Harleys and Alzheimer’s
Last Chance Saloon is the story of Neil ‘Twink’ Tinning, a troubled, magnificent man living with bipolar disorder, and his unique attempt to understand the science behind his, and many other, mental health conditions – all while getting ready to play the biggest gig of his life.
In part 9, Twink shares his passion for riding a Harley-Davidson – an unexpected mode of transport for a self-proclaimed recluse – while the band performs a full dress rehearsal, with all the problems that entails. At Cardiff’s extraordinary Millennium Stadium, Twink photographs and interviews Alzheimer’s disease expert Professor Julie Williams, who reveals the similarities between this and other mental conditions and the shocking scale of the condition in the UK. Contains strong language.
Previous episode: Part 8 - An excuse to live
Next episode: Part 10 - Bipolar and Nick’s farm
[Previously on Last Chance Saloon…]
Scientist: When you’re a psychiatrist, when you’re dealing with mental health, you’re dealing with the big questions of existence really, the big questions of us as human beings, what it is to be a person.
Twink: So I’m going to ask you a question, correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears to me that mental ill health is the poor relation of physical health. Nick I’ll go to you – why?
My imagination of the gig is what you’d expect Oasis to be emotionally committing to at Knebworth, it’s that huge a gig for me.
For my age group there are certain things that you’ve got to achieve in your life. One is you’ve got to have a pair of blue Levis, two - you’ve got to be able to play a 12 bar shuffle on a fender stratocaster, which is red and white, and have a Harley-Davidson. Those are the things that you must, must do before you croak.
Twink: Well I’m higher than that jet plane.
Why did you bring us to the Millennium Stadium here in Cardiff?
Julie Williams: Well it’s a place that strives for excellence, which is I suppose what we in research are trying to do, we’re trying to do science in the best way we can and I suppose we’ve done that to a great extent in Cardiff, it’s something that we pride ourselves on doing.
Twink: To me, down the barrel of the lens. Brilliant.
I’ve lost me foot pedal.
I passed my test in Farnborough in ’78, so I’ve always had a keen interest in motorcycles and when I was doing The Jam days I used to live in this infamous house in Sandhurst, and one of my flatmates bought a Harley-Davidson and I always could remember him coming home, because you could hear it, so that’s the reason why I’ve got a Harley-Davidson is because of the sound, I just, I love the sound of a Harley roaring.
[Sound of motorbike]
So if you can go halfway down, somewhere round there.
Twink: Why do you think we should discuss Alzheimer’s in a film series about mental health? Why is Alzheimer’s related to a mental health issue?
Julie: Well it’s about the brain and mental health is about brain health. And Alzheimer’s is basically the death of parts of the brain. It also produces symptoms that you see in other psychiatric disorders, half the people who develop Alzheimer’s disease will also develop psychotic symptoms, which is very distressing for them and for their families and usually results in them being institutionalised earlier, they lose their independence.
Twink: I would say Lulu is the closest.
Julie: [Laughs] Oh absolutely.
Twink: No, I’d definitely say Lulu.
[Sound of motorbike]
Twink: It’s the closest thing to flying. It’s hard to describe unless you’re a biker. There’s something quite attractive about being in the open air. With a helmet it’s easy to be a recluse still, you know, with a full face hat you can still be in your own little world even though you’re outside. Because it’s not the real me, the real me is this person that’s frightened of its own shadow at times.
[Sound of motorbike]
Can you clear this up. What’s the difference between say dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Julie: Okay, dementia is the sort of umbrella term that encompasses all forms of dementia of which Alzheimer’s is probably the most common. In very simple terms it’s about cells dying and usually they start in a certain region of the brain, the hippocampus, and then spread out. But it’s about cell death and what that means is that you see memory problems, you see problems with thought processes, you may see other symptoms, but actually the disease has probably started 15 years earlier, something like that. So the disease within the brain starts many years before you see the first signs in terms of memory problems or cognitive problems.
Twink: So in theory a lot of people could have Alzheimer’s but not know it.
Julie: Exactly, yes.
Twink: Try and encapsulate those sort of emotions in your face where you’re a human being but you understand the gravity of this illness. That’s nice.
I guess what we’ve been doing with this series of films is the rehabilitation of Twink, the rehabilitation, the re-introduction to society. There’s a sense of tremendous achievement, of actually, you know, setting out on this journey and writing an album and producing an album and spending hours upon hours mixing, trying to refine this, that and the other, but there is also the anxiety of, well, will people like the stuff? So it’s a bipolar answer.
How big a problem will Alzheimer’s become in the next few decades?
Julie: In actual numbers there’s just about 820,000 individuals have dementia in the UK and Alzheimer’s is about, over 50% of those, so you’re looking at 400, 450,000 with Alzheimer’s disease at the moment.
Twink: So we could fill this stage six times?
Twink: And there still wouldn’t be enough room.
Julie: Yes, that’s about the number of people that have Alzheimer’s in the UK at present. It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will double by 2050.
Twink: So it’s vital that we spend some money now.
Julie: Oh absolutely. And I think that in the last two years we know what to do now, we know where to spend our money, we know that there are potential answers out there that we had no idea about two years ago.
Twink: Could I ask you to do a photograph of me?
Julie: You’re sure you want to trust me with this?
Twink: Yeah, yeah. Am I in focus? Go on, pap us.
Julie: We’ve recently identified eight new genes that contribute to one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and that is highlighting a number of potential mechanisms, some that we were aware of before but some that are totally new. So I’m very excited, I think from a, you know, a scientific point of view we’ve got lots of really appropriate, relevant questions that we can answer, the science is not that difficult, it’s stuff that we can do within the field.
I envisage that for my children, the next generation, they in their 40s and 50s, will be taking preventative drugs like we take statins now, we control our blood pressure and that helps with heart disease and stroke etc. We will be doing something similar to prevent the onset of dementia.
Twink: [Laughs] Lovely, we’ll make a pap out of you yet.
The gig is, it’s the most exposed I’ve ever been. Unless it had some form of stability I couldn’t even contemplate it, but the gig is in front of supportive – well basically my friends down in Cardiff. And I guess it’s a test, and a testament, of how far I’ve come from being a virtual recluse to the album and then this gig thing.
Man: Neil, when you’re singing into the microphone you’re still either like singing quiet and then loud again.
Twink: I’m trying to be creative.
Man: Which it doesn’t work. [Laughter] You’re trying to be arty-farty but you’re not.
[Coming up in part 10…]
Scientist: Everyone’s mood can be up one day, down a bit another day, but normally our brains keep our mood within normal levels. With bipolar disorder what’s happening is the person’s brain can’t maintain those normal levels and they can either go excessively high or deeply low. And that may either come out of the blue due to random changes or it may be an overreaction to something that’s making them feel good or low.
Twink: I thought – well the second coming’s going to happen and I’m going to be the second coming. So I got in touch with the Chief Rabbi and tried to convince him to teach me how to read and write Hebrew so I could read the Bible in its native tongue because I figured if I was going to be the next Jesus I would need to know these sort of things.
Okay so we’re on our way to Cardiff. Is everyone in shot for the crew? Okay, so here’s to our adventure, we’re going down to Cardiff to have a beautiful day and let’s say – let’s have a fucking great gig.