As 23rd of April is the World Book Day, in this month's posts you'll find articles about Jane from the different decades through her life, and acout many subjects: acting career, events, charity... So enjoy the lecture!
Parkinson's has hit my family... but we'll never let it wreck our lives: Cake-baking star Jane Asher refuses to be crushed by the cruel illness
- Jane Asher's friend and brother-in-law Gordon suffers from Parkinson's
- Retired graphic artist Gordon, 68, was diagnosed nine years ago
- Today he suffers tremours, loss of movement and takes 25 pills a day
By VICTORIA FLETCHER
PUBLISHED: 21:56 GMT, 13 April 2013
Jane Asher was the essence of London in the Swinging Sixties – an actress famous for her flaming red hair, clipped English tones and glamorous lifestyle.
In the Seventies, with her husband, cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, she remained a fixture in showbiz circles – the couple were often spotted out with Gerald’s younger brother Gordon at the hippest restaurants and parties. Today, four decades later, the three of them are still inseparable.
Now 67, Jane, with her auburn locks and impish grin, is still as recognisable as when she starred opposite Sir Michael Caine in the hit 1966 film Alfie.
Also well-known for her cake-making business, Jane remains a big star on stage and screen, recently appearing alongside Minnie Driver in the British comedy film I Give It A Year.
|Key role: Jane Asher is president of the Parkinson's UK charity|
I meet Jane at the North London home of Gordon, 68, a retired graphic artist. He is sitting next to her in a high-backed chair, smiling, but his body is in constant motion – endless tremors sweep from his head towards his shoulders and down through his arms.
These movements are the most visible symptom of Parkinson’s disease, which Gordon was diagnosed with nine years ago. It is the first time they have agreed to talk about his illness, which prompted Jane to become president of Parkinson’s UK in 2007.
The mood, however, is far from sombre. ‘Oh! I’ve forgotten my four o’clock pill,’ Gordon exclaims. Jane hurries off to return with a box that each morning is filled with the 25 pills he must take throughout the day to control his movements and pain.
He pops one into his mouth and then, after looking more closely at his medication, exclaims: ‘Oops, I’ve taken the wrong one!’
They look at each other and start giggling. ‘What will happen?’ she asks. ‘Will you turn into a pumpkin?’ and they laugh again.
Between acting jobs and running her cake-making company, Jane spends a large part of her time working for nine charities, representing more than ten million patients. But none has a closer connection to Jane than Gordon.
She says: ‘I had always found it easier to lobby on behalf of causes with which I didn’t have a personal connection. But, obviously this was different. When he said, “Could you do anything to help raise the profile of this disease?” I instantly said yes.’
|Still smiling: Jane and her brother-in-law Gordon, 68, who suffers from Parkinson's at his home in London|
Jane has chosen to speak out partly because this is Parkinson’s Awareness Week. The disease, which affects more than 120,000 Britons, is caused when certain cells in the brain begin to die. These cells make a chemical called dopamine that is vital in allowing the brain to control movement.
There are a number of drugs that can help to replace the dopamine that has been lost. There are also other drugs that make the body more efficient at using the dopamine that is available.
But as more and more cells in the brain die, these drugs have nothing to work on. Eventually the medication becomes useless and a patient will suffer from a full range of symptoms including uncontrolled movement, intense pain and sometimes dementia.
Although sufferers don’t die of Parkinson’s, they become weak through not being able to eat properly and are more likely to suffer from falls and illnesses such as pneumonia.
And then there are the problems presented by the drugs designed to control the disease, which can sometimes have bizarre side effects.
‘One is not being able to control your spending,’ says Gordon.
‘Yes, they can produce obsessive gambling or sex problems,’ interjects Jane.
‘Yes, and I’m afraid I went for squirrels,’ says Gordon amid laughter, referring to the countless toy squirrels dotted around the room.
For Gordon, the obsessive behaviour that arises from his medication manifests itself in him buying nick-nacks, especially squirrels.
