As we know – this week, entertainer Rolf Harris was sent to prison for abusing children – using his celebrity status as a cloak for his disgusting activities. His past has now caught up with him, he’s paying the price and so will his family. Justice perhaps for those he abused.
He’s one of a line of people, often most famous in the 70s and 80s, who have been accused – and some subsequently convicted – of allegedly having one public persona and another private persona which is infinitely darker, sexually motivated and criminal.
Within hours, more women, many over the age of consent, starting talking about Harris’s inappropriate behaviour towards them. Then there also came the voice of those who think all of this is nonsense, a snowball out of control.
I have some sympathy with this I suppose because in those decades, some behaviour was more acceptable than it would be now. When I started out in the 1980s, I lost count of the amount of times I had my bottom pinched or slapped, or talked to someone who kept their eyes aligned with my boobs or who, on one occasion, actually told me his wife didn’t understand him. I could handle all of this – more than handle it in fact. Several times, I pinched a man’s bottom in return, told someone my face was up here and, with the ‘wife doesn’t understand me’ line, I laughed in the face of the CEO of a large company who said that to me. Positions of ‘power’ don’t impress me.
However, there were darker moments. Times when I felt the undertone was completely ‘other’ and the threat was something more. There’s a difference between banter and feeling compromised. I remember once visiting the home of a successful businessman who suddenly, quietly and firmly sexually propositioned me in front of his wife – I ran out and drove off at a rate of knots. I also remember one man, then in his 50s, and someone I often saw in the course of my job, who would keep coming up behind me and gently stroking the back of my neck. It was very invasive.
Therefore, if you know this, you might understand why I got caught up in an online spat with someone who was using phrases like ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ suggesting that somehow women are ‘cashing in’ on Harris’s conviction. There seemed to be a suggestion that these women were out for money. Or were unworthy of being believed, or were somehow complicit because they didn’t do anything about it at the time. However, I would challenge any one to do something different to those victims, in the same circumstances.
Are you being abused?
Anyone who is a journalist would know that the majority of people who suffer abuse – both men and women – don’t tell anyone at all for very long periods of time. Sometimes for ever.
They will often feel they are somehow at fault, that something they did or said, did make them complicit in the act of abuse. There are refuges nationwide full of people who’ve put up with abuse for very long periods of time.
This online ‘banter’ made me very angry – because I know what Rolf Harris was like and I’ve known for years.
Why didn’t you say something I hear you all cry? It’s very simple. I’ve never met him, he did nothing to me.
However, he did do something a good friend of mine – she told me – and I believed her. Why didn’t she report it? Well, that’s a matter for her – but I can probably hazard a guess. She probably thought it wasn’t worth the hassle.
Remember the man who stroked my neck that I mentioned earlier? I did confront him and told him not to touch me again after he’d done it several times. I also did report it to my boss – a lovely man but one who appeared out of his depth and probably felt it was too minor a thing to escalate. Maybe he was right. I’d not been groped intimately. It was just the feel of that man touching me was all wrong, that’s very hard to convey in a telephone call – to your boss. To this day, I don’t know if he was told by anyone other than me that he was out of order.
However, I was a young journalist, just starting out. I’d heard all of the stories about the ‘casting couch’ though, frankly I’ve only ever met one person in my career who I thought used her womanhood to achieve her goals. I wanted a successful career and I didn’t want to get caught up in a scandal or a case which could become something really nasty. Life in the media as a working class woman was hard enough.
Imagine that man being a celebrity like Rolf Harris? Who would believe me at that time? And even if they did, what would have happened? To me? Would it have possibly damaged my career? Anyone could have accused me of inviting the attentions of a famous man. Who would have wanted to employ me as the person who’d accused Harris? Would I inadvertently become damaged goods myself?
Now, more than 20 years on, it would be different if someone acted inappropriately towards me.
Of course I don’t look the same, I’m older, I don’t have the slim figure I had then.
However, I have the same drive, the same passion for my chosen path – but I also have experience. My experience has shown me that if someone makes me feel threatened – I should listen to that instinct and act on it.
If someone acts inappropriately towards me – is he going to do it to someone else? Has he done it to anyone before me? Experience has taught me that it’s highly likely. For that reason, today, I’d make much noise.
And to those women who found the courage to speak out – you might inspire others who have kept such abuse a secret – thus throwing the spotlight on offenders who’ve been able to hide their behaviour for a life time.
Enjoying a meal together
This is part two of a story which I started telling during national Carers’ Week last week – it’s very easy to have a stereotypical view of what a carer looks like. However, in my experience, no one chooses such a role. Life simply demands it – and it’s not easy and support can be sadly lacking. Please feel free to comment and share Steve & Robert’s story….
I met both Steve and Robert where we spent an afternoon discussing their lives together in the garden of their very quintessential English home in Wiltshire. I think, I should clarify, given the context of this article. I met Steve for a couple of hours before Robert joined us.
When he did I was struck by two things immediately – how young he is at 44 years old, and how ill he looks. His movements were so deliberate and very slow as if every step took an effort of will. I felt his taking the time and trouble to meet and talk to me was important however bad a day he was experiencing.
The couple have been together since 1999, and they were one of the first gay couples in Wiltshire to enter into a civil partnership on December 22 2005. Professionally Robert is a costume designer and the couple had met when he was working on a children’s television programme.
