On February 13 this year my friend Ainslie died of breast cancer after fighting the dreaded disease for 12 years. I knew Ainslie was going to die, at the time of her death she had cancer in her brain, was wheelchair bound and her body was less and less able to function. Given that I knew she was going to leave, I was always so sure I’d know when the time came. However I did not.
It was a full 24 hours later – while away with my family on a weekend break – when I got the text from her husband Phil to tell me she’d gone. I went into the state of shock which comes when someone who is part of your life is taken, a parting even worse if that someone is young, in this case just 47. My son told me he’d never heard me cry like that.
Ainslie, who fought breast cancer for 12 years
I asked him what he meant. After all, I’m so soft I’ll cry at a tv advertisement which pulls on the heart strings. He’s seen me cry regularly, hundreds of times. He just said ‘it wasn’t like that’. I think he meant I was howling – making that kind of sound you make when you are almost separate from yourself wondering why on earth you are emitting such a strange, animal noise.
When home, i visited Phil and Alex to see them following Ainslie’s passing. It’s one of those moments you dread but know you have to face and I did it with one of my children who felt she wanted to be there. It was such a shock to walk into the house and see Ainslie looking at me from the sofa – my heart flipped. Perhaps there’d been a mistake – but how could there be? It was actually Ainslie’s sister, Lindsay, who looks like her, or who looks like her before cancer took over Ainslie’s body and tried – but did not succeed – to rob her of her essential self.
What do you do when your friend dies from cancer? When you could do absolutely nothing to help her when she was here apart from being there? You can – donate money to her funeral fund, you can support her family in the days following her death, offer to do some practical things like cook meals, do shopping, clean the house. However, having suffered loss myself before – that’s not where the best and most positive route lies. Do those things. Do them as a matter of course, but don’t let that be it. The best route for me lies in letting everyone know this person mattered weeks, months or years down the line. For everyone achieving that may look different.
I lost my dad when he was 58 and I remember him daily by talking about him and ensuring my children know what he looked like, the funny things he said and did. What he did or didn’t like. How he influenced me for good and ill. When I lost my brother in law at just 49, it was about honouring his children, seeing him in them, trying to support my sister through the worst times of her life – and trying to keep on doing it even when it’s hard to do so. That’s family. But what about a close friend?
When I went to Ainslie’s house to see Phil and their son Alex, following her death. Alex and Phil told me they had a plan. In her journal, Ainslie had said how sad she was that she was unable to see Alex achieve his first century at cricket. Alex is a rising young star on the Wiltshire cricket scene and the sport is his passion – as it is Phil’s who is a sports journalist and qualified cricket coach. Why was Ainslie unable to see her son play on that day? As a wheelchair user, the cricket club where Alex plays regularly has very poor wheelchair access and nowhere for a disabled or very ill person to view a match safely or in any degree of comfort. Although very proud of her son, Ainslie’s wish to see him play could not be fulfilled. Her journal revealed the true extent of her sadness.
Now I know nothing about cricket save it can involve teams dressed in white carrying bats, using very hard red balls and the word ‘runs’ comes into it. It’s not a sport I’ve ever been interested in and my only abiding memory of it is the novelist DH Lawrence refers to the ‘chocking’ of the cricket ball hitting the bat in one of his novels. I’ve always liked the word ‘chock’. When Phil & Alex asked if I would support them in a five year project to rebuild the cricket pavilion at the Purton Cricket Club in Wiltshire so that no other wheelchair user would be denied access – I said yes.
As I said before, I could do nothing to help Ainslie while she was alive battling this horrible, disgusting disease – but this is something I can do. I can do my little bit to support Phil & Alex as they attempt to create a legacy in Ainslie’s name at a cricket club which will be 200 years old in 2020. I’m proud to have been asked and I’m proud to do my bit.
Could you do your bit by sharing this blog post? It will be one of many charting this journey over the next few years and highlighting events to raise money. At this early stage, just over £5,000 has been raised to get the project off the ground. It will be a long journey ahead with obstacles, hurdles and great moments. But it will never be anything like the journey which went before….so this is what I’m doing for my friend Ainslie….
Today I’m writing about something very personal – something which those who are connected with me on Facebook may well have picked up already.
The truth is my godmother, who was 93 on Saturday, is dying. She’s slowly slipping away to whatever comes next. My family all knew this would happen at some point and I’m very thoughtful about it today. Maybe she’ll make her way up those golden steps in illustrious company as life seems to be pushing Nelson Mandela in the same direction.
As my family faces this moment, you may think we are all weeping at the thought of losing her – but we’re not. We are sad and reflective. But we’re glad that the end is coming for her. Is that very terrible?
