Alastair Hignell: Why I decided to call full time on BBC job

Lawrence Dallaglio’s retirement as a player was the occasion for another departure of a well-known figure in the sporting world – Alastair Hignell, match commentator for the BBC‘s Radio Five Live.

At Twickenham on 31 May, Sky Sports cameras showed close-up images of both Hignell and Dallaglio, who dedicated the Wasps’ win against Leicester, to the commentator who has multiple sclerosis.

‘Great rugby is about courage and character. I’d like to dedicate today’s win to someone else with great courage and character, Alastair Hignell,’he said.

Hignell, 52, covered six rugby World Cups during a broadcasting career which began at BBC Radio in 1987.

He played rugby for England and cricket for Gloucestershire, and joined Radio Five Live in 1996. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, he has managed to keep working with the help of colleagues including BBC rugby correspondent Ian Robertson.

Here he explains his decision to retire:

I nearly broke down on several occasions at Twickenham; I finally blubbed at the end of my last day as a rugby commentator – a farewell event organised by the rugby journalists with whom I had spent most of my working life.

I didn’t need to remind them that our jobs have, with the proliferation of blogs and online, podcasts and even vodcasts, become even more demanding over the past few years, or that the strapline promoted by my employers, ‘news and sport 24 hours a day on the BBC”, meant what it said on the tin.

None of them needed reminding either that while these demands were escalating, my ability to cope with them was going in the opposite direction – all of them had seen me trying to lever myself into inadequate and dangerous commentary boxes, and most of them had helped at some stage or another to assemble and disassemble my buggy, lug my broadcasting equipment up flights of awkward stairs, and clear my path through unforgiving crowds.

Like my colleagues, I had got used to the extremes of life at the journalistic coalface; when a story needs covering, you work until it’s covered. If that means travelling not just the length and breadth of the country, but at times, halfway across the world, then so be it. If that means working 16-hour days for weeks on end, then that’s part of the job and there’ll always be a chance to slow down, and catch up and restore your energy.

Except, with MS – or at least my form of MS – there’s not. I was increasingly discovering that I lacked the reserves of energy to push myself to the absolute limit at times of greatest demand, and I was starting to lack the resources to put myself back together again in the time available.

I didn’t want to be a passenger. I had the second best job in broadcasting, and I wanted to do it the sort of justice I believed it deserved, that I felt I had managed to deliver in the past, and that was in danger of being compromised by my dwindling energy levels.

I had come to that reluctant conclusion not at the Rugby World Cup in autumn 2007, but on the England tour to South Africa four months earlier. I found then that I was spending increasing amounts of time lying in my hotel room in an attempt to summon up the energy to attend the press conferences I had to attend. I wasn’t sleeping well, and I was struggling, for the first time, to forget the problems of being disabled.

In short, the ‘wow’factor in my job was starting to lose its first ‘w”. If it were to lose another consonant it would end up as one tiny insignificant zero.

And all the time Jeannie, my wife, my rock, my shield and my friend, was also lying sleepless in England, trying to keep our life together together and knowing that when I got back I would be more of a wreck than I had been the time before, and that the time to recover – the brunt of which she always took – would be longer.

The Rugby World Cup in France – all seven weeks of it – confirmed my worst fears. The last two weeks, when England reached first the semi-final and then the final, created unprecedented interest, and unprecedented demands from my employers. I got through, but only just, and only with fantastic support from my closest colleagues, and I knew that when the next big rugby event came along – the Lions tour of South Africa in 2009 – the gap between the demand of the job and the supply of my energy to do it would have become a chasm.

The BBC would have let me continue but that wouldn’t have been fair, either to the job, or to the guy who would eventually have to take over. They very kindly allowed me to bow out on my terms, at a big occasion, while I was still able to do my job reasonably well.

And what an occasion, and what a day, and what an amazing display of warmth from so many people!

And now to the future. I’m not giving up work, just this particularly demanding job, and I don’t feel in any way that I am giving in to MS.

I’m just finding a better way of living with it.

This article will also appear in the July/August issue of New Pathways, the magazine of the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre

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