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November, 2011

Gary Speed commits suicide – should we be asking why?

The untimely death of footballer and Wales football manager  Gary Speed has made me reflect over the last few days. How much do we really know about those around us? What is it like to face such a tragedy in a family?

I didn’t know Gary Speed, though I knew of him. I’m not a huge football fan and I’ve absolutely no idea why he took his own life. I suspect we’ll find out in the fullness of time as there will be an inquest. But we may never truly know.

However I do know a bit about depression (if that even had anything to do with his passing) and I also know, all too well about the impact of losing someone so unexpectedly and far too young.

So for me, this whole situation is about his family – his wife and children, his parents, brothers, sisters  etc – my heart goes out to them. The journey they’ve been forced to take is long, it’s painful and it eats at the very soul. 

Earlier this year, my brother in law, aged 49, went to the gym, collapsed and died. I’ve written about this before on this site and on FB. Even now, I cannot believe that it’s true. Seeing it in black and white doesn’t make it easier to bear. I also know that the impact it has had on my family will never diminish. We are all deeply wounded.


For my sister, his widow, he went to do an activity that he’d always done and enjoyed and which, it turns out, he should not have taken part in. She didn’t make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye. The next time she saw him, he was dead. 

For his three children, their daddy went out and never came home. It’s a reality that they cannot understand, although they can speak the words, they cannot make sense of it.


How much worse must that be if someone has chosen to die? 


Gary Speed's family face an uphill struggle to deal with his death...

On the face of it, this man seemed to have everything – talent, success, money, happy family.


But life has taught me that such things may hide many cracks. Being successful in life, or talented, does not give a monopoly on happiness. Depression or suicidal impulses can overtake anyone whatever their personal situation. They might know that they’ve got things good – but their mental health might be dreadful. Death might be an escape from turmoil in their own minds. Something they just can’t rid themselves of, no matter how hard they try.

I’ve made films about mental health issues and you soon come to realise that the state of someone’s mental health can be separate from their seeming success in life. Equally being successful, having confidence, being respected can help someone’s mental health if they come from a low place. But there are no guarantees when your mental health is fragile.

So for me – it’s not so much about the why? It’s about reaching out to his family and saying ‘I don’t know you, you don’t know me but I do know something of what you are enduring and it matters…’





Are you on strike next week? Review my thoughts on industrial action….

I had a text this week from one of my children‘s schools – it’s going to be closed for a day next week due to industrial action.

Trying hard to be relaxed about next week's industrial action....

So as a self-employed worker, I cannot work that day because my child will be at home on a school day. As it happens, I was planning to have that day for boring stuff like house work any way. Now I’ll have a little helper.

But I still felt put out, inconvenienced, cross.


But it made me reflect on the day of action next week that seems increasingly likely to go ahead. I’m feeling very torn over it, to be honest.

I absolutely defend the right to protest. It’s part of what makes us a democracy and I do always find it very hard to cross a picket line – in fact I don’t think I’ve ever done so.

I’ve also been on strike myself, as a journalist, back in the early 1990s in Bath.

It was a very unpleasant experience – we were abused verbally and spat at more than once. It reminded me of my grandfather who often talked about taking part in the 1926 General Strike and being spat on as he, and others, marched down the Wellsway in Bath. I didn’t believe him. Now I know he was telling the truth.

In the 1990s,  we felt strongly about newspapers introducing personal contracts for each individual journalist and abandoning the structured system of levels where you moved up the pay scale gradually. We won a short-term concession but over the subsequent years the personal contract system was introduced,  by the back door.

How do I feel now 20 years later. The truth is, very different.

Striking over less generous pension settlements is very hard to swallow when you’ve worked most of your life in the private sector and you know that your pension income will be very low.

Many people in the public sector will say, I know, that they’ve paid a high amount into a pension for many years. So have I some of the time – when I’ve earned enough. But I could not hope to have the kind of pension that many public service workers will have even if these proposed changes come in.

