Rick Bowen’s 23 years on the Sale and Altrincham Messenger have given the local journalist a rich seam of stories with which to pepper his autobiography.
But what elevates his own story – written by the 57-year-old during lockdown – above the usual memoir is that Bowen has cerebral palsy, caused by a bleed on the brain during his birth at Southfields Maternity Home, now a block of upmarket apartments on Langham Road in Bowdon.
And while Bowen says he has always thought of himself as able-bodied, his condition has presented challenges that would have proved insurmountable to many others. The truth of this is revealed by Bowen’s own admission: “Through my entire career I never encountered another journalist who had a similar disability to mine.”
In a career so dependent on the ability to speak and write well, Bowen’s own disability particularly affected his speech, and he lost the ability to write by hand at the age of 11.
He also developed another movement disorder, myoclonic dystonia, that became so severe he underwent brain surgery in 2017.
But if there’s one recurring theme to Bowen’s life in his autobiography Read All About It, it’s a complete determination to not let his disability get in the way of his dreams.
After a childhood growing up in Sale and with spells at schools including Forest School in Timperley, Blessed Thomas Holford in Altrincham and All Saints in Sale, Bowen secured a place at Sheffield University to read English.
Bowen’s school days introduced him to the harsh reality of life as a disabled person in the 1970s and 80s. “No amount of reaching could have prepared me for the amount of bullying and name calling that went on in the playground,” he writes in the book.
The sense of exclusion continued at university when he discovered his friends had arranged their second-year accommodation without involving him. Sheffield was, though, the “passport to a brilliant social life”.
Bowen had a talent for writing, something one of his teachers had picked up on and encouraged, and journalism seemed an obvious course to follow. “I also wanted to go into something where my disabilities didn’t matter and my writing could stand on its own,” he said.
After graduating, he tried his luck unsuccessfully at freelance journalism but his luck turned in 1990 when he won a training bursary for disabled journalists. The subsequent course led directly to his “dream job”: arts reporter on the Messenger.
Despite occasional incidents – somebody once rang his editor to ask if he was drunk – Bowen was supported by the Messenger through 23 years of employment until the collapse of the local newspaper industry led to him being offered redundancy in 2015.
During that time Bowen became one of the foremost theatre reviewers in the region, and he continues to review local theatre productions for his own site, Stagestruck, to this day.
He also interviewed the likes of Alan Bennett, Ben Elton, Frank Sidebottom in character, Steve Coogan and Johnny Marr.
Two interviews in particular stand out for Bowen now.
One was former hostage Terry Waite, who gave Bowen half an hour of his time which amounted to “an incredible experience”.
The other was playwright Alan Bleasdale, whose Boys from the Blackstuff had a profound effect on the young journalist.
“He was really special for me because his work had shaped my politics,” said Bowen. “It was a real thrill, and he sent me a postcard afterwards saying how much he had enjoyed the interview.”
While admitting that interviewing people was the “scary part of the job” owing to his speech limitations, Bowen says his experiences have generally given him “greater empathy” for people.
What does he hope that writing about his life will achieve? “I want to inspire other people with disabilities to achieve their full potential… I think there are still so many barriers for disabled people to achieve what they want to achieve.”
Read All About It is certainly an inspirational tale of how sheer determination and resilience can open the door to achievement, whatever the disability.
As Bowen puts it in his refreshingly honest way: “Without wishing to sound like I’m bragging, I guess I’ve achieved an awful lot, really.”
Read All About It by Rick Bowen, published by i2i Publishing, is out now.