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Sunil Peck

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Sunil is a journalist based in London. He supports Manchester United, and says he will never forget the time he answered his mobile phone to be greeted by the unmistakeable Scots burr of Sir Alex Ferguson.

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Have dog, will travel

2nd July 2003

Geraldine Peacock stepped down as Chief Executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association at the end of June, to take up a part-time job with the Charity Commission.
Geraldine has Parkinson's Disease and, in a letter sent to all guide dog owners, she explains that her consultant has advised her to reduce her work-load for the sake of her health, so I'd like to wish Geraldine all the best for the future in her new post.

In the letter, which charts her six years with the GDBA and the people she's come into contact with, Geraldine says: "I am proud that together we have accomplished much to make the world a better place for vision impaired people." I've never met Geraldine, so I can't claim any credit for helping to make the world a better place for blind or visually handicapped or vision impaired people - I'm never quite sure what term to use - but I know that since I got my first dog, Geoff, in 1998 my quality of life has improved. I'm more independent than I was in my pre-dog days, and I know I can go anywhere without having to worry about getting lost or injured!

I've never been run over or fallen down a trench when out and about, but I do travel by train a lot and I've got painful memories of striding off the edges of station platforms. I did this several times over the years on my way home from school, when I used to have to change trains at Oxford. The excruciating pain I suffered in silence every time it happened will live with me for ever - or until I get knocked over by a bus anyway!

Independence, self-confidence and hair all over your trousers are not the only things guide dogs can give you. Sometimes, when you're looking forward to a curry in an Indian restaurant - like I was last Friday - having a dog can be a problem. But that's the restaurant's rather than the dog's fault. However, as a frequent rail traveller, the most rewarding aspect for me is the VIP status I've grown accustomed to during long train journeys. By VIP I mean 'very important' as opposed to 'vision impaired person'.
I began criss-crossing the country by rail when I was eleven years old and started boarding school 130 miles away from home. Back in the days when I had a habit of tripping off platforms and used a cane to get around, station staff always took me to seats in the Standard Class coach. The trains were usually packed with people getting away for the weekend, all of them fighting for a seat, but the staff made sure I got a place to sit. The journey home was always uncomfortable and interminable. The air conditioning system never worked, kids were screaming and their mums were screaming back at them to shut up, and I invariably ended up sitting next to someone with a cold who sniffed every few seconds. I tried to avoid going to the buffet car for a snack, or to the loo, because the suitcases and rucksacks on the floor and passengers walking up and down the carriage meant it was awkward to negotiate the narrow gangways. Back then, I never imagined what a difference a guide dog could make to a long train journey.

Last week, as I was making my way along the platform at King's Cross to board a train to Leeds, I was accosted by the guard. He said that the train was very busy and that I could sit in First Class because there'd be more room for my dog, Bosley. I was half expecting him to come over, just because it's happened to me so many times since I swapped my cane for a dog. The guard then whisked me to a roomy reclining seat in an air-conditioned carriage and said someone would nip along in a bit with some water for Bosley. They duly did - and they brought me a can of Stella too.
The next couple of hours flew by. There were no crowds of people jostling for seats, just staff walking up and down offering drinks to us. No screaming kids and mums, just well-spoken businessmen quietly discussing business with clients and partners over the phone. I was surrounded by people who, from what I could hear, sent their kids to private school and holidayed in Dubai. The journey to Leeds was, like it always is in First Class, civilised and relaxing. I declined the Coq au Vin when it was brought to my table just past Peterborough, because I had arranged to go for a curry in Leeds.

Three Stellas later, I left the train feeling refreshed and looking forward to a decent curry. Fifteen minutes later, my VIP status had vanished and in the time it took the waiter in the Indian restaurant to say "no dogs", I was reduced to feeling like a second-class citizen.

I wrote about the problems I have getting into Indian restaurants in my very first column for Ouch, so I won't go over it all again, but the more it happens - and it's happened to me a lot lately - the more I find it difficult to maintain my composure when restaurateurs insist that other customers will complain about the dog or that there's not enough room in the restaurant for him to lie down. Guide dog owners are encouraged to sue offending restaurateurs, but as far as I can tell from the court cases that have been successfully brought so far, these individual actions are making little impact in the overall scheme of things.

It's a disgrace that so many businesses are flouting the law every day and getting away with it. And it's a disgrace that I couldn't have a decent meal after saying no to the Coq au Vin on the train.
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