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May, 2013

Hope in the midst of horror – the killing of a soldier in Woolwich

A young soldier is attacked and killed in full public view on our streets, seemingly by extremists intent on creating fear and panic among the population at large.

An act of violence and abomination. A  terrible, terrible event for the family, friends and colleagues of the victim. An attack on one of our soldiers, one of the many men and women who are prepared to die to protect our way of life.

Yesterday the news was full of stories about horrible killings in our society. This was one was so shocking because it was so immediate with video clips on the internet and the killers using that medium to spread whatever twisted message they wanted to get across.

Today I’ve heard several negative things which, in my view, play into the hands of all extremists. People calling for death, mobs, marches, violence to a whole group in our society who are as innocent as we are. People suddenly showing support for organisations which shouldn’t be more than an annoying pimple which needs to be popped. These organisations jumping on the horror and claiming it for their own – it’s utterly despicable. What is it that Gandhi said? An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Let’s not let anger and fear make us blind to the good things…..

There are pros and cons to seeing a death like this victim’s played out so publicly  – in America, people are used to seeing this type of thing more often. I’m in two minds about this. I heard a man on the radio saying it was disgraceful bringing this into everyone’s living rooms. Is it? Is it disgraceful that we face the horror up front? Those people in that street, that young man didn’t ask for that, did they? They had no choice in it. Can we hide from the risks we may all face?

But this exposure also highlighted other things – small acts of courage and care which happened in the few moments that this horrific event took place. The woman who tried to reason with someone who could not be reasoned with. Did she think or did she act? Her efforts provided, at a minimum, a distraction which could well have prevented another death or serious attack. Could I have done that? Would I have done that? I honestly don’t know.

The person, who even though it was hopeless, held the victim and wept over him – a stranger who cared, who just tried to be there in the most terrible of circumstances and amid carnage. Someone who just saw the young man and reached out. I believe the victim’s family will take a small crumb of comfort from that one act.

I heard comments about wishing the police had shot dead the people responsible. Yesterday, in the immediate aftermath I too had some sympathy for that view. But our police  are professionals. They too, being there and in the midst of that awful situation, may have felt that way. But they, like our soldiers, were professional. We have no idea what the bigger picture is here – is there more intelligence around this incident? Is there information to be gained from the men responsible? Two meetings of COBRA in a 24-hour period suggest something else is going on here that we, the public, are unable to see and may well never know.

We should therefore take heart in all the courageous people around this incident who reacted in split seconds to an unspeakable horror. Many acted with dignity and caring towards complete strangers. Now is the time for the police to do their jobs, and for us to consider the pain of the family involved.

Top Ten thoughts on Tales from the Domestic Frontline

A few weeks ago I interviewed a Wiltshire blogger and author Clare Macnaughton. She’d just self-published a book of some of her blog posts from – Tales from the Domestic Frontline.

If you want a good laugh, an easy read and you’re not easily offended – get this book! 


I’m pleased to say that Clare and I kept in touch following that interview and this week we met up for the first time. The story I’d written about Clare was very personal and touched on aspects of her life that most of us would not want to share with the world. In Clare’s case she had little choice in the matter.

Having said all of this – it’s one thing to write about a Wiltshire woman and author and quite another to read the book. I’m a person who attracts a lot of writers who ask me to read and review their stuff, frankly I simply don’t have the time. However, after meeting Clare I stopped for quick coffee before my next appointment and started reading.

An hour or so later, I’d finished and thought ‘is that it?’ – there must be more to come. It was mesmerising and somehow the fact that it was made up of blog posts made it so easy to digest.

Here’s what I discovered:

* Clare talks about her grandparents and that resonated with me – a loving grandfather who worked hard and drank lots. A grandfather who was known as Ginge. How funny, my grandfather was a coal miner  for 50 years in Somerset. His name was Ernest, his weekend pastime was drinking. Everyone knew him by his nickname Ginge.

*Clare grew up without her mum who died when she was two. My niece and nephews are growing up without their dad who died when they were small. I watch and hope that they are able to be as balanced as adults as Clare. Losing a parent very young sends a deep pain into the fabric of family.

*Many of Clare’s challenges in dealing with her own family are the same as every other family, military or not. I particularly loved the ‘operation bangers & mash’ post – boy, do I recognise that one.

*Dealing with a partner who goes away regularly for weeks at a time means continual readjustment within the family – now you see him, now you don’t. Change is the norm when children need stability. So the parent at home has to absorb the change to protect them.