There will also be the argument that if you work in the public sector you earn less than in the private sector. Really? Possibly in some sectors but not in the media. I’ve worked in both sectors for periods of time and I’ve always been paid more in the public sector.

So I still feel torn by it all. I can’t quite bring myself to condemn the strikes because I know so many good people who work in the public sector and who do a fantastic job for others. But I also know people who frankly would struggle in a more competitive environment.

What I do know is this – look to Greece and learn. Cuts have limits. People will take to the streets and will reject austerity measures eventually, no matter what the political or economic argument. The ordinary man will, if pushed hard enough, take action and say enough is enough. Do we want that to come here?

As a journalist, a working person, a human being I’m watching and wondering….

Christmas cookbooks – a big turkey?

Christmas is fast approaching and the cookbook industry is selling hard. The season is used as a marketing tool to sell the perfect lifestyle and provide a guide to the perfect day. What is bothering me is the profusion of Christmas cookbooks. There’s one by Nigella, Delia (of course), Gordon, Jamie, The Hairy Bikers, and the WI, just to name a few.

Since when has Christmas become a foodie event where we are sold the idea that we have to deliver the perfect meal day after day during the festive season?

I understand the need to plan and want to provide a decent, tasty meal. We usually end up with eight to ten people at my house all expecting meals for three to four days. That amount of food supply doesn’t appear out of nowhere. However, I refuse to play the game where as well as hosting Christmas, I’m expected to produce restaurant standard food at each meal.

It’s the family coming for stay – not a Michelin judge!

I like food from different countries and am more than happy to indulge in a little cake baking. To cook like this using different techniques and ingredients I would need a cookbook. But the Christmas cookbooks are selling an image, a need to create something out of the ordinary, because most of the recipes give or take a few twists would feature in a classic British cookbook.

Somebody is obviously buying these books else new ones would not be released each year but I wonder how many people actually use them. Magazines frequently give away potted recipe guides for Christmas EveBoxing Day. I know because I’ve read them. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked anything from them though apart from one year when I felt I really had to try to find something to make sprouts taste a little more pleasant. Other than that, and varying the choice of roast occasionally, I think most of the country cooks the same meal, and there are only so many ways of doing that.

Is it just a British obsession?

Maybe people in countries all around the world are busy pouring through recipes planning their ideal Christmas menu.  If you find them really useful, let me know. If not, and you’ve succumbed to the hype in previous years, there’s always the charity shop.

Are you rascist? Football matches or elsewhere? Are you sure?

No rascism even in the heat of the moment.....

I’m not a football fan – I’ve only been to a few matches and I’ve never grasped the off-side rule and, frankly, if someone explains it to me I’m asleep by the end of the very long sentence.

But I have been interested in this latest argument about FIFA’s boss and rascism. It’s made me think about rascism and how it affects us all.


Sepp Blatter has said that racist remarks on the field of play should be dealt with at the end with a match with a handshake and various other comments. Listening to a debate about this on Five Live, I listened to a female caller and a male caller argue the issue.

The woman, talked about her children, of mixed race, who  suffered abuse because of the colour of their skin. For her, dealing with such comments, even if said in the heat of the football match, was something serious which should be stamped on strongly.

For the male caller, it was a storm in a teacup. He talked about playing in football matches where things were said in the heat of the moment which would never be said in the office, in the pub or elsewhere. The emotions and adrenalin of the match caused such things to happen. He said, as a man with dark skin, he’d said things that he’d never ever say in any other environment. He said it was not rascist.

The woman countered, saying that things said in the heat of the moment, off the cuff, often revealed what someone really thought deep down. So such comments had to be punished.

I thought about this carefully. I applied it to myself. What do I think?

I have many friends whose skin isn’t the same colour of mine. I don’t think of myself as rascist at all. Just as I don’t think of myself of homophobic  – I have many gay friends. Frankly these friends are my friends and the rest is irrelevant.

