From high-flying London banker to blind musician - this Hayling man rocks a career in the spotlight
Gary O’Connor was 26, and seemingly had everything. He had a high-flying job as a merchant banker in the City of London.
In many people’s eyes Gary was living the dream. In the adrenaline-fuelled business of risk-taking came responsibility and fast-response, adrenaline-fuelled trading.
But his high-rolling world was about to come crashing down.
He was diagnosed with a rare eye disease and by the time he was 55, doctors said he would be blind.
The condition - a hereditary degenerative eye disease of the retina called choroideremia - affects about one in 50,000-100,000 people, mostly men.
For Gary from Hayling Island, now 62, the sight loss was gradual, and cruel in the sense that year on year after his initial diagnosis his eyesight grew more damaged.
He explains: ‘I didn't realise I had anything wrong with my eyes until I was 26. At that age computers had just started coming out, so it was suggested I had my eyes tested.
‘I'd never had them tested. It was only because I went for one that I found out. At the opticians they said: “Maybe you should take this letter to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London straight away”.
‘I went there knowing nothing and then discovered I had this eye disease. The professor of genetic disease at Moorfields had all his students in and I was sat in a chair with lights shining and people saying: "Do you know what's wrong with you?" I said: "I have no idea, nobody's told me anything". They said: "You've got this rare hereditary disease”.
As his sight worsened, Gary realised despite the help provided by his firm which included four screens, additional software and a giant cursor, words and numbers were disappearing and missing them could result in a catastrophic error.
Gary says he could live with his deteriorating sight loss until he hit his 50s when the condition worsened. Certain shapes had already begun to disappear, but it wasn’t until this point that it became unmanageable.
‘Words started disappearing. When you're dealing with figures and you wonder “is that a five or is it an eight, or could it be a three?”. You can't afford to make those errors. It was getting more and more difficult, so that's really when I thought “oh god”.’
That’s when in 2013, aged 54, Gary retired. He rediscovered a childhood hobby of his and took a 360 turnaround from his role as managing director, head of loans and trading of West LB on Gresham Street, to launching The Gary O’Connor Band, a rock and pop group, in his wife’s home of Hayling Island.
‘When I look back to my banking days, I had probably been living a high-life for quite a while so I was relieved. If I went to a function in the evening I'd bounce into things and then people would think I was drunk. I wasn't. I'd just walk into walls, doors, tables, everything. People would think 'oh there's O'Connor again he's drunk'.’
Only five years ago, when he had some ‘residual vision’, Gary was still able to kayak around Hayling by himself, making the most of his eyesight before it disappeared.
‘I can see the outline of someone against a white background with light on them. But I can’t see who they are.
‘I can’t see the face, I can’t even see what they’re wearing. I'm at this stage now where I can't really see anything through my right eye. Through my left eye I have a very small island of good retina left and I can just about make out things on the Apple Mac which is where I do the recording.’
Today, Gary is the lead singer of his five-piece band, comprising drummer and percussionist David Lawrence, bassist Dave Bull, rhythm guitarist Rob Eastwood, new member Graham Walters and Bob Croxford on keys.
Gary explains: ‘I write my own material now. When I came down here getting back into music was an important part of what I wanted to do.
‘I met with a chap because I wanted to relearn the guitar so I started to take a few lessons and he really helped me. He really liked it so then we got into recording with him.’
Now Covid restrictions have eased, the band can play venues like the Wickham Festival, social clubs and pubs but due to his blindness he has to ‘stay close to the microphone and remember not to dance around too much’ so as not to sing to himself.
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