Through today's blog, I want to extend my very best wishes to 22 year-old Alex McKinnon, who suffered what has been described as a "devastating spinal injury" in an Australian rugby league game this past weekend.
The injury (which occurred during the NRL fixture between McKinnon's club, Newcastle Knights, and the Melbourne Storm) came from a three-man tackle on McKinnon, which resulted in the young forward landing on his head, breaking his C4 and C5 vertebrae in the impact.
Recent reports have confirmed that McKinnon has undergone emergency surgery to remove a disc and fuse the dislocated vertebrae, and he has been placed in an induced coma before further tests will reveal the full extent of damage to his neck and spinal cord (although it was encouraging to read that he does have movement in his right arm).
Rugby league is, in my opinion, the most consistently exciting spectator sport there is, a mixture of sublime skills, pace, strength, and incredible physicality. Those at the top level of the game are quite simply outstanding athletes, but it takes a fair bit of courage to play the game at any level, and the injury sustained by Alex McKinnon certainly serves as a cautionary reminder of the occasionally terrible, but thankfully rare, consequences of such an intense contact sport.
Those who know the game far better than I, may question the effect of the three-man tackle rule change, where the third man can no longer tackle the player's legs, and whether this affected how McKinnon was driven to the ground. Also, it seems as if McKinnon ducks his head slightly just before hitting the playing surface: did this arguably worsen the impact of the tackle? For me, having watched the incident a couple of times at full speed and in slow motion, it is probably just an awful accident; one of those things that is unintentional and unavoidable simply because it happens so fast.
In fairness though, all that really matters here is for this brave young man to make as full and swift a recovery as possible, and I hope that is exactly what happens. All the best Alex.
It is to my eternal shame that I only started watching the recent BBC2 drama Line of Duty because the cast included my favourite actress, Jessica Raine.
Jessica is a regular as Jenny Lee in Call the Midwife, but she also played Emma Grayling in the 2013 Doctor Who adventure Hide—to my mind, the best story of Matt Smith's tenure—and she was brilliant as Verity Lambert in the fantastic Doctor Who docudrama, An Adventure in Space and Time.
There was therefore a slight tinge of disappointment at the end of the opening episode of this second series of Line of Duty, as Jessica's character DC Georgia Trotman (above left) plunged to her death, after being unceremoniously dumped out of a hospital window.
By then though, I was totally immersed in the unfolding story of DI Lindsay Denton, the drama's central character, who was seemingly being framed for involvement in an ambush, in which a number of fellow officers and a protected witness were killed.
Over the weeks that followed, the occasionally confusing plot began to slowly unravel—or so I thought. The creation of tension was superbly realised, and Jed Mercurio's story and script were, for the most part, extremely well crafted, but what undoubtedly held the drama together was the performance of Keeley Hawes as Denton.
Keeley is a well-known face on television screens, with a whole host of successful roles to her credit, but I must admit I had never really watched many of the programmes in which she has appeared. That is an omission I might now have to correct, because her portrayal of Lindsay Denton was one of the most compelling pieces of acting I have ever seen.
Whenever you thought you'd started to understand Denton, the plot would develop and you'd find yourself questioning the assumptions you'd made, and all the way through, Keeley's acting skills, her body language and incredibly expressive eyes created a character that was totally believable, and capable of eliciting a wide range of emotions from the viewer.
Lindsay Denton: Hero, anti-hero, scapegoat, criminal... you'll have to watch and find out, because I'm not going to include any spoilers. But I will say that, as is often the case with such complex dramas, the ending is occasionally something of an anti-climax, although in this case, nothing can detract from the sublime skills displayed by Keeley Hawes.
Awards are surely coming her way, but the best news of all is that Keeley is due to appear as a villainous banker Ms Delphox in the next series of Doctor Who—and I for one can't wait!
There is one bit of news for you on the 40Fifty front. I have now completed the first draft of my novel The Beige Beetle, which has been e-mailed to five friends for objective review (as opposed to preaf rood). An attempt at fiction has been—and is—a new experience (albeit one that has lasted a decade!), so receiving honest feedback is really important to me.
What happens afterwards will depend on the views of others, but the act of finishing the book will soon allow me to tick off a fourteenth task. And on the left is the intended cover....