But I also believe that everyone has prejudice in them and it’s dangerous to think otherwise. If we think we’re immune we may not recognise when something we say or do hurts someone else.

I’m reminded of two things that sometimes pop into my head unbidden and when they do I mentally slap myself for being so stupid.

One is seeing a gold coloured old Mercedes or BMW with a black man driving, of any age, and the words ‘drug dealer’ come into my head. Why is that? Where have I got that message from? I have no idea, no memory of where this comes from. I know it’s not real, it’s not logical and I feel ashamed to even allow this to pass fleetingly through my mind.

Another relates to groups of Irish travellers, who visit  each year in Swindon. As soon as I see a group of caravans I think ‘mess, criminal damage, petty pilfering’. I know why these thoughts come unbidden into my head, because I’ve written many stories from residents who do feel those things.

However, I have had a group of travellers move on to land near my house – nothing was stolen from me or my neighbours. There was mess and I can’t say I liked them being there. But they caused me no personal distress.

Should something we might not always be able to control be punished?

One of my children, while at pre school, refused to hold another child’s hand because she thought that child’s hand was dirty. These children were three at the time and the other child was black. I was called into the school about this matter. I was horrified that my child thought such a thing. I apologised to the child’s parent and explained to my child that this was wrong. Even though I knew she didn’t mean to be rascist. And rightly so. Years later, my child cannot believe she ever even thought such a thing.

When any of these things happened to me – or happen to me – I berate myself and remind myself that it’s unacceptable even though it’s not deliberate.

So overall, I have to agree with the mum in the argument. Things said in the heat of the moment may be rascist , and may well pop out of the mouth without the brain being engaged, but it’s still not all right.

And the moment we don’t act to stamp it out, we’re allowing rascism to creep in under the radar.


Your child is ill, it’s late – where do you go for medical help? A Swindon story.

Off to find out-of-hours medical help...again

Have you ever had an evening where you’ve been frustrated because you can’t easily access a doctor when your child is ill?

When you know what’s wrong but you might need medicine so you will have to see a professional?


I’ve just had such an evening at home in Swindon…again.

When you have children you learn many things which have been hidden from you before. Such as, why do children get really ill really quickly? And why, when this happens, is it late at night or at the weekend? Or the week when you are working full-time as a big project comes to fruition?

All of those things have crowded in on me over the last 24 hours.

My child came home last night with a temperature and a sore throat. Taking a look showed a clear throat infection so a trip to the doctor was unavoidable. It was 7.15pm.

When my first child was born, after hours care in Swindon was excellent and easy. There was a number to ring, you called the number, explained the situation and then got a time to attend the clinic on an industrial estate in town. On site, there were a number of cars for doctors who went out to do visits.

Now things are more confused. The previous facility was replaced by another near the local hospital – the Great Western. Again you could call as before, or you could turn up and take your chances with the queue. I’ve done both.

That usually worked fine. Then somehow – and I admit I missed it -things changed. The last time I took one of my children to that facility there was a huge sign on the door. It said,like accident and emergency, they did not deal with minor ailments. This included sore throats, sickness and diarrhoea, just two of the things that afflict children all of the time and often need medicine. And there was another walk-in centre in town. So off we trekked to that place in town and waited for two hours. Only to be told then that the severe throat infection was viral and did not need any medicine.

This time I made the call and waited an hour to talk to a doctor (why do we have to do this?). A call came through but I didn’t get to it in time – they called off after three rings. So I called back, apologised and asked to speak to the doctor. This was within 30 seconds of that call. No, I had to wait again. Another hour. By this time, my four year old was in bed, it was 10pm. Nevertheless the GP asked me to take him any way.

So off we went, complete with sleepy child in bed clothes. Luckily there were only two in the waiting room. The big sign on the door was gone but it was at reception where as I went to the window (the male receptionist was not on the telephone) put his hand up to shoo me back and said ‘I’ll be with you in a minute’. What is it that such medical facilities can make you feel like an irritant, rather than a customer or client?

