Try, try, and try again: how positive mindset helped Lancastrian author and global traveller Trevor Stott-Briggs recover from a horrific rugby spinal injury
It was deep into the game and Trevor Stott-Briggs was packing down against a team of much younger men. Aged 62 and playing in the Sharjah 10s under a blazing UAE sun, the ground gave way.
As the scrum collapsed, the two burly props either side of him slipped, placing all the weight of the pack onto Trevor's neck. His C5 vertebrae twisted suddenly, trapping his nervous system but not quite severing it. It caused a spinal cord contusion and, in Trevor's words, 'everything closed down'. The incident turned him into a paralysed quadriplegic.
"I was positive from the moment it happened," says Trevor via Zoom from his home in Abu Dhabi. "I didn't blame anybody; what was the point? There was no point being bitter and I just refused to be pessimistic. In fact, even as I lay in hospital not being able to move at all, I joked that I was going to write a book about the whole experience because it was so unique."
Trevor did write a book about that accident some nine years ago, as well as the subsequent recovery process. Initially given a gloomy prognosis by doctors, he poured every ounce of his willpower and being into a steely mind-over-matter outlook. He can now walk using crutches, drive, and lives a relatively unhindered life. But first, we have to go back to the start.
Trevor was born in East Lancashire in 1949 and, from an early age, identified a strong distaste for what he calls the 'grey and miserable, post-war era, Lancashire mill-town cold weather and rain'. But his was a happy childhood in Burnley, Brierfield, and Nelson, and he went through school and university, eventually becoming a qualified civil engineer.
He never demonstrated an innate wanderlust, but felt something else: an acute curiosity. "I remember the girlfriend of a friend of mine once saying 'Trevor, you're not meant for here'," he says. "That made me think. And, after getting my status as a chartered engineer, I thought it was time to go off and do something else."
That something else was to answer an ad in the Sunday Times for people keen to drive the length of Africa in a Land Rover, a trip which would change Trevor's life. He never returned to live in the UK again and has since gone on to work in 34 countries. He's lived through revolutions, founded rally teams, and met his wife in a Dunkin' Donuts in Manila. They married on the beach on the Millennium New Year's Eve.
The group's African road trip took them to Kenya, where a friend of a friend got him a six-month job as a contractor. That six months soon became six-and-a-half years. "Time flies when you're having fun!"
By the time the '80s started, a negative economy fuelled by a corrupt political scene prompted Trevor to explore his next move. "The company I worked for did a lot of projects in southeast Asia, which I thought sounded like a great place to go," he says. "I saw an advert in The Economist for a job with a consultancy firm and ended up moving to Manila.
"It was an interesting time: it was 1981 and the end of martial law enforced by Ferdinand Marcos," adds Trevor. "I worked for the National Housing Authority and Marcos' wife Imelda was patron; my role as senior advisor was to make sure she didn't steal the money because the World Bank was putting millions of dollars into the projects."
Whilst in the Philippines, Trevor also worked for the World Bank and Asian Development Bank on infrastructure and housing projects across the world. "I got to work all over - places like Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, Indonesia..." says Trevor. "You'd head out to these places and meet the Minister of Finance or the Minister of Public Works - all a very high and official level.
"And everybody welcomed you because you were essentially the bank! We were the ones with the $100m they wanted for projects," he adds. "I'd have never had been able to do things like that had I stayed in the UK. I got to travel the world; I once flew to Bhutan from Bangladesh on this little Irish-made plane with a square body.
"At one point, the captain said 'can the person in seat 10A get the drinks and snacks out from under your seat and please hand them round?' That was my seat so I was the cabin crew! And landing was like something out of Mission Impossible what with the valleys. It's those kinds of things which you never forget.
"Whilst in Manila, I also lived through the Edsa Revolution [also known as The People Power Revolution]," Trevor explains. "But there was no social media, so myself and a friend went out on his motorbike and got two bottles of whisky and started telling people gathered in the streets that Marcos had gone and offering them a drink. It was a crazy time."
In 2007, Trevor and his growing family decided it was time for another change after 27 years in the Philippines. They ended up in the UAE, where he took a job running the Abu Dhabi office for a major international contractor and, in classic TSB fashion, the move was far from planned.
"If you try to plan too tightly, you can become disappointed when things don't happen that way," says Trevor, who has now lived in the Middle East for 14 years. "I never planned career moves; I had no intention of coming here, I just got head-hunted, came for an interview, liked the city, found out they had a good rugby pitch, and thought 'this'll do'. That was that.
"I've had such a better lifestyle overseas than I could have had back in the UK," he adds. "And I'm happy. I've always had that spark, that moment where you know you need to try something new. When some people go to new places, they want to do loads of research and look for the best this, the best that. I never did; I want to find things out for myself.
"The importance of letting natural curiosity take over has always stayed with me," Trevor says. "More people could do with having that outlook, but I think it's an unfortunate trait amongst us Brits that we stick to what we know whilst also complaining about it! There's a reason the Australians call us whinging Poms!"
Having grown up playing football but never really being any good at it, it was that same natural curiosity which saw Trevor fall in love with rugby, too. He first started playing in Kenya owing to a boss' passion for the sport and turned out for the Manila Nomads in the Philippines, becoming a founder member and the first Executive Director for the Philippine Rugby Football Union.
He also, amazingly, coached current England and British and Irish Lions fly-half Marcus Smith, who was born in Manila to a British father and a Filipina mother and who last season led Harlequins to their first Gallagher Premiership title for nine years at the age of just 22. In the UAE, Trevor also founded the Arabian Potbellies RFC [now the Dubai Sharks].
Then came the injury and Trevor's debut as an author with 'TSB – Confessions of an Ex-Hooker (Aged 66 and a half) aka Don’t Stop Believin’'. Focusing on the more amusing side of an otherwise unpleasant experience, the book answers key questions such as 'why is "motivation" a four-letter word?' and 'how many urologists does it take to sort out one set of fishing tackle?'
"The book's motif of 'don't stop believing' came from the Journey song," explains Trevor. "I've always loved music but, when you can't move, you listen to a lot of music and you not only listen, but you really pay attention to the lyrics. So, for me, it was all about 'don't stop believing in yourself and your body and your mind's ability to recover'.
"I remember the neurosurgeon saying 'I can fix your neck, but 70% of your recovery is in your head'," he adds. "I wanted to walk whether it was difficult or not; I hated the idea of being dependent on others."
The first book also paved the way for a second. Enraptured by the state of the political scene in both the US and the UK over the past five years or so, Trevor found himself captivated by the comedic approach to covering politics on the late-night chat shows in the States.
Inspired by the often-used phrase 'down the rabbit hole', he decided to write an Alice in Wonderland-inspired parody of modern politics with a particular focus on McDonald J. Trumper and BoJo Jockstrap. The result was 'All Lies in Trumperland (BoJo Through the Looking Glass) a.k.a. Be Careful What You Wish For!'.
"The late night chat shows piqued my sense of humour as I watched politicians like Trump and Johnson take power," says Trevor, who was also inspired by the style of Douglas Adams' 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' series. "It was real fun because I didn't need to make stuff up, reality was crazy enough.
"And the theme was the perfect vehicle to retell all the craziness, so I'd take things politicians had actually said and marry them up as much as possible with the narrative," he adds. "As soon as I had a start, the whole thing just flowed, which is an apt metaphor for my life actually!
"As soon as I got a start, I wasn't sure where things would take me, but I was always keen to find out," Trevor says with a smile. "Pinning things down never worked for me and the way I've been doing things has worked so far. I'm lucky enough to have done so many things. And I'm happy."