This morning I was reminded in the worst way possible about why I’ve devoted 2014 to raising awareness of, and funds for the mental health charity Mind.
The news of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide has come as a real shock, and the tributes that have followed are proof of the affection and respect there was for the man and his work.
Robin Williams suffered from depression.
He was talented, hugely successful, with a loving wife and all the trappings of fame and fortune. Yet he still suffered from depression.
Way back when, Robin Williams was an unknown street entertainer, juggling and telling jokes for whatever change passers-by gave him. He was spotted by the producer of Happy Days, who secured him a one-off appearance as Mork... and the rest as they say...
Obviously the journey from the sidewalks of Los Angeles to movie star comes with a media-fuelled interest in the man behind the performer that can easily escalate into an intrusion. I heard that he would always sidestep questions about his mental health, or launch into a rambling monologue to deflect attention away from the most difficult of subjects, but despite clearly being a troubled man, his passing in such circumstances is still desperately sad.
By 8:30am I had received a phone call from BBC Radio Tees inviting me to take part in a discussion prompted by Williams’ passing. Obviously I was pleased to be asked and happy to be involved, but it’s a slight shame that it takes the death of a “star” for the topic of mental health to become “news”.
However the truth is that for every well-known sufferer, there are any number of ordinary folk struggling to cope with some aspect of their life... or life itself. It’s an often unseen struggle, the most extreme consequences of which will be highlighted on many a front page tomorrow morning, but if there’s a battle to be fought, then it doesn’t have to be fought alone.
There is so much help, advice and treatment available to support anyone suffering from any form of mental illness. The first step is almost certainly the hardest, but if there is a realisation and an element of acceptance that things aren’t right, then finding the courage to talk, or ask for help is that first step.
I would never underestimate just how hard it is to open up to anyone about issues that seem overwhelming, controlling and debilitating. It took me several months before I first spoke to a doctor about my own situation. Close friends and family knew something was wrong, but it wasn’t until I finally accepted that I could not cope that I sought help. I sat down in the chair and before I could say a word I simply broke down. All the anxieties and difficulties that I’d tried so hard to deal with simply poured out, almost uncontrollably; and whilst that might sound embarrassing, it was also the point at which a corner was turned...
Ten years on and I am so much stronger. I am so lucky to be loved by my truly amazing wife Elaine, as well as my wonderful family; and supported by some genuine and inspiring friends. I suppose through my blogs, many know more about me that they would necessarily reveal about themselves, but whilst being open might be enough to make some click the “x” in the corner of the screen, it might just make one person carry on reading because they see something that they recognise in themselves....
Don’t be afraid. It’s okay to ask for help.
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.
During last Thursday’s question time in the House of Lords, the Labour peer Lord Dubs claimed that “the conviction of Stephen Ward is probably the most significant miscarriages of justice in modern British history... It seems to me part of a cover-up that has gone on since 1964.”
That “cover up” concerns documents relating to the case of Ward, a high-profile figure in the Profumo affair, and events which ultimately led to the resignation of Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, and a Tory defeat in the 1964 General Election.
Earlier this month, Mandy Rice-Davies – a former model who lived with Christine Keeler, the young woman at the centre of the Profumo affair – challenged a government assertion that potentially crucial documents concerning Ward’s case “could not be located”. Those documents are apparently in one of six files pertaining to the case, the other five of which are all available to the public.
Some have claimed that Ward was made a scapegoat in the scandal that rocked Parliament. Ward had introduced Keeler to John Profumo, the secretary of state for war: the couple embarked on an affair, before it was revealed that Keeler had also been involved with a Russian spy named Ivanov. Profumo famously lied to parliament, but his political demise was only delayed. Ward, however, was put on trial for living off the earnings of prostitutes, and the society osteopath committed suicide after he was found guilty.
Ms Rice-Davies believes the closed file contains a full transcript of the court proceedings and witness statements given in the lead up to trial, which could perhaps highlight issues with Ward’s conviction. But irrespective of what secrets the file may hold, and whether or not some documents have been mislaid, it looks like the truth may remain hidden until well after all the main protagonists have died.
With the fallout from the affair being felt during 1964, it is curious to note that the actresses who played Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies in the 1989 movie about the scandal... called Scandal were both born in 1964. Whilst Joanne Whalley (left, who portrayed Keeler) will celebrate turning fifty in August, today is her co-star Bridget Fonda’s birthday.
Bridget hasn’t been seen on the big screen for over a decade now, but as I approach my own half century, I just wanted to wish Bridget many happy returns, in the hope she’ll send me a card in June!!!
Today’s offering is concerned with recent I’m A Celebrity evictee Rebecca Adlington, who for the record is the same age as my younger daughter (and coincidentally shares the same name). Alongside Rebecca in the jungle was the beauty queen Amy Willerton, whose physical appearance unsurprisingly aroused a fair amount of media interest, and Rebecca has been quoted as saying she actually experienced feelings of insecurity because of her own looks—I found that so sad to read.
I might not be qualified to write about looks—half my hair is missing, I’m short sighted, deaf in one ear, wonky teeth, three chins, round shoulders, podgy tummy, dodgy hips… but I like to think I’ve got nice feet—and although I don’t live my life in the public eye, I do have an understanding of the damaging effect of anxieties and insecurities. We live in a society that has become almost obsessed with appearance. Magazine covers are adorned with an array of the young, the thin, and the beautiful (of either sex)—undeniably pleasing on the eye, but hardly a reflection of real life. And of course that’s assuming there’s been no airbrushing: even the most attractive aren’t perfect…
But how many of those models and celebrities are judged purely on their external appearance? Amy Willerton is pretty, and it wasn’t pleasant to see how she was bullied by some of her fellow campmates, but she was also selfish enough to hide what was termed “contraband” which could have resulted in food being withdrawn from the group. To put looking good for the cameras ahead of the welfare of others is not an endearing trait.