Yesterday afternoon, I had a call from a reporter at our local paper, the Evening Gazette, offering to include a short story about my charity challenge in an upcoming issue. We chatted for about ten minutes and hopefully a positive article will follow sometime soon.
Getting media coverage to try and raise the profile of what I’m doing was never going to be easy; after all, irrespective of any charitable cause, I’m barely a household name in my own home, let alone.... That said, I’ve done three radio interviews, two live and one pre-record, and been given one excellent newspaper feature (it was excellent because I wrote it myself!!), all of which is fantastic.
As well as those who have been kind enough to allow me to tell my story, I have been amazed at the help I have been given, occasionally by friends, but predominantly by strangers who received random e-mails from me, but were still prepared to give up their time to enable me to progress further through my series of challenges.
Two months ago, I received the news that my job was being disestablished at the end of the year, and clearly the need to find work and support my family has to be my priority. But with this setback has come an even stronger determination to fulfil my challenge, and maybe prove a few things to myself in the process.
So, to everyone who has helped and supported me thus far, I am more grateful than you could ever know, but if I may, I would like to close with a special thank you to this young lady, Alex Danson, one of the country’s finest sportswomen, who posted the following message on Twitter after our brief meeting last Saturday, a message that was both incredibly kind and genuinely humbling.
I’m having a couple of days off this weekend, but hopefully there’ll be more updates very soon. Thanks again!
Nine hours out of the house, eight and a bit in the car, 373 miles, all for a chance to fulfil one of my charity challenges. There might be some raised eyebrows, but if you want to know whether or not such a long drive and a long day was worth it, then please read on.
The destination was Leicester Grammar School, the event was a hugely important clash between the Leicester and Reading ladies hockey teams, but the real reason was an opportunity to meet those members of the two sides who had been part of the GB Olympic squad that had won a bronze medal at London 2012.
My sporting prowess (limited as it was) lay on a cricket field, but I played a fair bit of hockey at school—only muddy and bumpy pitches back then. I did have a reasonable goal scoring record in inter-school matches, although it becomes less impressive when you take out the deflections past our own goalkeeper! I was once accused of playing hockey like a cricketer—an inference I angrily rejected by flicking a free hit through square leg for four...
But in 1988, I made a point of getting up an some unearthly hour to watch the wonderful and captivating exploits of the GB men's hockey squad out in Seoul, which culminated in a dramatic semi-final victory over Australia, and a classic gold medal-winning performance in the final against the Germans—where were they? Frankly, who cares....
The progress of the ladies' class of 2012 was equally compelling, but a heartbreaking semi-final defeat to Argentina, left the team needing to beat New Zealand to secure the bronze medal. The game was scoreless at half time, but three goals in fairly quick succession in the second period, all from short corners (or are they penalty corners?) gave the girls an unassailable lead and the intense disappointment of the previous game was replaced by elation as the reality of their collective achievement sank in. I get extremely patriotic about all things Olympic: I shed a tear or two at the time, and I might admit to a similar reaction when I watched the New Zealand game again on Friday.
It was a wonderful sporting moment, but before we could meet some of those involved in person, Elaine and I had to actually get to Leicester. Our trek south was slowed by constant speed restrictions, stopped altogether by a bloody traffic jam, and pleasantly interrupted by a live interview for BBC Radio Leicester, which was conducted on a side road just off the M1 near Denby Dale (I think!). I was slightly stressed when the call came, so hope I came across okay—thanks to Becca and to Ed for taking an interest and allowing me to appear on your programme.
We finally arrived at the school and found the pitch (not muddy and not bumpy), the best part of five hours after we'd left home. There were less than ten minutes remaining, the scoreline was 2-1 in favour of the visitors, and that's how it stayed.
I am indebted to Sarah at the club for helping to arrange for me to meet and be pictured with the two Leicester players and the three from Reading who had been members of the GB Olympic squad. The only problem was that Nicola White and Hannah MacLeod had literally just finished on the losing side in a vital game, and even though they knew I was coming, I'm sure the last thing they wanted to do was stand with some old bloke they'd never met before and smile for a camera.
But they were lovely. They chatted away, and even brought along their medals for me to see—and put round my neck. The medals are surprisingly heavy... a comment that has been aimed at me down the years, and it was so kind of them to set aside their understand-able disappointment and help make the day so memorable.
