brother, has given up his life to devote his attention to Calum, sacrificing his happiness and a possible marriage to tend to his brother.
“To look after his brother, he had never got married, though once he had come very close to it: that memory often revived to turn his heart melancholy.”
Duror is in the same situation as Neil in one respect; he is married to Peggy, a once young and beautiful lady who is now bedridden due to being incredibly obese. This is, however, a medical condition, which is seen as unfair by all to have afflicted her of all people. Whereas Neil takes a great deal of time to care for Calum, by living and working with him, Duror has his mother in law living with him and his wife to tend to his wife’s needs whilst he works. He barely ever goes in to see his wife, in fact it is mostly on the orders of Mrs. Lochie, his mother in law that he does.
The hatred, which eventually takes control of Duror, is astonishing and it is as if this is becoming a disability upon Duror himself. I say this because everything that Duror does throughout the book is influenced by the bitter hatred that he holds for the deformed cone gatherer, which is slowly disabling his mind towards killing him.
Perhaps the resentment he holds for Calum stems from the disability afflicting his wife, almost as if her disability has been personified in the form of Calum. To Duror he is ‘one of natures freaks’ which to him is justification itself to rid himself and the wood of this small ‘hunchbacked’ man.
Robin Jenkins has taken the theme of disability and presented it in a number of different ways. His concentration is on the effect that a disability has not only on the sufferer, but also no the carer, of which there are two very conflicting ideas. There is a very sensitive focus on what it means to be disabled, mainly due, I believe, to the fact that Calum is childish in manner with the way he looks upon and thinks of things. In comparison you have the very confrontational, almost sensationalist approach which has been adopted by Ben Elton. He writes of how disability affects the individual, and looking at the two disabled characters in the novel, both dependant on their wheelchairs alone, as opposed to a member of their family to get through their lives. Both approaches towards disability work well and both books deal with the issues in hand in a manner, which suits the flow of the story.
The Ben Elton deals with the social standing of the disabled and the reaction to their presence in a room, which is there mainly to provoke thought in the reader. The statements are put in to get a reaction from his audience, a possible reason for the continual use of the term ‘spastic’, which could serve to annoy the politically correct middle-class readers.
On the other hand “The Cone Gatherers” takes a more passive approach to the audience which serves to make the reader understand the feelings and mentality of the central characters.
The contrast between the two novels’ approach to the disabled is wildly different. The direct approach of “Gridlock” to challenge the reader with the perception of Geoffrey’s cerebral palsy and Deborah’s crippling serves up the different issues the author wants you to consider. However there is a subtlety to “The Cone Gatherers” which has the same effect, especially when confronted with the thought of Duror’s desire to force the ‘simple’ cone gatherers out of the forest because of the circumstances surrounding their lives.
I think that the two author’s representation of disabled life have their own advantages given the issues they deal with. The effectiveness of their outlooks on the subject matter fit correctly within the context of the novels as a whole in that the social points the individual writers are trying to convey do not interrupt the flow of the story. The sensitivity surrounding the viewpoints of the two subjects also adds to the overall readability of the books. In both cases the story is both readable and thought provoking which should lead to an overall understanding of the different situations of people in society.