That said, the programme is designed to create an atmosphere in which personalities and heightened emotions are exposed, and given the way the show is edited, it would be unfair to summarily judge or condemn any of the contestants, but what is clear is that Rebecca Adlington is both genuine and caring—good qualities to have.
Almost all of us fall outside the top nought point something percent of the world’s most beautiful people: being “normal” is… well, “normal”, but Rebecca Adlington is certainly no ordinary young woman. She just happens to be one of the finest athletes this country has produced in recent years. Her dedication, determination, talent and ability to produce her best when it really matters was rewarded with for Olympic medals—two gold and two bronze. The wins in Beijing were brilliant, but such was the pressure of expectation surrounding London 2012, that anything less than gold was ridiculously perceived as a failure in some quarters.
In fact, in a post-race interview, Rebecca’s tearful apology at having let everybody down because she’d “only” won a bronze medal was not only one of the Games’ most emotional moments, it was also an insight into Rebecca’s character… and given the fact that she put the feelings of others ahead of celebrating what was a fantastic achievement probably makes more recent jungle-related events easier to understand.
Quite simply, whatever the future holds for you Rebecca, I just hope the moments of self-doubt soon pass and I wish you well in everything you do—you are a very special young woman.
I’m not sure what both my regular readers think, but I will admit to feeling slightly uncomfortable about the trial of the Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell.
Don’t get me wrong, anyone who has committed crimes such as those of which Mr LeVell was accused deserves everything the British justice system can impose, and whilst I can only assume that the Crown Prosecution Service believed they had grounds to proceed with the charges—they were only on the same balance of probability that Mr Le Vell was later acquitted.
For me, the process must draw into question the strength of a prosecution case, especially for the kind of crime that essentially demands one person’s word against another. To refuse a defendant anonymity —a decision I understand, but with which I’m not sure I totally agree—and attempt a prosecution that is deemed in the public interest is all well and good, but where is the tipping point for the balance of probability?
During the trial, Mr Le Vell’s personal life—his admitted alcoholism and affairs—were laid bare, yet ultimately the jury found him not guilty of all charges: on the balance of probability yes, but not guilty nonetheless. So in the eyes of the Law, no crime has been committed, yet the media vultures were never going to miss the chance to rip away the last scraps of flesh from the carcass of Michael Le Vell’s private life.
But now as one man begins the outwardly daunting task of rebuilding that life (and I'm sure reality will swiftly replace the post-trial euphoria), as well as a shattered reputation, the complainant enjoys the benefit of the anonymity denied to an innocent man—and therein lies my problem.
I’m sure there will be many of you who are far better versed in all matters legal, but to me there seems to be a very thin line between being denied anonymity and a popular presumption of guilt that brings a stigma which even an acquittal cannot totally remove. I would never want to make light of the charges —the alleged crimes were disgusting—but is it really right to retain a secret identity when the legal system has ruled that your accusations could at best not be proven?
Does that anonymity encourage victims to display incredible bravery in revealing the most horrific violations; or can it just as easily offer an avenue for believable fabrications? I certainly don’t have the answers, just concerns...
As ever, with anything related to the Royal Family, public opinion will always be divided. There were those who camped outside the hospital where Kate was due to give birth, just to feel part of such a significant event—I admire their dedication and devotion, but their body odour may have left something to be desired. Equally, there are others who simply shrug their shoulders at the very mention of the Royals, or mutter something involving the words “waste” and “money” (oh, and “of”).
My position is very much closer to the former. I am a staunch supporter of our Royal Family, but I just watch from afar—smelling particularly pleasant in the process.
I was thrilled at Monday’s news of the safe arrival of a baby son for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It is my firm belief that the relevance and future of our Monarchy lies in the hands of William and Kate; they are already outstanding ambassadors for our country, capable of engaging with people from any generation and background. I suppose William and the equally admirable Harry were born into this way of life, and having Diana, Princess of Wales as a mother was always likely to give them an ability to display genuine empathy, but although Kate’s own background was relatively privileged, she has still adapted superbly—outwardly at least—to her new role.
It’s unfair to offer subjective comparison with William and Harry’s late mother, because the Duchess is very much her own person, but I really think that this endearing young woman will make every bit as significant a contribution as Diana and with the next generation of the monarchy assured with the newborn third in line to the throne, I actually feel a sense of comfort, along with happiness at the news.
The only real downside has been the television coverage. Of course a Royal birth is a big story, especially given this particular baby’s destiny, but Monday’s hour-long “specials” on both BBC and ITV were at best unnecessary. There are only so many times you can show the front of a hospital and tell viewers that the presumably proud parents are somewhere inside, or head off for numerous visits to The Old Boot Inn in Kate’s home village of Bucklebury where apparently the champagne was flowing freely—well if it was, it was being drunk from pint glasses.
That said, I watched the programme anyway, but my “switch off” moment did arrive—yesterday morning, in fact—when Kate’s old piano teacher was interviewed and given the chance to perform a song he’d written to commemorate the birth. There is a line you should never cross... and that was it.
For the record, Kate had passed her Grade 3 piano exam, and her Grade 5 theory—which presumably means she failed the practical. Back in the mid-1970s, I passed my Grade 3 trumpet exam—actually I got a “merit”—and although it’s been a while, I have composed a little tune...
On four... one, two, three, f...