When she was about 88 or so, she had a stroke which, over time, meant going into a supported nursing home. She’s a widow with no children of her own, her nieces were all over 60 themselves. I saw her several times in the home near Bath, where she has received first class care, and took the children with me, which has always delighted her.
But over the last couple of years, health episodes and further strokes have left her in a more or less vegetative state. She is unable to do anything for herself, is unable to communicate at all and it was only her eyes which gave you any clue if she actually knew you were in the room. Being there is more of a duty than a pleasure and that’s the truth of it.
From this information you might think that this is all very sad, an old lady slowly slipping away. But this ‘old lady’ was a strong, feisty woman, outspoken, sometimes ill-advisedly, and in love with her wider family. Born in 1920, she grew up in a poor family, the youngest child. She spent much of her life caring for her brother Bill, who was, what we called then, a spastic but, in today’s language, he was affected by cerebral palsy.
She married Ivan, who then went to serve in Burma during the war. Aunt Jean was, apparently well known as a well-dressed, beautifully turned out lady who lived life to the full. She had no children of her own and, when her parents died, she became a carer for Uncle Bill.
Wishing my godmother well on her final journey….
That’s what I remember from my childhood- Auntie Jean and Uncle Ivan living in a house with Uncle Bill, who was friendly but a little scary to me. She was my godmother, lived within a half mile of my grandparents, so we saw them often. She did tea and cake very well and had a very long garden with fields to the side where we could sometimes play. Her house felt dark with small rooms, a bit like a hobbit hole. It’s funny what the mind of a child remembers.
Later, after Uncle Bill and Uncle Ivan passed away, she seemed to live a quiet but happy life in her Somerset home and once a week visited my gran, her sister-in-law. They had regular spats, and I guess that was a theme of their relationship. When my gran died my Aunt Jean missed her terribly and made no bones about it.
Now she’s the last of that generation of the family – ironically she was the youngest and lived the longest. I sense she longs to be free of the prison of her body, and although I don’t see her much now, I’m aware that her leaving will widen the gap left by not having any of my grandparents or aunts or uncles from that generation. They filled my childhood to the brim as there were so many of them.
My message to her – good luck and God Bless Aunt Jean. I’d like to think I’d feel the moment when it comes, but I doubt I will. Thank you for all that you were to me and my sister, my mum and my dad, my aunts and uncles and my cousins. I hope what comes next brings you joy.
When Margaret Thatcher died last week, I was surprised by the strength of feeling that event provoked in me. I might as well state now that I grew up in a working class family in Somerset under MT’s governance.
However I did not know her and I do feel for her family, her children and grandchildren for their loss. There will be no grave dancing or celebrations in my household. I will extend to them the same amount of sympathy and care, they would extend to my family when an elderly relative passes away.
Knowing that MT had shuffled off this mortal coil, however, took me back to my teenage years when my family was struggling with short-time working as my dad was a fabricator welder in manufacturing. But more than that, he’d been a coal miner, as had my grandfathers and my great grandfathers. I remember nothing good about the politics of that time for my family. I also remember the stranglehold of some of the trade unions, the closed shop attitude and I wasn’t keen on that either. It was a period of division and defiance.
However, I only expressed my views on my personal Facebook page and on a couple of business groups and the reaction was stark. Some treated me as I though I was a silly woman who couldn’t possibly understand the ‘bigger picture’ and some women started barking on about what a role model ‘Thatcher’ was for women. I respect most of their views but I don’t share them, I’m afraid.
Overall though, the divisive nature of the various debates which have hung around for days, reminded me of the strength of feeling MT could engender. Polar opposites appeared where none had existed before. It’s been very interesting and generated a feeling which existed very strongly in society during her reign.
My biggest disappointment has been hearing people suggest – as often happened in the 1980s – that because they’d been successful under MT (or any government for that matter), those who weren’t as rich or as successful must be lazy or scroungers.
The ‘I’ve got this because I’ve worked hard’ line which always suggests others aren’t working as hard. That kind of line always tells me that a person has no clue what’s going on in wider society.
Personally I have no problems with success – good luck to those who have it and well done if they’ve worked hard for it. Some do, some don’t.
But many, many people (like my dad) work really hard, live hand to mouth and still need some extra support. Many people work hard but are in jobs which will never lead to more financial success. That doesn’t make the millionaire in the next village better – it just makes them different.
It’s this lack of compassion and empathy which staggers me. Often from people I thought were better educated than that. Better educated than me.
Thatcherism seems to give people permission to kick the homeless, the disabled, the poor when they are already down. It allows people to gloat over the misery of others.
I had a lovely talk with my Mum about this and I felt humbled by her response. As a wife with two children and a husband working short time in the 1980s, life was a struggle. She often cried because there wasn’t enough money coming in. She said that she feels at peace about MT – for her last week contained a day when a defeated, old lady was set free.
