Interview: Gavin Hastings on his wife’s battle with Parkinson’s

Gavin Hastings pictured by the Water of Leith close to Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium, the ground which he graced on many occasions for his country. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Gavin Hastings pictured by the Water of Leith close to Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium, the ground which he graced on many occasions for his country. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The Scotland legend talks frankly about his wife Diane’s battle with Parkinson’s disease and how love, humour and positivity are helping them cope

L ook at you,” says Gavin Hastings, as your correspondent presents himself drookitly at the Scotland rugby legend’s table, a sorry combination of autumn rain and bicycle sweat. Hastings, unflustered in a checked shirt, pushes his expensive-looking and carefully-folded plum pullover along the bench, possibly so it’s out of range of the perspiration globules which are still pinging from my forehead. “I’m going to have the soup,” he chortles, “but I don’t think you should.”

Scotland fans mob Hastings after his last international against New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scotland fans mob Hastings after his last international against New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Picture: Ian Rutherford

We’re in the Murrayfield Hotel, just across the road from the scene of great feats and great greets. Hastings scored a thumping number of those 667 points for his country at the stadium and it was also where a precious three squirted the wrong side of the right-hand upright, taking our World Cup hopes and dreams with it.

But it’s crushing moments such as these – the 1991 semi-final against England – which can make you all the stronger for next time. I know, I know: sportsmen say this a lot. It’s a key phrase of the media-training tutors and gives the impression our athletes have gone all Californian on us. Hastings, though, didn’t exactly weaken 24 years ago. He became Scotland captain. A handful of games into that role he was appointed Lions captain. Then, when Scotland hit a nine-match winless slump and his leadership was being questioned, he roared back with that sensational try in Paris – one of Scottish sport’s most glistening moments to carefully bury in a time capsule along with footage of Kenny Dalglish, Jim Clark, Andy Murray and maybe just a few others. Then he took us to another World Cup where a proud career finally closed on 61 caps.

“What are you going to do?” he says. “What the hell are you going to do? You can be a miserable f****r for the rest of your life or you can face it, deal with it and find a way to carry on. That’s what I’ve done.”

But this isn’t the 53-year-old Hastings talking about rugby; it’s him on his wife Diane’s battle with Parkinson’s disease. I had been wondering how to raise this but he mentions it unprompted. Hastings has been a conference speaker on the degenerative brain disorder, worked to improve understanding of the condition and climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for research. He is not shying away from this and if you remember how he played rugby you shouldn’t be surprised.

Hastings and his wife Diane on their wedding day in 1993. Diane was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2003. Picture: Bill Henry

Hastings and his wife Diane on their wedding day in 1993. Diane was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2003. Picture: Bill Henry

It was during another World Cup, in 2003, that the family learned the devastating news. “We all went out to Australia for a month when our son Adam was seven and our daughter Holly was five and then I stayed on for the tournament. We lived just round the corner from this hotel and were having the house extended and I knew Diane and the kids would be coming back to a hellish building site so I felt pretty bad. I felt a whole lot worse when she told me what the doctors had said and I was 10,000 miles away. Something like this, it just floors you. You’ve got children: just imagine if something terrible happened, like one of them went missing. Your heart would absolutely sink, which was what happened to me. It’s the worst thing in the world to see Diane – the woman I love, my soul-mate – suffering like this.” Hastings has always spoken of Diane in such terms. Back in 1994 he told the late Brian Meek he had found his “perfect mate”, which prompted the distinguished rugby writer to remark: “How many Scots would have put it like that?”

Love, humour, positivity – these would seem to be the components of the couple’s coping mechanism. Like his younger brother and fellow dark-blue hero Scott, Hastings has always been an upbeat fellow. The positive attitude comes, he thinks, from his parents and his schooling. “I can’t stand being around negative people,” he says, “they suck up all your energy.”

Then he checks himself: it’s Diane who deserves any commendation that’s going. “She’s the one with the illness. She’s an extraordinary woman and I love her to bits and respect her enormously for the way she’s dealing with this because she never complains or moans about anything.”