So I read the sign again. This extraordinary sign that said ‘like accident and emergency we don’t deal with minor ailments’. Some I could understand , like minor bumps and bruises, but others I didn’t get.

What was this place for then? What is minor and what is major and what’s in-between? Is this the in-between place? Sore throat was on the list of minor ailments but here I was with a child with a sore throat. Is it okay to go to the in-between place if a doctor says so?

We were seen quickly, no medicine required, told to come back if things got worse. That part of the service was great.

Overall, I’m confused by the out-of-hours service. It used to be clear and straightforward. Now it’s murky, requiring parents, it seems, to self diagnose and then choose which is the most suitable place to visit. In other words, waste many hours finding the right place to go at the wrong time of day.

When I was a child I suffered many, many ear, nose and throat infections – and my GP visited me at home every time. I remember him well – Dr Baizely. I don’t expect that now of course. But I do expect something better, something that works for me as well as for the NHS. It doesn’t feel efficient.

Surely there’s got to be a better way? What’s it like where you live?

11.11.11 – does this date frighten you?

As all the one’s line up and 11.11.11 is here there are theories abounding that the date is really powerful.

Rationally it means nothing but I’m finding that I’m taking an interest when I come across I mentions of it in the media. Have I lost my mind? I can’t be the only person feeling like this, surely.

I’m beginning to wonder if my thoughts have been influenced by one of the greatest ‘word of mouth’ PR campaigns that was never been launched. Many people are aware of the event and talking about it – it’s out there in the wider world and yet it doesn’t seem to be based anything more than some man-made dates. Quite clever really!

There are, of course, many crackpot ideas about it on the internet and as I look at the news it’s not hard to see major portents of doom.

The financial decline of Italy and Greece is coming to a head and it is being reflected on world stock markets as I write. The whole of the western world’s finances are in a state and despite attempts to shore up economies, little seems to make a difference. Many secrets have come out and influential people are having to account for them. And, as well as an asteroid coming within close range of earth, there are predictions of another great earthquake – as if the world hasn’t had enough already this year.

Disaster after disaster is talked about. And yet…I survived the Millennium meltdown. Remember the dire predictions about how all the computers would stop working? It certainly provided people with work in the IT industry. I can even remember 8.8.88 because my mum picked it for her wedding day as she believed the numbers were a lucky combination.

Hopefully, the world will survive this intense numerical combination today as it has done before. Maybe it’s time for global positive thinking.

Now that’s a PR campaign I’d like to be part of.

Cyber-bullying….are you at risk? Or a family member? Consider this….

Would you notice if a cyber-bully targeted you?

Cyber bullying – we’ve all heard of it haven’t we? In this age of social mediaand the freedom of the internet, there are risks.


People can be lovely, supportive, connected but occasionally someone can be vile or abusive. Or just plain horrid.


This bullying can take many forms. It can actually creep on you unexpectedly. How do I know this? Well, it recently happened to a close member of my family and it took me some days to realise what was happening…

When a member of my family changed schools recently, he left behind some friends that well, let’s just say, were best left behind. He had had some issues with one or two before and, although sorted out, it was no bad thing to have left those individuals behind.

Unlike when I was a child though, these days youngsters can keep in touch in a way they couldn’t before. That means keeping in touch with friends who have gone elsewhere to school. And those children know other children. I think you might be getting my drift here.

This family member mentioned to me that through Skype, he was keeping in touch with friends.

Through those friends, other so-called friends were also making contact.

For a while that worked okay. Then those other ‘friends’ (and I use the words advisedly) started sniping at him. Firstly it was criticising his ‘text speak’ suggesting that he should know how to spell properly. Then it was appearing to send a message and then deleting it. No swearing, nothing obvious, in fact really petty. Initially it was treated as such.

After a period of time, Skype turned to texts. Texts turned to at least one swear word that I’m aware of. Texts turned to sniping remarks. Trying to make him feel small and stupid. Again, really petty stuff.