I then had the chance to talk (and be photographed) with Reading's Alex Danson, Emily Maguire and GB captain Kate Walsh—in fact, that should say Kate Richardson-Walsh (congratulations Kate!). In the picture below, I am wearing Alex's medal, which had emerged from a sock thrown down from the balcony! I will be checking my sock drawer later, I won't find an Olympic medal that's for sure, but I have a feeling my 2004 Great North Run medal might be hidden away in there somewhere....
It might have been only twenty minutes out of nine hours, but it was a pleasure to meet five young women who are amongst the elite in their chosen sport, and who have accomplished so much. Actually, it was a privilege. And was it worth all those hours and miles on the road? Absolutely. Thank you so much Nicola, Hannah, Alex, Emily and Kate.
The journey north was thankfully much quicker, and we got home about half past seven—or wine o'clock as it's more commonly known. And that is basically the story of the longest day and the completion of my thirteenth task. Feel free to leave a comment and, if, after reading this, you would like to read more of my reasons behind supporting the mental health charity Mind, or even make a small donation, please click on the button for my Just Giving page. Thank you!
On re-reading this, I can see that I've said "thank you" quite a few times, but I need to say it once more before I finish: to my wife Elaine, simply the most important person in my life, and without whose love and support none of this would be possible x.
Today marked the completion of the twelfth of my forty challenges, with a first ever visit to any sort of convention. I had no real idea what to expect, apart from a line-up of celebrity guests from various science fiction films and television series (as well as some notable former local football luminaries)—and the likelihood of a fairly lengthy wait before being able to gain access to the Newcastle Arena....
Before setting off, I had read a news report to say that the previous day's attendance—at what was the region's first convention of this size—had been so large that some people had queued for several hours, and others had been unable to get in, even with pre-purchased tickets.
When I arrived, there were queues stretching down both sides of the Arena, those at the front of the respective queues having arrived as early as half past six! Thankfully, once the doors opened, the wait was nowhere as near as long as I'd anticipated, and I went in search of Sophie Aldred, who had played the Doctor Who companion Ace back in the late eighties.
Amongst those sitting waiting patiently for visitors to appear at their respective table were Kenny Baker (R2-D2 in Star Wars) and David Prowse, who was the very embodiment of ruthless intergalactic domination in his guise as Darth Vader, but who had also helped me to learn to cross the road.
Thanks are also due to Tufty...
Hannah Spearitt from Primeval and S Club 7, Indiana Jones stalwart John Rhys-Davies and Torchwood's Kai Owen were amongst the others I recognised, but I soon found the queue to see Sophie—and much to my surprise, I was second from the front.
I had sent a Tweet to Sophie to mention the charity challenge. She'd replied and so hopefully it wasn't a total shock when I introduced myself—and gave her a copy of Desperately Seeking Susan Foreman. Actually it was my last copy, but a few more are now on order... if anyone's interested..?!
We had a brief chat and not only did Sophie pose for a couple of photos, she invited me round to her side of the table, presumably to sample the now legendary Kirby hug. Or maybe not. We couldn't talk for long, because obviously there were plenty of others who wanted to meet Sophie, but she asked me to pop back when it was quieter. So I did... twice!
The second time, we had the chance to talk for about fifteen minutes, and Doctor Who barely got a mention! Given the fact we had never met before, the conversation was fascinating and much more personal that I could have expected (at this point, I'm hoping Sophie would agree!). The fact that Sophie was the only Doctor Who companion attending this event meant that I was meeting her almost by default, but after just a few minutes in her company, I was genuinely thrilled that the companion I met to tick off this challenge was Sophie Aldred—thank you Sophie: it was an absolute pleasure.
At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention all those who turned up to the event in various elaborate costumes—some of which I recognised, whilst others meant absolutely nothing at all. Apparently "cosplay" is all the rage... well it's not in my house, I can assure you, and there's something inherently unnerving about nipping to the toilet and passing Patrick Troughton and an Imperial Stormtrooper on the way to the urinal!
Come to think of it, how does a Stormtrooper..? Actually, it's not really important...
The beautiful, but ill-fated American actress Jean Harlow was born 103 years ago today. Sometime ago, Jean was the subject of my first ever attempt at a biography, and that leads me seamlessly into the fact that my second BearManor Media offering, a look back at the life of another Hollywood actress, Marie Prevost, is in the process of being edited and typeset... and will hopefully see the light of day at some point in the not too distant future.