Hastings does not mind talking about his wife’s condition. He does not mind that the conversation has strayed from rugby. He does not even mind the frequent interruptions from our waiter who’s keen to congratulate him on the oval-ball deeds of two decades ago, although when the man appears to try to recreate a Hastings bolt for the tryline only to fumble a pile of plates, Big Gav quips: “You were doing all right there but you’ve made an absolute arse of it now!” Laughter is therapeutic. It always was for him in rugby.

Back to rugby. The former full-back has three World Cups to his name, was in at the beginning of the tournament, marvels at how it’s grown, and as a fan has seen every final. Straight after the inaugural one in 1987 he went native in New Zealand. “While the rest of the team flew home I stayed and played with Auckland University. Four of the All Blacks who’d just won the World Cup including Sean Fitzpatrick and Grant Fox were also in the team but right away I missed something like eight kicks and this bloke in the crowd, who must have thought I was Irish, shouted: ‘Ach Paddy, why don’t you just go home?’ The name stuck and when I go back there they still call me Paddy.”

Scotland’s first World Cup would mirror their third, with a pool game against France to decide who’d avoid the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. In ’87, Scotland were a Hastings conversion away from victory but his effort sailed past. So what does an old-school, no-nonsense, four-steps-back-and-hoof goal-kicker think of the current palaver with players seeming to compete for the most elaborate, theatrical, prissy routine? “I don’t mind all that really. The kicking is of such high quality now that you expect them all to go over.”

Scotland lost out twice to the All Blacks and after what was Hastings’ last-ever match in South Africa in ’95 he was hoisted on fans’ shoulders. Did he think we could have won those games? “Of course. You’ve got to believe you’ve got a chance in every match. You’ve got to try and find a way to win, no matter how tough the challenge.”

He credits his upbringing with making him positive, but what has rugby done for him in the rest of life? “Well, you might think the pressure of big games, and of decision-making as a captain, stands you in good stead, but I don’t think anything can quite prepare you for Parkinson’s. But I suppose the values rugby teaches you – looking after your mates, being responsible for one another, not letting your team down –can be useful. Diane and I are the team that matters now. We’re not 15, it’s just the two of us, and we’re trying to do the best we can.”

Hastings starred in the golden era for Scottish rugby – the equivalent of our footballers qualifying for all those World Cups – and this brought two Grand Slams in six years plus heavy Lions representation. If apartheid hadn’t killed the ’86 South Africa tour, denying Colin Deans the honour, Scotland would have supplied three consecutive Lions captains, Finlay Calder in ’89 being followed by Hastings in ’93. Before then there was another World Cup and what remains Scotland’s highest-ever placing.

Today Scotland must beat Samoa to progress and Hastings well remembers the threat posed by the South Sea islanders in a ’91 quarter-final at Murrayfield. “The Samoans had caused a shock by beating Wales and we were wary of them. Mataafa Keenan was a formidable character in the second row and Peter Fatialofa, a piano-shifter, was a massive guy who could have played for the All Blacks if he hadn’t been such a proud Samoan. They liked to line up the opposition and smash right into them.

“But as usual Jim Telfer had done his homework and we had a plan.” This involved Hastings operating almost as an auxiliary forward. “Gary Armstrong kept giving me these really short balls and we drove into the heart of them. They couldn’t get their big hits and we won 28-6. I thought we were brilliant that day, one of the best Scotland performances from my time.” 
So how does Hastings, a Radio 5 pundit for this World Cup, think Scotland will fare in Newcastle? “I fully expect us to win although I think Samoa will make it tough and, to be honest, the tougher the better for us.” Does he share his brother’s view that we seemed to lack the belief we could beat South Africa? “Maybe we were surprised by their physicality but generally Scotland have impressed me and they’ve scored some super tries.” Not wanting to get too far ahead of himself, he’s already contemplating a quarter-final against Australia. “If that’s how it works out I hope we play John Hardie and Blair Cowan. The Wallabies have shown what can be achieved with two genuine open-sides.”

Let’s get back to ’91, then, and England, a game which – because of politics, the scrapping of football’s Home Internationals and some angry words flying back and forth across the border even among well-brought-up rugger types – needed absolutely no hyping. “There was a real rivalry and it got pretty nasty. In 1988 when England won a dreadful 9-6 match at Murrayfield, they called us ‘scavengers’. [Coach] Derek Grant went mental and pointed out that scavengers fed off shit. Then we won the Slam, then England did, and I’ve always said that that semi-final was the most intense and gruelling game I ever played in. But of course it’s remembered for my missed kick.”