Steve said: “He was, and is, a very good-looking guy. He had such a zest for life, he was hugely compassionate and generous. Often in the media industry you work alongside people who are very self-obsessed and quite shallow but I knew very quickly that Robert was different. He’s made me become a better person myself. He has a strong spiritual belief, loves nature and the countryside – while I was a complete townie,” Steve, 52, said.
Life was good. A couple in love, with a great social life, spending much time in London, both earning a healthy living and then moving to the countryside to a dream home close to one of Robert’s favourite places in the world – Avebury.
Things changed when, about seven years ago, Robert caught a summer ‘flu’ but just didn’t seem to be able to get rid of it. Numerous visits to the GP led to a diagnosis of a virus. It was several months until a different diagnosis was made.
ME/CFS is a poorly understood condition and because there is no definitive medical test, some people still do not believe it actually exists.
The Countess of Mar, in a debate in the House of Lords in October 2011 stated: “ME has been classified as a neurological condition since at least 1968… however, for all these years, sufferers from this awful debilitating illness have been ignored, derided and mistreated… It seems that no matter how often ministers and senior officials confirm their acceptance of the seriousness of this condition, nothing will change until the culture both within and outside the NHS changes.”
ME/CFS is a debilitating neurological condition that affects at least four in 1,000 people; women, men and children of all ages and backgrounds. It causes persistent, profound fatigue that is not cured by sleep; muscle pain that worsens after any physical activity and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. It can be mild to severe, and for many people it lasts for years. It can sometimes get better and it can often recur. There is no known cause, treatment or cure. It’s more common in women than men.
Steve said: “I’ve become aware of the government gradually dismantling the safety net which we’ve had in place since the end of World War II. If you fall into difficulty, you are now very much on your own.
“It’s an enormous shock when the wheels come off, and you realise there is virtually no help available. We are an extremely rich country – more billionaires live in London than any other capital city in the world.
“According to the Sunday Times Rich List the wealth of the richest has doubled in the past five years (15% rise in the past year alone).
“Yet we are sitting passively watching the dismantlement of the welfare state – something we could afford during the post-war austerity years, but something we are told is too expensive now. I worry for others who might find themselves in similar or worse positions due to no fault of their own, just the misfortune to be ill.”
“For people who are really sick and need care there is now the extra suffering the govt policies / Atos have brought on the long term sick, and cuts in services. If we are struggling and finding it hard my heart goes out to people in more difficult circumstances and for people struggling on their own with no one to care for them. I can’t imagine how they cope.”
Steve has struggled with the fact that there appears to be no practical support for someone in his situation, little access to any kind of respite and, having exhausted their savings, little, if any, financial support.
In order for Steve to work at all, he has to rely on the generosity of friends to come in to spend time with, and care for, Robert when he goes to work. It also means planning has also entered Steve’s life in a big way.
“Carers Support Wiltshire has been good at offering an ear. It seems that there are plenty of places where one can get some emotional help or telephone counselling but to be honest it’s the practical help and assistance that would be more useful.
“I often have a problem that in order to leave the house and go to work I’d like to be able to request physical help from someone who could come and spend an hour or so supporting Robert while I’m away and ensuring he has food at meal times as he is often unable to prepare this for himself.
“But this kind of practical help isn’t available and certainly not at an affordable price. Being a carer has greatly reduced my ability to earn and help is not available at all to those who rely on sickness benefits. To get this you really have to turn to private care agencies where you are likely to get a different person on each occasion which is likely to be more distressing for the person needing the care.
“We already see how appalling this kind of help is for older vulnerable people requiring care in the home – a rushed 15 minute visit simply isn’t good enough.
“But these things cost money and it seems we as a nation are not prepared to fund it. I have a stressful situation coming up in August as I have been offered a job I would like to do but I will have to spend a couple of days away from home in Edinburgh. This will be very stressful for Robert not having me around to give the support he needs. It would be great if there were some official support I could rely on – even pay to contribute towards.
“Mornings are not good for Robert, he gets very disturbed sleep is an integral part of his illness and often he won’t be up until at least 10.30am.
“It’s very important to his health us that he eats well as his body is unable to function at all without adequate and good quality nutrition. So we don’t have any processed foods at all. So I have to prepare breakfast and then I have to plan meals and cook ready for the day – especially if I need to leave to go work.
“I do have to arrange for someone to come around and spend time with Robert and ensure there’s some food which can just be popped in the oven.
“This means I have to work from home a lot but sometimes that’s just not possible. When you are directing a programme like the Graham Norton Show you have to be in the tv studio on set and on time because that is how our show is made.
“This is the job that I love and I obviously need to work to earn a living to support us both. But sometimes it makes me feel very bad, really awful when Robert is so ill and just doesn’t want to be left on his own.
“But the world of telly is demanding – people are sympathetic to a point but you fast realise when you are self employed people just want you to get on with your job without making a fuss.”
Gone are the days when Steve can stay behind after work for a drink with the rest of his work colleagues. He feels compelled to get home as quickly as possible if Robert has been alone for many hours.
“I have no social life outside of my life with Robert. This means I feel a bit estranged from my colleagues and after a while, socially, you just get forgotten.”
None of what Steve has said is news to Robert. He’s well aware of the impact his condition has had on his partner.
“I know if I’d been on my own I would have gone under,” Robert said. “If I look back at myself in the 1980s and 1990s, I was a media worker leading an exciting and fulfilling life. Now I’m a shadow of my former self. Steve is my support and my rock and like him, I do often feel that there is too little compassion out there.