Her reasoning was that on the day MT had to walk out of Downing Street having been thrown out by her own – that was the day justice was done for our family.
If MT had been defeated by a new government coming in, there would have been room for maneouvre. But when you are thrown out by your own, so publicly and then replaced by someone so grey and colourless – that’s the ultimate in humiliation. For Mum, when MT died last week, she was honestly able to say Rest In Peace.
It’s just a lovely picture…
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…’
Question Time has returned and they are talking about 9/11 – not surprising given this weekend’s tenth anniversary.
But just before that on BBC3 was a programme involving a group of young people being taken around America who were all convinced that the attacks on the Twin Towers, The Pentagon and the other attack were all caused by the American Government or some other secret society.
Most believed that there was some undercover reason for the attack which was carried out covertly by people within the American Government (or somewhere else) for some greater gain.
Greater it seems than the lives of thousands of people. Greater than any amount of lives – as no one could have known how many people could have been killed. Ten thousand could have lost their lives, 20,000, 30,000….
A comedian, who I did not recognise, was given the task of trying to challenge their conspiracy theories by taking them to meet those who had knowledge of events and to see if their minds could be changed. Two of the group experienced a real change in their views.
I found the programme interesting but rather shallow. There were childish squabbles, tantrums, gnashing of teeth, that inability to listen to anybody else who doesn’t share your view.
Liking much of what is put out on BBC3 and BBC4, I was up for watching this programme but I did feel it was a project which was out of step with all of the other programmes about 9/11 at the moment.
Watching the contributors throwing eggs onto the ground, or throwing stones into piles of flour to show what could happen when a plane hits the ground at speed and is then swallowed up by the impact, somehow felt all wrong. This is just a personal feeling, it seemed without heart.
The only moment when I saw what 9/11 means to me was when they met a woman who’s son had called her from the plane where passengers overpowered the hi-jackers and through their bravery, saved lives on the ground. A son who was just recognising that he was about to die.
Stand in front of a mother who’s received such a call and tell her about your nebulous conspiracy theories. In the face of such dignity, yet so much pain, this group of people appeared pathetic.
What did their theories matter to this woman? Her son is still dead. She is still without him for the rest of her life.
I can’t criticise the way the programme was made in any way. But it seemed to belittle what 9/11 meant.
It was a human tragedy and crime carried out in front of our eyes where thousands of people were killed and the effect of those deaths sent out ripples of misery which are still being felt today. It’s not something that’s over and done with – dusted. Just as I can still feel the pain of the Holocaust, so I feel the pain of this awful event. And I was not directly involved.
9/11 – whatever caused it – was a visible example of human misery and terror being carried out across the media. There have been many since – that were less visible.
For me, it was something that showed how powerful the media can be – we’ve seen that since with the uprisings in Egypt etc.
It also shows how helpless we are in the face of such terrorist attacks (yes, I do believe it was a terrorist attack)
Ten years after 9/11 - Question Time
The way terrorists behave during an attack make them virtually impossible to stop, so early prevention has to be the key. Otherwise it’s too late, there’s no control.
I have this need to watch programmes about 9/11 – it was event which left an indelible mark on my psyche and last night was no exception.
On watching the programme, The Firemen’s Story (Channel 4 or 5) and those remarkable pictures I remember where I was when it happened so clearly. Do you? What’s your story?
What were you doing when those pictures went across the world and we knew without doubt that we were watching thousands perish before our eyes?
I was filming a light entertainment show in a beautiful house in Somerset owned by a couple who’d decorated it with stuff they’d rescued and recycled.
I was heavily pregnant and wearing a long, huge, black dress. It was very hot and I was having a drink downstairs and the tv was on. Just a few months earlier I’d been in the twin towers having a meal with my husband – a lovely weekend away in New York.
I called him on the telephone telling him there’d been an accident and to turn on the tv. As we were talking I watched the second plane go into the south tower and I knew then it was no accident.
I knew I was looking on helplessly as people died needlessly. It was among the most humbling experiences of my life.
I’ve asked my children to watch some of the programmes as I want them to know what fanaticism can lead to – great pain, great horror, great devastation, and for what? What good came of that act? There were heroes created, but no one wants to be hero because of that act. And there’ve been so many since.
What moved me last night was an interview with a widow, ten years on, who described telling her daughter that her daddy wouldn’t be coming home – ever. Her daughter crumpled on to the floor, ‘she looked like I slapped her’ the mum said. She said she’d never forget it.
All parents can imagine such a dreadful moment – but recently I had to live through it, even if it was as a close bystander. Believe me, I pray it’s never me in that position.
I sat with my beautiful sister as she told her six year old daughter that her daddy, who’d gone to the gym as usual the night before, would never be coming home again. He’d felt ill and had to go to hospital but he was so ill that he’d had to go to heaven. He didn’t want to go but he had no choice.