Hastings has never watched it back and nor will he. He accepts it has become part of Scottish sporting folklore, in the file marked “Defeats Snatched From Jaws of Victory”, but adds with that lugubrious grin we’ve come to know well: “I didn’t mean to miss. In the dressing room afterwards no one uttered a word for what seemed like an awful long time. Then I think a couple of the guys re-enacted one of the late, great Broon frae Troon’s routines. You’ll know it: ‘Never mind, lads, remember Culloden.’

‘But Culloden didn’t go too well for us.’

‘Aye but at least afterwards we didn’t have to get changed and have dinner with the bastards!’”

Before England’s final with Australia, Will Carling – who Hastings would beat to the Lions captaincy – got irked when the Scot reported that his men would all be wearing green and yellow hats. So who did Big Gav want to win between the two countries last weekend? “England. It’s a shame for the tournament they’re out. I really wanted us to play them in the quarters – what a game that would have been.

“I don’t like the anti-English feeling that pervades our country – it does Scotland no favours whatsoever. Some might say, ‘You’ve changed your spots’, and maybe I have. Yes, I hated the English when I went out to play them at rugby – they were our fiercest rivals and we were always desperate to beat them. But I’d like to think I’m more mature now. I’ve certainly got other things to worry about these days.”

Just like the last-minute England win which made him cry on TV, Hastings got over the ’91 defeat. “I tried to put it into perspective: no one died, I would be going back to work, life would go on. Losing that day made me determined to carry on enjoying sport and savouring the good times.” And some more black humour definitely helped, such as the letter which arrived at the team hotel. “It was from a Borderer who was a bit of a poet. He enclosed a book of his verse and referred me to one called ‘Anglophobia’ which was about how he’d queued all night for his ticket only to see England bore the world with their monotonous driving mauls!’”

Every setback Hastings has suffered has required a stirring response. In his student days Cambridge were going for an unprecedented six-in-a-row in the varsity match against Oxford, but he missed a heap of kicks and they were beaten. “I came back up the road and worked on my kicking like mad. Three weeks later I played in the Scotland trial and two weeks after that I made my debut, we thrashed England and six penalties went over.

“You have to respond, you can’t just give up. Our response to Diane’s situation is to try and be positive as we can and get on with life. As parents we simply have to do this but our kids have been immense. Yesterday Adam turned 19 – he’s an academy player at Bath – so at 7.40 in the morning Diane and I phoned him from bed and started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. But he stopped us because he was already at the club. I liked him saying that because his job is being a professional rugby player.” The lad has a hard act to follow. “Well, I might have had a career but I’m just his dad.”

Hastings revelled in the pressures of his sport but his biggest challenges lie ahead. “I’m not saying this isn’t difficult – it’s bloody difficult,” he says. “There’s not enough understanding of Parkinson’s. Diane has been about to be reported to the police by people who’ve mistaken her condition for drunkenness and assumed she was going to try and drive a car. I always explain she has Parkinson’s but there have been social events where people have just looked the other way, unable to deal with it. Diane can be fine for an hour and then suddenly she’ll be terrible and her body will suffer these horrible involuntary movements and be all over the place. I find it very difficult to see her like that. And just last week, when I was covering the rugby, she phoned me in floods of tears saying: ‘Please can you come and get me.’ That breaks your heart.”

Then Diane calls again. No panic this time but he must be going. I tell him about being moved by a simple remark he made recently – “I am a carer”. The words carry more emotive power than “I am a captain” or “I’ll take the kick – give me the ball”. He shrugs at this and says he’s no saint, no superhero, then once again defers to the star of the small-but-plucky Team Hastings. “You’d struggle to say that anything good has come out of what’s happened to us but in a way it stops you from becoming complacent and keeps you grounded and honest. And despite everything Diane always has a smile of her face, which is the really heroic thing. This is the way it is for us. It’s our life and we’re trying to cope as best we can.”