“We need to have more compassion for people. I’m a very social person, I loved my job and my life and I didn’t want to lose it. I feel guilty that I’m ill so much of the time and guilty that Steve is in this with me.”
Robert has found some solace in writing both journals and books and in his art. He hopes that one day he might be able to publish these or find an outlet for some of his work.
Robert said: “The support needed for people with these conditions is practically non-existent. As there is no effective treatment you’re essentially left on your own. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture are very effective in relieving pain for example, but they are a hugely unaffordable expense for most people.
“Travel discount passes or parking privileges would be hugely helpful due to the extremely restricted mobility, but regulations make it nearly impossible to qualify for one.
“Isolation is a particular problem for many disabled people with restricted mobility and lack of help with this means that you are essentially left on your own to cope with very little support. It certainly makes you one of life’s survivors.
“I am speaking mainly about the condition I have – CFS. It’s a condition with an invisible disability. If the disability is not immediately apparent, then it is often side-lined and misunderstood.
“It seems to me and many others the current government are targeting the most vulnerable and that’s is a shocking insight into where we find ourselves in modern Britain.”
Steve said: “I have to say when I look at the values of modern Britain I am ashamed. Hate crimes against disabled people are at their highest levels since records began, with an increase in 50% between 2009 and 2011,. These figures correlate strongly with the “welfare reforms” brought in by the government. What the general public are unaware of, is that 6.5 million provide unpaid care to family, friends and neighbours suffering from long-term physical or mental ill health, disability or old age, saving the state £119 billion a year. There is also an adverse effect on the economy as a whole through losing skilled workers who find the conflicting demands of both caring and working impossible. More practical support for carers would enable more carers to work.
I understand that public money is tight and that there needs to be some form of means-testing for benefits, but providing services should be an equitable asset for the population as a whole. The threshold for getting help is now so low, you have to be virtually destitute before you are entitled to very small amounts.”
Every day 6,000 people will take on a caring role in the UK. It’s believed there are about 6.5m people offering unpaid care to a family member or friend.
Carers help with personal things such as getting someone washed and dressed, turning them in their sleep, helping them move about or administering their medication. They also help, or take on complete responsibility for tasks like shopping, laundry, cleaning, cooking, filling in forms or managing money.
Does anyone care about my new job – as a carer?
Robert (front) and Steve before chronic fatigue syndrome struck.
What do you think when someone tells you they’re a ‘carer’?
Do you think ‘well you’re retired, you’ve got grey hair, and such a thing often happens at that time of life” (in other words ‘what do you expect?’) or ‘oh no, now I’m going to have to listen with sympathy to someone with a sob story and I haven’t got the time or the interest.’?
Then, when someone who is a carer actually starts talking about the reality of their daily life, do your eyes glaze over and you drift away, immediately giving out the message that it’s just too much information? You didn’t really want to hear all of that stuff?
That’s what happened recently to renowned television director Steve Smith, who lives near Marlborough, Wiltshire. He was attending a big social red carpet event in London recently when someone he’d not seen for years asked him about his life.
“Many people know that Robert and I have been together for a long time and they asked after us. They didn’t know that Robert has an illness and that our lives had changed beyond recognition.
“Very quickly I realized they didn’t actually want to know. As I talked, their eyes glazed over and suddenly you can feel very alone in a crowded room. Your story just doesn’t fit anymore.”
Steve and Robert have made the decision to speak out about their situation to raise awareness around the impact of being a carer for national Carers Week this week.
“We don’t fit any mould or stereotype around caring. We’re a couple who are trying to care for and support each other through an ongoing situation which has changed our lives.
“We are from a higher income background where we used to a modestly privileged lifestyle (we have never wasted money). Now we’ve learned some hard life lessons. We do live in a beautiful village in a beautiful home but we still struggle to cope week on week. Our home is under threat – while we’ve been fortunate to have a buffer against the unexpected, which most people do not, now that buffer is very thin and we are having to carefully consider major changes.
“The lesson learned is that fortune can change on the spin of a coin and social position is often of little protection. When you are brought low, there’s very little real compassion out there.”
Many of us will have seen Steve’s work without even realising it – he’s the director of the Graham Norton Show aired on Friday nights on BBC1.
In his professional life, Steve works with people who are celebrities and it’s his job and make sure what we see on our screens is the best possible, and most interesting view from all angles.
But does anyone really want to see Steve in the same way? Steve does a job he loves and one he’s passionate about. Yet what aspect of his life interests you the most? Is it his professional role on a national television programme or his personal role at home – as a carer?
The role that consumes most of Steve’s life isn’t one he has chosen. He didn’t apply for the job and get it based upon his skills and life experience. It’s not one he planned for or had a forward-thinking strategy to deal with.
However, it’s the role he’s had to immerse himself in for the last seven years – and there’s no end in sight.
“When I first met Robert he was like Peter Pan. He was an outgoing, good looking, a physically active man and now he’s often unable to get out of bed, has very little energy, and is often too ill to engage with anyone.”
Steve cares on a daily basis for Robert, who faces a struggle with Chronic Fatique Syndrome . Some days, sometimes for weeks, Robert is bed-ridden. On other days he is able to get out, possibly for a few hours but his stamina is poor. Robert is terribly isolated by his condition – and so is Steve.