In adult language – he’d collapsed and died at the age of 49. Gone from our lives, just like that.
It’s like hitting a brick wall that’s so big
and so tall that you just have to hit it. It cannot be avoided.
What would you tell your child?
My sister dealt with it with so much love and dignity that I could hardly bear it – she told my lovely niece that we would feel sad for a while but we would all be happy and have lovely times because that’s what Daddy would want.
All of this when I knew the dark chasm that life had put before this mum of three. A widow at 40 with three small children.
Though the circumstances were vastly different, the effect was the same. A family in total devastation but trying to survive even in the following hours. Trying to ensure that bereaved children still felt there was hope and magic in the world.
To all who lost in 9/11, 7/7 or in any other personal tragedy – I salute you.
Riots - have you seen mob mentality up close and personal?
I’m listening to Question Time talking about riots as I’m writing this.
Here in Swindon, for three evenings in a row there has been rumour and counter-rumour about trouble in the town centre. To my knowledge, nothing’s happened.
Shops closed early, the police officer numbers were out in force. There was just a feeling of fear, of flames being fanned. Even my kids picked up on it. It’s been ridiculous, it almost feels like we are tempting fate by creating fear of something that’s just not there – thankfully.
Clearly other places have had terrible scenes and there has been much loss. My heart goes out to the families of the three men killed for trying to defend their street in the Manchester area.
But who or what can we blame? Is there anyone to blame? Is it our social ills?
And now there’s something else to blame now – social media.
I’ve just listened to someone say that the speed of social media made the police’s jobs impossible. What? Social media is for everyone and is used by millions, including police officers. Social media is simply a tool that anyone can use and the police need to get to grips with it along with everyone else.
Let’s get real here.
People were behind this trouble – not the police, not social media, not the business people and individuals who were under threat, or who had businesses wrecked.
Individuals decided to break the law and others piled in and took opportunities to thieve and be destructive. The same happened with the student demonstrations. The same happened in the demos in the 1980s etc, etc.
A young black man died – was shot by police. We don’t know the circumstances for sure. But what part of the riots will make his family feel better? What part of the riots will cure the problems in which he may have been involved?
The police have come in for considerable flack and that will continue. I know many police officers and not one of them is incompetent, or ridiculous, or violent or lacking in dedication to my knowledge. All of them are men or women with families and the same hopes and fears as all of us.
Even with the best clothing, shields, helmets, truncheons etc facing a screaming mob is absolutely terrifying. This is something I do know about – because it’s happened to me.
Years ago, in a small Somerset town, I was out with the police as a newspaper journalist when we attended a disturbance outside a pub where there had been lots of trouble.
When we arrived, there were a group of about 50 people, many had been drinking heavily, and they were wound up. When the police arrived, I was told to stay in the car. The noise was so loud, bottles were thrown at the car. Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice.
Some of these people I’d been to school with – I saw the mob mentality in action, some knew me and it made no difference. At one point a group grabbed the car and started rocking it up and down with me in the back. I’ve rarely been so terrified.
The whole thing probably only lasted moments, but it was all in slow motion – I can’t remember how we got out of it. I suppose they were dispersed.
I’ve often been told that individuals are reasonable but mobs are without reason – and I think that must be part of it. That night, in a sleepy backwater town, I saw the mob in action very briefly.
And it’s that memory that stays with me when I see what’s happened. I don’t know the answers but I do know what it feels like to face violence without reason.
Is a bottle of beer really a tribute to a dead addict?
Sometimes the media captures a moment in time of an element of society.
The pictures of the tributes to Amy Winehouse’s sad death this week show bottles of beer and cider placed carefully among the flowers and candles in Camden. It’s like her fans want to say ‘Cheers!’ to her as she enters the next life.
Am I alone in finding this offensive?
It’s well documented that Amy had her troubles with alcohol and drugs. But to celebrate with the very thing that caused so much of her ill health seems childish and remiss. Alcoholics eat little, as excessive drinking can cause problems long term with appetite and the ability to digest food. Amy was clearly thin, and looked ill.
Having a drink can be fun. But what I’m seeing on these images is a lack of sensitivity to her loved ones. This isn’t the end that they wanted. Plenty of people tried to help her but in the end it wasn’t enough.
I’ve seen many articles this week about the 27 club.
Other members such as Janis Joplin, Keith Richards, Kurt Cobain have caused their bodies to pack up because they haven’t known when to stop. They clearly needed help to deal with their emotional problems, yet it is their excesses that are lauded as a cool lifestyle. Live fast and die young? Behind that sentiment is so much sadness.
Amy was a highly talented song writer and singer. Isn’t that what should be celebrated?