Perfect, easy read for mums everywhere.



*When a partner who’s in the military is used to being obeyed – he or she can find it difficult to shake off that behaviour at home. This reminded me of an incident when I was a teenager and babysat for a local GP and her husband, an officer in the Royal Navy. They were well off and had a cleaner. I recall the husband barking at the cleaner that she’d not cleaned the hairs out of bath plughole. The response included the word ‘off’ and she quit on the spot.

*Clare really loved Dawn French’s book Dear Fatty and wrote to her about it. I did the same thing – the one and only time I’ve ever written any kind of fan letter. I didn’t get a response, I didn’t expect one, I just had to say I loved the book.

*Being part of a military family can have benefits – you get an opportunity to go up in a Chinook helicopter for example. The downside is that you can be judged on your prowess in making mince pies. Even worse, playground politics apply among certain military wives and however hard you try to ignore it, it still touches you.

*Children come out with the most marvellous, unexpected things at the most unexpected times. Clare’s daughter asks her for  ‘ass cream’ in one story – meaning of course, ‘please spend money on an ice-cream for me which I will attempt to eat, will almost certainly wear and will then hand the soggy end bit to you’. I will often write down wonderful things my kids say like ‘mummy my clothes are outside in’ and ‘daddy what’s pamchayne?’.

* The eternal struggle for a work life balance which feeds the mind, pays the bills and nurtures the children – a struggle which is especially difficult if you are a single parent.

*Clare’s writing style is simple, insightful, honest, sometimes rude, sometimes very rude, gritty with a little poetry included.

My final question – when’s the next instalment coming out!



How to create a community magazine – the ups & downs…

I’ve decided that I’m going to do a series of related blogs about the challenges of creating a community magazine



Back in January, a group of three people in Swindon – Graham, Mark and Frances – decided to write, design and print Swindon Heritage to celebrate the town’s history with interesting stories, pictures, archives and ‘today’ stories or interviews influenced by history. I was not involved initially.

The idea had been kicking around for some time but eventually this trio of writers and historians decided to go for it. No money or support came from any outside source. Swindon’s oldest company Arkells hosted the launch where about 70 people attended  – including me.

The first edition was of exceptional quality – I knew the content was strong but the design and high quality glossy feel was unexpected. Then the trio asked me to help out in a consultancy role, to push other ideas and help out. We have had wonderful content, so far enough for a year. The challenge is raising enough to cover all costs and perhaps become a social enterprise.

So for the last few weeks, I’ve had a go at selling advertising space, had various meetings with more to come and have just enjoyed having any role in this lovely publication.

We’ve had great support from Swindon Council, both MPs (please subscribe Sirs if you haven’t already), the new Police & Crime Commissoner for Wiltshire, and hundreds of subscribers. We’ve also been supported by more than a dozen local independent shops and newsagents eager to stock the magazine (it sells at £4.99 a copy).

One big surprise, and disappointment,  has been the reluctance of bigger companies to even agree to sell the magazine or even look at it, taking just a small percentage of the cover price. We have repeatedly tried to get W H Smiths to sell the magazine in the Swindon area – but they keep saying we have to go through their normal distribution process  – something we cannot afford. How disappointing that one of the town’s biggest employers has no ability to stock a community magazine.

The other disappointment was Asda – with two big stores in Swindon. Asda makes a big deal about being part of the local community .However when it comes to Swindon Heritage – it’s a different matter. After hearing the spiel about having to go through their ‘normal’ processes so they can take a 20 to 25 per cent cut (which we cannot afford) – they did agree to look at the magazine.

Sadly, Asda head office in Leeds said it was not considered suitable for its customers in Swindon and would not consider stocking it. (I promise you there’s nothing inappropriate with this magazine).

So clearly its community agenda is highly selective. I wonder if Swindonians living in West and North Swindon feel happy that Asda has decided what is and is not suitable for them.

Is Asda for the community – what do you think?

Still, I’m hoping that one of the other supermarkets in Swindon or big retailers will be the first to support us – believe me I’ll shout about that. So come on Sainbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, Martins et al – we’re waiting to hear from you….

I want to shout out about this lack of support from some of the town’s bigger businesses to show them up against those small businesses which are more than ready to ‘take a chance’ and are happy with their smaller cut of the cover price.

All of our stockists get a free shout-out in the May edition which comes out at the end of next week – front page picture is a lovely image of the late, great Diana Dors. If you live in Swindon and want to learn more about your town’s history – this is the magazine for you.

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