Steve said: “We had such an active life before this situation took hold. We embraced life to the full. Now we don’t accept invitations anywhere to anything – because we can never be sure that Robert will be well enough. We don’t want to let people down at the last minute. So eventually those invitations stop coming and our world has just got smaller and smaller.
“For his (Robert’s) mother’s 60th birthday, we went back to his family’s home in Yorkshire and he spent the whole weekend in bed. We did try to go out for a little walk, but Robert managed about 100 yards and that was it, he just had to stop. He just couldn’t walk any more.”
(this is part one of Steve and Robert’s story, the second part will be published on Sunday).
At the weekend, my 12 year old daughter Georgia took part in her first ever fundraising event – the Swindon Race for Life to raise money for cancer research.
She’d decided to do this only a short time ago after being inspired by a friend at school who had her hair shaved off to raise awareness when her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was puzzled by how this one event had affected my daughter so much. After all, cancer is a disease we’ve had knowledge of. We have two close friends who are facing it as we speak, three other friends who have had it and are in recovery. We’ve also lost family members to it. However it was this one particular case which caught her imagination.
Very quickly, with the help of lovely Linda, our childminder and a regular Race for Life participant, Georgia planned her strategy and set a target of raising £50. She took it upon herself to gently tell neighbours she was doing the event, telephoning family members to let them know and mentioned it to all of her friends at school. Very quickly she’d raised £45. I mentioned it on social media, not an appeal for money, merely a mention.
It was this which showed me just how deeply as a society we are affected by cancer. The following day, another neighbour who’d seen my social media post, put a donation through the door of £40. The same day, another friend who doesn’t live locally, called and pledged another £25. Very quickly she’d raised well over £100.
On the day of the race, Georgia left early to warm up and prepare. As we arrived to support her, we walked across Lydiard Park and I wondered how many people would be there. After all, the event has been running in the town for several years. I could not believe my eyes when there was a sea of pink before me – and that didn’t include supporters. Thousands of women, of all shapes, sizes and abilities were gathered to do their bit.
Waving everyone off on the 5km course, wave after wave of women walked, ran or jogged past and it showed how many lives are touched by this disease and the human price of it began to hit you. The emotion was so unexpected. Apart from seeing my own child go off to do this event – I marvelled at the older lady in her mobility scooter, the girls with their hula hoops and the mums with pushchairs on their way.
You’re never too old to fight cancer
It was a day when I was proud of my own child, but also proud of Swindon and of all of those women who had gone out of their way to raise thousands and thousands to help beat this awful disease. We’ve pledged to do the event next year – and this time, I’ll be joining in with my other daughter as we both felt our little effort, matched with the little efforts of thousands of others, all turn into one big effort to defeat this dreadful disease in all its forms.
We Did It!
Have you ever thought – I’d like to write a book? I’d like to tell my story? Can I write a book? Would anyone actually be interested?
As a person who does a lot of writing as part of my business, it may seem strange to tell you that I’ve often asked myself all of the above. When I was a child I always wanted to be an author but, as I got older I wondered if I truly had anything to say of value. I was also pretty sure I couldn’t sustain a story of fiction for long enough.
After several years of running my own business I realise that I do have a lot to say, and some people will want to hear it.
In fact, I’ve learned that we ALL have something to say and there will always be those who want to hear it. All of us have value.
Once I truly accepted this fact, I found it surprisingly easy to share one of my stories. I’m now in a place where I’m not worried about those who don’t want to listen – those people will always be around – I’m reaching out to those who are life’s do-ers. Those who at least have a go at their ‘thing’ and those who want to live life with few regrets.
This week, my first foray into writing about myself in a book came to fruition. The book – available on Kindle – is Playing & Staying At The Top of Your Game – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00KB2XRYI .
It tells stories from a dozen business women from across the south west who want to encourage and inspire other women to try and to persevere if they want to start or develop their own business. Each story is very different. It’s thanks to my women’s business club – I Am Woman – that I’ve finally taken the plunge. I’m already thinking now about doing an entire book covering many aspects of my professional life.
My story shared in Playing & Staying At The Top of Your Game
My story about starting my own business and what I learned in those early days is not what you think. I’m not the business person who nurtured an idea, let it grow and then went into it with rose-tinted glasses and making a million in a month. My story is very different.
I had my dream job – and I lost it. I never wanted to be self-employed, I didn’t want to run my own business and I was devastated that life had thrown me such a curve ball. However, I couldn’t change the fact that this had happened. All I could control was what I did next – and that’s the story I tell. Looking back, I realise my more negative start actually stood me in good stead. It didn’t mean I didn’t make any mistakes – I made loads. But my view was always realistic and I seemed to be able to spot when something wasn’t working. To find out more, of course, you’re going to have to read the book.
Is this being arrogant? Some might think so – but why do we women often feel embarrassed about blowing our own trumpet? Is it because men think less of us? Not in my case – I actually think it’s more because some women think less of us. Some cannot stand the fact that others are more ‘out there’ than they are. Women can be women’s own worst enemies. Truth is, I don’t actually care what anyone thinks, those who are interested will read the book, those who are not – won’t.
So I’ll end on these two notes – the woman who writes thousands and thousands of words each year about others has now written some words about herself. She also remembers one very important lesson in life which has sustained her. It was a saying which a teacher, Christopher Drew, put into my autograph book on the day I left primary school back in the 1970s. It’s always reminded me that life is always a journey of discovery and, thankfully, there’s so much more left to learn:
‘HE WHO KNOWS NOT AND KNOWS NOT THAT HE KNOWS NOT. SHUN HIM FOR HE IS A FOOL’.