‘Luckily, it’s relatively benign,’ observes Jane of this compulsion.
‘He normally gets things from Oxfam. Thank God it’s not Harvey Nics!’
Gordon has always been close to his brother Gerald, despite being eight years his junior.
They regularly spend Christmas together either at Jane and Gerald’s house in Chelsea or here at Gordon’s home, which he shares with his wife Joyce, a retired nurse. The couple don’t have any children.
The dinners they once enjoyed together are now just a memory, sadly.
A love of food is something that Parkinson’s disease can slowly destroy. Many sufferers lose their sense of smell, a key component in our ability to taste.
Then, as the disease progresses, it can affect the muscles in the tongue and throat. This makes it hard to chew and push food to the back of the throat to swallow, resulting in flecks of food being inhaled into the lungs, which can cause dangerous infections.
This crushes any enjoyment that mealtimes once held.
|Close-knit: Jane with her cartoonist husband Gerald Scarfe, second left, his brother Gordon and Jane¿s mother, Margaret Asher, in 1980|
Gordon first realised something was wrong when he couldn’t move his foot properly while trying to stretch his legs on a flight to Australia.
Later, he was referred to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. Tests confirmed he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Gordon doesn’t dwell on this moment. ‘It felt like being stung by a bee,’ he says. ‘But I thought about it, and it’s life. Don’t fight it. Don’t let it get to you.’
He immediately joined up with a local Parkinson’s UK group to meet other sufferers and asked Jane to get involved.
It has taken nine years for Gordon’s disease to progress to the point where he now needs the occasional use of a wheelchair, which the NHS has just delivered.
He has started to suffer from the odd fall, and says he finds it infuriating not to be able to get up and quickly walk the few feet to pick up the telephone before it stops ringing. He also now stammers when he speaks.
Still, after a recent hospital stay, he immediately went out to a jazz club to listen to his favourite musician. Fortunately, his most cherished venue agreed to install a wheelchair ramp and gave him a flexible ticket so he could turn upon any night he felt well enough.
‘If you don’t have these people around who are willing to help you, you can’t do anything,’ he says.
Generally, however, the disease is beginning to change his life. Walking around London ‘used to be my favourite thing’ but now he can only manage to get to the shops at the end of his road with the help of a frame. ‘It’s not the same,’ he says.
He can no longer draw or read or even write his name, but he has learnt to use a computer to print out cards to loved ones and stay in touch. Jane believes it is this enforced withdrawal from life that means many in the population don’t understand what Parkinson’s disease actually is.
‘As it gets worse, you tend to disappear,’ she says. ‘People don’t see what it’s like. They think it’s just a shake as you get older and isn’t too bad. And the pain is hardly ever spoken about. It can be so bloody awful – it’s a pig of a disease.’ She is grateful that Gordon can move his face. Some patients are unable to do this, leaving them with a mask-like appearance.
But Gordon can still smile. ‘Obviously it’s very upsetting for all of us, especially Gerald because it’s his younger brother and there are only the two of them,’ says Jane. ‘But Gordon’s humour has made it easier for all of us. It’s incredible how he is.’
Researchers are making huge steps forward in understanding the genetics of the disease and there is hope that treatments using stem cells, gene therapy and deep brain stimulation will improve symptoms.
This year, Parkinson’s UK received a massive boost when the National Garden Scheme, which sees members of the public open their gardens to visitors, pledged a lump sum to the charity, providing a cash injection of £100,000.
Gordon slowly moves over to the stereo to play a record by his favourite jazz musician, Han Bennink. It’s an eccentric mix of bangs and toots.
As Jane watches the man she has shared so much life and laughter with move slowly across the room, her very personal understanding of the havoc this disease wreaks on the lives of patients is clear.
‘You don’t want anyone you love, anyone anywhere, to have this horrible disease,’ she says quietly. ‘Life is so incredibly unfair and unpleasant sometimes.’