Although they were born roughly fifteen years apart, Marie and Jean passed away within a few months of each other during 1937, aged 40 and just 26 respectively. The pair worked together professionally just once, and here is a very short excerpt from Desperately Seeking Marie Prevost purely for appetite whetting purposes.
“Marie’s appearance as Dot in the 1932 movie Three Wise Girls saw her perform alongside one of my screen idols: the stunning Jean Harlow.
“Marie is excellent in this film. It’s so sad that she no longer fitted the Hollywood stereotype—let’s be honest, she may have put on a bit of weight, but she was far from being “fat,” and her experience of bringing quality comedy to the big screen was still very much in evidence. So was the difference between supporting roles and top billing, success and failure, really nothing more than a few pounds?
“The final member of this astute triumvirate was Mae Clarke who had previously appeared in The Good Bad Girl, but whose main claim to cinematic fame was arguably having a pre-code grapefruit thrust into her face by James Cagney in what was a strangely uncredited appearance in another Jean Harlow picture, The Public Enemy (in 1931). Sadly though, just as with Cecil B. DeMille’s involvement in The Godless Girl, Jean Harlow’s presence could do little to save Three Wise Girls from bombing at the cinemas.”
Both Marie and Jean died in tragic circumstances, but whilst much has been written about the latter's short but undeniably eventful life, I am unaware of a biography dedicated solely to the Canadian-born actress and hopefully one or two of you will be interested enough to want to learn a little about Marie when the book is eventually published.
That’s for the future though. For now, I just want to say Happy Birthday to the beautiful and talented Jean Harlow.
February was a relatively quiet month from the point of view of completed tasks for my charity challenge. That said plenty of preparation work had been carried out, and with March only into its second day, I can now tick off challenge no.25, thanks to Colin, who runs The Falconry Centre at Kirby Wiske near Thirsk, and a very handsome Golden Eagle called Boris.
I'd carefully studied the weather forecasts in the lead up to what was the Centre's opening weekend of 2014. The five-day forecast suggested Sunday would be fairly bright, but Saturday was likely to be cloudy. We arranged the visit for Sunday, at which point the forecast suddenly swapped round. Saturday morning ended up being glorious, and there was rain in the air as we headed south down the A19.
Actually, strong winds can pose the birds more of a problem if they're flying at relatively low level, but thankfully, although it was overcast when we arrived, the rain had stopped and there wasn't too much of a breeze.
We were shown the Centre's largest birds—including White-tailed, Bald and Golden Eagles. Colin warned us that one or two could get "feisty"—I'll assume it was just a coincidence that they were all females!
We also saw Ringo, the Eurasian Griffon Vulture, just three years old, but weighing 19lbs with a 9' wing span. He was having a bath when we passed, he'd done his first ever public display the previous day and looked justifiably pleased with himself. Colin explained that vulture numbers in parts of Africa are dwindling because of the trade in ivory and rhino horn. Apparently carcasses are being impregnated with poison, so that as soon the birds come to feed, they are essentially doomed—all for the sake of a few pounds (or equivalent currency) for the poachers.
Anyway, Boris was to be the bird with the responsibility of flying onto my hand, which by now was safely encased in a comfortingly thick glove. Boris weighs just over 6lbs, and has a 6' wingspan, and is sixteen years old. Apparently in captivity, the largest birds can live over thirty years... I just thought you might like to know. Colin demonstrated how it should be done, before placing a piece of raw turkey leg in my glove and signalling Boris, who was perched on top of an aviary about fifty yards away.
Boris clearly wasn't impressed—and promptly flew off into the woods, but he returned a minute or so later and before I knew it, he'd landed on my hand and the food was gone. What was interesting is that Boris would actually plan his path to my hand by judging the speed and direction of the breeze. He flew to me twice more, before "posing" for a few photographs.
It was fascinating stuff, and I'm indebted to Colin and everyone at the Falconry Centre (not forgetting Boris, of course) for being so welcoming and for allowing me to complete my eleventh challenge. If you happen to live or find yourself anywhere near Thirsk, here's the link to the Centre's website... the birds of prey are magnificent, and you'll have a fantastic time!
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