Have you ever been to Exmoor Zoo? Have you ever heard of Exmoor Zoo?
If you haven’t I’d heartily recommend a visit. Situated in the Devon countryside, down a little country lane, this zoo has more of a family feel than any I’ve visited. We were spending a weekend in the Exe Valley so this location was less than an hour’s drive away.
While nowhere near the scale of Longleat Safari Park or zoos in Bristol or Paignton, it has a charm all of its own and is suitable for families, or those without children.
We visited over the Easter bank holiday and the cost was less than £50 for five of us. Given that’s close to the cost of a cinema visit for us, we hoped it would offer at least a couple of hours of enjoyment and entertainment. We arrived at 11am and left the premises at around 3pm.
When we arrived it was already busy but there is an additional car park as the one near reception is quite small. One tip is to use the toilet on the way in as there are no toilets around the site. This is due to the site not being connected to the mains (it’s all explained on notices around the reception area).
Immediately on collecting tickets as we’d booked online (be aware a family tickets is two adults two children so, in our case, we had to pay an extra amount for our third child), we were given activities for the children to take part in. For me, this is always a good sign. My children love having to find or discover something. So it was a trail where they could collect stamps of animals and another where they could answer tricky questions and then get an Easter egg at the end.
As my children are a bit older, this meant they often ran off for a short time to fill in gaps on their Easter ‘find an animal’ trail.
The zoo has the sense of being a garden, you move quickly from one animal to the next – but there’s also a feeling that the staff know what you are thinking. There are some spaces where you wonder if that space is big enough for the animal within – then you read the blurb and that question is answered.
There is animal activity all around, so bird, bee and bat boxes which children can look at. I personally love the bigger animals but found myself enraptured by the smaller ones too. I didn’t get the feeling of there being animals which were just ‘making up the numbers’. Even the sparrows had their own special spot.
On site, there are lots of activities where families can get involved in including talks, feeding the animals and holding animals. We’re not good with this in our family, we tend not to like to stick to any timetable or dictate our time around set events, but plenty of families did take part. As you walked around you heard them saying they had to be ‘here’ or ‘there’ at a certain time.
Anticipation was built up by continuous reference to the Exmoor Beast which intrigued the children, who love a sense of the mysterious. So it was quite magical when the zoo’s own beast, languidly stretched, walked down from its perch and marched around its pen.
Another thing which I enjoyed was the good use of the natural landscape and of look-out points around the site. Some of the site is quite steep and rugged, but the animals seemed to like it. Don’t get me wrong, the site is quite accessible, though some paths will be trickier for pushchairs and possibly wheelchairs.
- One of the pumas resting in the sunshine at Exmoor Zoo
The only odd point was one small enclosed look-out area, overlooking the antelope, where there was a picnic table in the middle where a family had stopped for lunch. In this small space, this seemed to have two effects, putting off some people from going into have a look across the enclosure as there wasn’t a lot of wriggle room, or interrupt the family who found themselves being watched closely as they tucked into their sandwiches.
Also one of the children’s Easter egg discoveries was in this small enclosure, so it encouraged more and more eager children to mill around the eating family. If I had one tip, it would be to remove that seating as it did seen to give visitors a confused experience. Families do tend to create a private bubble around themselves so it’s easy to feel like you are intruding on them.
However, further around the site the play area for children is very spacious and there’s plenty of picnic room. There’s a small café on site and the quality of the food is excellent. Much better than in other venues. The price tag for five came to £40 but this is fairly normal for us – and in many places would cost far more.
All in all – it was a good visit, value for money, more educational than expected and lots of fun. Even the small egg given as a reward for the children completing the trail was decent and not a disappointing, tiny, hollow piece of low-grade chocolate.
Find out more here – http://www.exmoorzoo.co.uk
This story first appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald in April 2014.
In December 2006, parents Paul and Caroline Vodden experienced a devastating and life-changing event – their 11-year-old son Ben committed suicide.
What could have caused a bright young boy, in his first year of secondary school with his future ahead of him, to hang himself?
It became very clear that his death was the result of one thing – persistent and cruel bullying on the school bus.
I’ve just met Ben’s father Paul Vodden. He was in Wiltshire at the first Busk Road Transport Safety Conference held at the headquarters of fleet management specialist Arval in Swindon.
Paul and Caroline were launching The Vodden Report – an online survey to assess bullying on dedicated school buses.
They secured funding to carry out the survey of children last year from The Diana Award and their efforts have been supported by organisations including 4Children, BullyingUK and Kidscape.
Ben tried to deal with the bullying
Hearing this family’s story literally stunned the audience into silence. Paul described the kind of bullying his son was experiencing.
“Had it just been Ben’s peers he may well have coped with the bullying but the bus driver decided to join in and, in our view, this took the situation to another level.
“Most of what he said I cannot repeat but it included comments such as ‘you’re a d***head’ and ‘ask your parents to get you a friend for Christmas as you’re a billy-no-mates’.
“Here was an adult taking part in his denigration. This adult should have been someone to look up to, not someone who helped persecute him.”
At Ben’s inquest in West Sussex an open verdict was recorded. The bus driver denied disliking Ben but admitted making such statements to him, saying they were ‘banter’.
It was also claimed the school had treated each complaint as ‘isolated’ and did not treat the incidents as linked so the picture of a campaign of bullying didn’t emerge. The bus company concerned said its driver couldn’t possibly have behaved in that way.