But it suddenly occurred to me that I was viewing this as an adult in my 40s, not as a child would view it. For a child, this is serious stuff. This means that this petty person could be influencing people who really matter, friends who really matter to that child. He was fearful of losing true friends as a result of this means of being sniping and petty and needling. This was beginning to hurt.

Even when I argued that true friends would not be influenced, it cut no ice.

Again, I realised that it’s much easier for an adult – and a journalist at that – to brush off such criticism, such personal sniping. It’s not easy for a child.

I also realised that if the recipient of petty comments is hurt by them – that’s bullying. It also becomes firmly rooted when the person doesn’t stop when the child tells them to stop. The only reason this didn’t spill over into Facebook is that this family member doesn’t have a profile on that social media site. He’s too young and not allowed.

This was a lesson learned for me as an adult and, hopefully, for him as a child. As a family we’ve now discussed it. Cyber-bullying may not be blatantly obvious but the effects can be upsetting and it can happen over a very short period.

When a final text arrived accusing my family member of something trivial, I replied, warning that individual to leave him alone or I would be paying a visit to parents. I know where this person lives.

Since then no texts, no contact, to my knowledge. I hope the warning was enough.

But from now on, I’m much more aware of my family member’s interaction over the internet and texts. It’s worth remembering that it’s not just the obvious risks, but other, seemingly ridiculous, nonsense can creep up on a family unawares.

Vincent Tabak – the murderer next door

The utterances of Vincent Tabak during his recent trial for the murder of Joanna Yeates have, at times, made me want to throw something at the radio or TV each time I heard his thoughts broadcast.

The man took no responsibility whatsoever for what he’d done and even had the nerve to give a sympathy-seeking, sobbing apology to Joanna’s parents. Fortunately the jury saw through his charade and convicted him of murder and now the real truth is coming out about him, his lifestyle and distasteful preferences. It is, sadly, the world-weary truth that a journalist will often know more than they can report and expect that more information will be revealed after a conviction.

The murder of Joanna Yeates and subsequent trial of Vincent Tabak has had an incredible amount of coverage in the media. There has been, on average, 800 murders per year since the year 2000, although there was a drop in the statistics in 2010 to 651. What is it about this case that has generated so much interest and publicity?

As a resident of Bristol, I found myself to be overly curious about Joanna’s initial disppearance.

It was a strange case as it showed that murder could happen anywhere, even in leafy Clifton, and to anyone. But the most disturbing thing was that a person could just disappear and that the murderer could be the ordinary, non-descript, man next door.

As the investigation began, each nugget of information was seized upon by the media and repeated. In such an excited situation there is a huge pressure as a reporter to get the story first, especially now that news is broadcast around the clock. But it comes at what cost? It reminded me of the frenzied and inaccurate reporting that happened during the initial stages of the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. There were huge fines that newspapers had to pay following the investigation into inaccurate reporting and now there is also an inquiry into press conduct being led by Lord Justice Leveson.

There is a clear line as a journalist between reporting the facts, and conjecture, and it is emphasised repeatedly in journalism training.

Speculation makes people tune into your broadcast and sells newspapers, but it is a gamble. Unless you can validate those assertions in court, you, and your publication, could be prosecuted. And as a journalist, surely your responsibility is to report the facts so that an accurate picture of the story can be understood.

If you are not independent in thought, it is easy to mislead…or be misled.

In fact, the media were manipulated by the very man guilty of Joanna’s murder. One of the facts that has now emerged is that the person who pointed the finger of suspicion at Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of Joanna Yeates, was in fact…Vincent Tabak. The police arrested him and he was vilified by the press. I remember one report was trying to link him to previous unsolved cases in Bristol going back thirty years. Released without charge, he was guilty of nothing except having a bad comb-over hairstyle and a rather louche style of dress.

I’m not surprised that other details about Vincent Tabak have emerged post trial. In a way, it is a slight reassurance, that the neighbour on your doorstep is probably just that, and not a potential murderer.


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