“Our family was let down by everybody at every turn,” Paul said. “The council, the school and the bus company.”
Management at the school has now changed and, Paul said, matters had apparently improved.
Since that time Ben and Caroline have been vocal about issues relating to bullying and want to raise awareness of the hidden ‘hot spot’ of bullying – the school bus journey.
It’s interesting to consider in the majority of cases – if a school trip is arranged there has to be a ratio of adults to children on board. However on the school bus, no such rules apply. Often the only adult is the bus driver whose main job is to drive safely from A to B.
“The situation on the dedicated school bus is, by its nature, potentially problematic as far as bullying is concerned. There is no formal supervision and virtually no opportunity of avoiding conflict situations,” Paul said.
When the Vodden survey was completed, 541 responses from children were received and 268 talked of bullying on the school bus.
Paul said: “This survey should be seen as a realistic snapshot of what is happening on dedicated school buses and a general indication of the effects and consequences of bullying in general.”
Those children who took part were asked what they felt like doing when they were being bullied:
*38 per cent said hide away.
*17 per cent said fight back.
*16 per cent said tell someone.
*9 per cent considered suicide
*8 per cent campaigned against bullying.
When asked how long bullying had been going on, 77 children said it had been more than a year.
When they were asked ‘was the driver aware that the bullying was taking place?’ the results were:
*43 children said yes.
*44 children said no.
*155 children gave no response to the question.
*ten children said they would prefer not to say.
In conclusion the Vodden Report says that bullying on the school bus is a significant problem and that children in Year 7 are particularly at risk. Forty per cent of children who took part in the survey, said bullying had started in that school year.
Paul said: “Therefore the time when children are moving from Year 6 in primary school to Year 7 in secondary school should be recognized as a time of particular vulnerability.”
It also concludes that the role of the school bus driver is key.
“It is clear that the role of the driver is significant,” the report says. “Only four were recorded as taking action to alleviate the bullying, 42 were reported as taking no action even when many of them were reported as knowing what was going on and a very worrying 17 were reported as joining in.”
“It is pertinent to ask whether the driver of a bus can reasonably and safely be expected to monitor children’s behavior whilst giving full attention to the serious undertaking of driving. But if not the driver, then where is the ‘responsible adult’ who can intervene to safeguard children from bullying during their daily journey to and from school?”
Paul and Caroline’s MP, Annette Brooke recently brought up these issues in Parliament.
She said bullying on school buses includes both verbal and physical abuse such as spitting, punching, slapping and pushing.
“In what other situation are as many as 50 or more children forcibly restricted in a confined space for up to an hour, with a single, untrained adult present, who is undertaking a separate task that requires their full attention?”
Education minister Lis Truss praised the report saying it was up to local authorities, schools, bus companies and parents to take action together. She said:
“When contracting to provide school transport, local authorities can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. I strongly urge them to do so.
“We acknowledge that tackling bullying outside school is challenging, but we have been clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. Where bullying outside school is reported to school staff, it should be investigated and acted upon.
“If the misbehaviour could be criminal or poses a serious threat to a child or another member of the public, the police should be informed.”
The Vodden Report makes a number of recommendations. These include:
- School bus drivers being given specialist training in safeguarding children.
- A trained adult or chaperone should be present on every school bus.
- Policies should be introduced making it clear who is responsible for dealing with bullying on the school bus.
This article first appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald in early February 2014.
A love story
Today mum Liz Badcock is a loving mother, doting wife and fledgling entrepreneur.
As she turns 40 this year and enjoys watching her 20-month-old son Harry grow up – she knows she’s lucky to have him, her husband Phil or her new business as a weight consultant.
Liz, who lives near Chippenham, is a recovering addict. She’s spent 20 years battling alcohol and drug dependency, a problem which began in her early teens.
“I had a lovely childhood,” Liz told me. “I’ve got loving parents who have always done everything they can to support me. I cannot, in any way, say that I wasn’t loved at home.
“However, I was always a needy child who craved attention. I grew up well before my time and at 14 I was out clubbing and drinking and getting a lot of male attention.
“Most of my early teens were relationship after relationship, getting used for sex, getting drunk and taking ecstasy and cocaine. I got engaged at an early age, cheated, drank heavily and was never happy.
“By the age of 21 I went from one abusive relationship to another, taking drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and resentment towards myself for putting up with it.”
Liz began a cycle of heavy drink and drug use alongside self-harm and many related issues. Even when she met her husband Phil, who comes from Swindon, she was unable to deal with her various addictions.
“We married on August 29 2003. I drank all day and stayed up until 4am , then I began to drink whisky. On our honeymoon I drank vodka and orange every day trying but failing to disguise it. When we got back my husband insisted that I see a doctor and they diagnosed me with depression and anxiety.”
A partial recovery began with Liz becoming dry for a few years and she began dealing with her weight problem, losing seven stones in six months.
“However I was taking huge does of valium each day to help me diet and smoked very heavily.
“I was sober until December 2007 but things were no better really.
“My doctor stopped prescribing me valium so I took out loans and credit cards and sat at home while my husband was at work, ordering pills from the internet. The amounts were huge when I finally went into rehab in 2008 I’d spent £57,000 on drugs and alcohol.”
During this period of time, Liz and Phil had tried for a baby through IVF with no success. This failure led to a suicide attempt, more attempts at rehab treatment and various relapses into addiction.
Husband Phil stuck by Liz throughout always believing she could change her behaviour.
“Lots of our relationship I was either drunk or high on valium. He always supported me and he’s always been strong. I don’t know, if the boot had been on the other foot, whether I would have been strong enough to support him if he’d been an addict.”
Then in September 2011, something fundamental changed in Liz and Phil’s lives.
Liz said: “I went to the doctor’s after another binge and told her I was late for my monthly, believing this was due to the alcohol abuse. She said I should do a pregnancy test which I thought was a joke. I did the test and found I was pregnant.
“I knew I had to give up the valium, the alcohol and smoking and I also wanted to lose weight once the baby was born. I tried to make amends with all of the people I had hurt and I promised myself I would do right by my unborn child and felt that this was a miracle and a blessing. I quit everything. Harry saved my life.”
Being a recovering addict and being pregnant isn’t an ideal combination. Liz knew that her history could affect Harry in the womb.
“I knew due to my lifestyle that Harry could be at risk. In the early months I had a scan every month as there was a chance that Harry could be very small. At my 20 week scan, it was clear that everything was fine and that he was looking healthy. In fact I then had to have scans to ensure he didn’t grow too big so that I could deliver him safely.”
Harry was born in June 2012 weighing in at 9lbs 11oz. However, Harry wasn’t the only one who was heavy. By the time of his birth, Liz weighed 22 stone and, even after having her son, she still tipped the scales at over 17 stones.
“I knew I had to do something about it so I went back to the Cambridge Diet plan which had worked for me before. However this time, I was going to approach it differently. No drugs this time.
“Now I’m down to 12 stones and will soon fit into size 12 clothing. I’ve still got some way to go but I’m on healthier journey.”
In fact, Liz has now become a weight consultant herself and she’ll be opening her own Cambridge Diet business at Body & Soul in Corsham, Wiltshire at the end of March.
“As I face my 40th birthday, believe me my life looks a lot different. I’ve learned to love myself and I’ve come to believe I am a good person. I know life is to be enjoyed and people deserve love and respect.
“I’m now in a position where I can go into a pub with my friends – something I’ve never achieved before – and it doesn’t matter that I don’t have an alcoholic drink, I don’t even want one. I used to envy people and now I just think why would I have a drink? Why would I ruin everything? I’ve got a great husband and a happy, healthy child.”
This article was first published in January 2014 in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald.
Grandparents Bruce and Bev Bodio are on a mission to help expectant mums deal with difficult pregnancies.
The couple, who live in Stockwood Road, Devizes, were so inspired by an invention which helped their daughter-in-law Carrie, that they’ve turned her story into a business venture.
Carrie, who’s 43, gave birth last year to her daughter Evie after going through a pregnancy which almost crippled her.
“When I had my older daughter Millie ten years ago, I developed a hernia. These can cause problems for pregnant women in varying degrees. Basically it causes aching, a dragging sensation, stinging and can be agony when you are on your feet for any period of time.
“With Millie, it was there and it was achy but it was manageable. However, when I became pregnant with Evie the weakness was already established and things became much, much worse.”
During the second trimester of the pregnancy, the hernia in Carrie’s abdomen got bigger and caused constant pain which restricted her movements.
“Very quickly, I was so debilitated I couldn’t even stand to make a cup of tea. I couldn’t go shopping or do anything without holding my abdomen to relieve the pressure. The only relief was to sit down all of the time.
“I ended up going to the hospital and was told that I would need surgery once the baby was born and I just had to put up with it. They wouldn’t do anything during the pregnancy because of the risk to the baby.”
Various aids exist in the UK to help women with pelvic, hernia or back pain during pregnancy but for Carrie, they didn’t work.
“I looked and tried the belts on the market and found they were expensive, ugly, huge bands which were uncomfortable, unsightly and they didn’t work for me. I wouldn’t have been able to wear them with leggings or nice clothes.”
Carrie tried several do-it-yourself attempts to support the hernia, including wrapping a coat belt around her abdomen so she could go out. Nothing worked for any length of time.
“Eventually, I gave up and did some research online to try to find something which was more suitable.”
That research led her to contact an American mum, Caroline Christensen, who also suffered hernia problems during her pregnancy. Like Carrie, she couldn’t find any product on the market which worked – so she designed her own.
Carrie said: “She told me she’d love to sell in the UK but didn’t have any idea how to do it and the cost of buying a single item and having it delivered here pushed up the cost.
“I was so desperate to get something which worked – but there was always the risk that it would be a waste of money. For most people when they are having a baby, they don’t have money to throw away.”
Carrie took a chance and received the product known as the Baby Belly Band. She also told her family about it.
“Within minutes of putting it on, I felt like a different person. I felt secure, it’s flexible and I knew it couldn’t hurt the baby as it’s soft and stretchy. Overnight my life was transformed. I could wear leggings and nice clothes without worrying that everyone could see I was wearing a ‘hernia aid’.
“I’m not one to bang on about this or that wonder product but this simple invention gave me such freedom.”
Unbeknown to Carrie, her finding the Baby Belly Band was only the start of this story.
Mother-in-law Bev said: “I decided to look into the product and do some research. To see the transformation in Carrie who was finding it difficult to stand or walk, made me realize that we had to do something to get this out to other women affected by hernias.
“Women with these problems can face months of discomfort, worry and stress which is just not healthy for them or their babies.”
Bruce said: “I’ve been self-employed for 20 years and am a specialist in helping companies sell their products internationally. This is my area of expertise. Carrie knew I did something to do with distribution and mentioned the belly band to me, but that was it.
“I just couldn’t believe that one day she couldn’t even make herself a cup of tea and the next day she was able to go shopping in Bristol.”
For information on the Baby Belly Band, which is licensed as a medical product, visit www.babybellyband.tel
This is an article which appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald on January 2 2014 and includes an interview with mum Becky Martin, a scientist by profession.
As 2014 dawns, it could be a very important year for one campaigning mum from Wiltshire.
Becky Martin is the parent behind a new group Frack Free Families which campaigns against the removal of shale oil or gas from the ground – even if it’s for exploration purposes.
Already Becky can be seen handing out leaflets in town centres across Wiltshire, including Salisbury and Swindon, as well as joining forces with other concerned groups. She recently spent day at a protest at Barton Moss near Irlam, Manchester where drilling took place in November and December.
“I became interested in this subject some time ago as a scientist – I’m a biologist and had a career in cancer research before having my son.
“I looked into hydraulic fracturing and did what research I could and I was horrified. I just had to do something about it.
“This is entirely outside my comfort zone. I’ve never campaigned about anything before or taken such a strong stance on any issue. With this subject it was a case of ‘I have to do something about it’.”
Becky often takes her two-year-old son Aidan with her when she hands out leaflets to make the point that families will be affected by this search for a new energy source.
“Being a mother has been the driving factor behind this for me. What are we leaving behind for our children? We could be risking their health with this process and it’s insanity.
“Even taking that into account, it isn’t even going to deal with our long-term energy needs. Even if shale gas was magnificent, it isn’t going to solve our energy problems,” Becky said.
The extraction of shale gas and oil – and in some cases coal bed methane – is likely to become a familiar theme here during 2014. It’s a process which has been used in America for many years but is still in an exploratory phase in the UK. It is just one measure the government is looking at to ensure energy sustainability in the future. Renewables is another.
Becky said: “We have to look at, and invest more in, renewable energy such as solar, wind and tidal power. Shale gas is just too risky and we could be spending money on the burgeoning renewables sector. It’s crazy to me that we’re not looking more seriously at offshore wind farms or tidal power. We’re an island for goodness sake, and that could create a sustainable energy future. We must move away from fossil fuels.
“Apart from anything else, shale gas will not help us with our main addiction when it comes to energy use – our cars. It will not solve the problem of our addiction to petrol.”
A licensing round for exploratory work around is due to be held in the first six months of this year. These licences could allow boreholes to be drilled and/or well pads to be created in Wiltshire. This means companies involved in this exploratory work – such as IGas, Cuadrilla and Celtique – will be able to bid for the licenses.
For Becky this is must not happen. Like many anti-fracking campaigners, she is concerned about the potential for contamination of water sources caused by the process of drilling. She’s also concerned about the long term health effects for communities living around drilling sites.
“Fracking fluid for the process is an unpleasant mix of chemicals. I’ve been told it contains nothing more than that which is under my kitchen sink. However these cleaning fluids are incredibly toxic and we’ll be pumping that into the ground in large quantities. Some of the chemicals used are very, very dangerous such as oxirane.
“There are also risks around what could be released by the process itself. There are naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth which we would not want to contaminate our water.”
She wrote to her own MP, John Glen, expressing her concerns. He replied in detail:
“It is worth mentioning that the deposits of shale gas identified by the British Geological Survey in Wiltshire are extremely minimal – and located in the north west tip of the county. The majority are in central and northern England.”
“I’m afraid that I’m strongly in favour of fracking. I welcome the potential it has to provide with a vitally needed new energy source, and to catalyse a new industry in the UK.”
However, Becky disputes that there will be any significant creation of jobs for local communities. She claims that in the Fylde area near Blackpool, where the first UK explorations were carried out, only 11 per cent of the workforce was recruited locally.
John Glen also says there is little credible evidence to show that contamination of water sources could occur if proper regulation and procedures are in place.
“It’s important to note the differences between water systems here and in the USA. In the UK, most aquifers like within the first 300m below the surface. Fracking operations will taken place some 2km down – migration of methane or fracking fluids could therefore only occur through fractures in the rock which would allow the chemicals through.”
Becky claims research from America suggests this method of obtaining energy is having adverse health effects on nearby communities – effects which emerge after a period of time. She believes this is not being taken seriously at home.
“There is evidence from Pennsylvania which suggests that children are having frequent nosebleeds, headaches and other problems when they live very close to the drill sites. I would also urge anyone to seek out the film Gasland which looks at the experiences of families living close to sites where shale gas and oil are extracted.”
Becky also claims there are a number of myths around fracking which are common among the wider population. The most common one, she claims, is that obtaining shale oil or gas will bring down the price of energy.
“Many politicians have now openly said that this will not happen including Ed Davey, David Kennedy and Lord Sterne. This will not make energy cheaper.”
What is fracking? – or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth. Fracking makes it possible to produce natural gas extraction in shale plays once unreachable with conventional technologies.
Germany has taken a different stance and has concluded, due to lack of data, the precautionary principle should be adhered to and a moratorium around fracking is in place.
For the American documentary about communities living near hydraulic fracturing sites – you can find Gasland the Movie on YouTube.
Frack free families can be contacted by joining the Frack Free Families group on Facebook.