The women’s hockey World Cup is now at the semi-final stage, but very few people would have predicted the teams that have made it through to the last four.
That said the performances of the Netherlands (the no.1 ranked squad and pre-tournament favourites) have been a class apart from anything else in the competition. 26 goals in three group games, with only two conceded was beyond impressive and their 2-0 success over England last night was far more comprehensive than the scoreline suggested.
England are currently the no.2 side in the world, but their performances in the World Cup suggest they should realistically be ranked several places lower. Alex Danson’s side played reasonably well in patches, and looked defensively solid in the group games, but the attack never really fired, and only averaged a goal a game throughout the tournament.
That is not necessarily a criticism. Winning the gold medal in Rio (as Great Britain) was an amazing achievement, the pinnacle of any athlete’s career; and it is no surprise that the triumph sparked a number of retirements. It would be ridiculous to think that a transitional squad could replicate such success in just two years, but with an Olympic gold medal comes an element of expectation that was always unlikely to be realised … and for all our endeavour, we were outclassed last night.
There are plenty of encouraging signs however, particularly in the defence, where Anna Toman has been the pick of the more recent additions. Sarah Haycroft looks a fine player too, and there are others who will hopefully develop and flourish as the squad prepares for Tokyo – and that is the time when their progress should be judged.
The Netherlands take on Australia for a place in the final … I just can’t see anything but a win for the Dutch.
The other semi-final is intriguing because it features Spain (world ranked 11) against Ireland (16). Spain have done brilliantly to reach this stage, having knocked out Germany in the quarter final – a major shock in a tournament full of surprises. But there is no doubt that Ireland have been the story and the team of this World Cup.
They qualified for the knock-out stages after just two games before a single-goal defeat to England – a result that ironically handed the hosts a much-harder draw - and then upset the odds yet again to defeat India in a penalty shoot-out.
Remember this is a squad that until recently received no central funding and players had to pay for the privilege to represent their country. Their ability, skill (watch Ali Meeke in the shoot-out if you don’t believe me - sublime…), dedication and determination are beyond question, but it is the spirit and attitude they bring to the game that sets them apart from every other side… from the sea of smiling faces singing a rousing rendition of the national anthem through to the wonderful celebrations that greeted Chloe Watkins’s decisive strike.
My head isn’t sure; but the heart says Ireland will beat Spain; and just as I’ve cheered the Ireland netball squad into the world top 20, so I’ll be supporting another totally inspiring group of “girls in green” as they look to create their own piece of sporting history.
This will be the fourth – maybe even the fifth – attempt at writing a blog about how I’m feeling.
It’s really strange because from 2011 (when I first revealed that I suffered with mental health issues), I’ve freely shared my experiences, and talked and written openly about how I have been, and still am affected by a form of chronic depression. Giving away feelings that in some cases I’d kept hidden for decades was so difficult, but I wanted to raise awareness and realistically, it was an unavoidable means towards that particular end.
Since the start of 2014, I have completed 115 “challenges”, as well as writing a book, and there have been times when all the arrangements, preparations, training, typing, driving et al have provided positive distractions from the daily anxieties that occasionally threaten to engulf me.
Equally, there have been moments when the effort (be it mental or physical) has left me drained and vulnerable to a condition that is only too happy to exploit any sign of weakness.
That said these past five years have enabled me to understand more about the way I am … the way I think; and hopefully others will have a greater awareness of something that (in whatever form and to whatever degree) affects one in every four people. Relationships with many of those who mean the most have deepened. I have challenged my lifelong fear of failure, achieved things that I would have assumed were way beyond my capabilities, and met some truly remarkable and inspiring people - some of whom I am now able to call friends…
All of which makes me incredibly fortunate and grateful.
Over the past three months however, I have become much more introspective and increasingly retrospective. It’s something I’m fairly used to, but what started out as a wish to “take a step back” has now developed into an overwhelming need; and the protective shield that I suppose could be called my “work face” has become increasingly difficult to maintain. There doesn’t need to be a reason for how I’m feeling… and I won’t be spending time trying to find one, because I will only waste the emotional energy that I need just to get through each day.
I’ve genuinely done all I can over these past five years to make people aware of the effects of mental illness; and to show that it’s fine to talk or ask for help. I have five “challenges” left; and I’m looking forward to trying to complete them. After that though, there will be no more challenges, no more books … the time will be right to disappear as completely as I can into the actual and metaphorical arms of my family and close friends.
I owe it to myself to fight to stay strong, but I owe it even more to Elaine, the person with whom I am blessed to share my life and who makes a difference every single day.
Time to post before I change my mind again…
Just under two years ago, I wrote about how the Ireland Netball squad had moved up one place in the world rankings from 26 to 25. Over the intervening months, that climb has continued, and now, all the hard work on court and behind the scenes has seen the Ireland squad break into the top twenty for the first time in its history.
It is hard to put into words just what an amazing achievement this is. Netball in Ireland is a minority sport, that is not routinely played in schools (certainly not outside Dublin), and everything the girls have accomplished has been without any central funding or significant sponsorship.
So basically, whenever Ireland travel to take part in the Nations Cup in Singapore, or the annual Euros, the players actually pay for the privilege of representing their country. The commitment extends way beyond the tournaments though – the training, the fitness, the nutrition, the dedication, the determination … all done against the backdrop of full time work, or study, and occasionally even parenthood.
Of course I am biased. I follow teams in a few sports, but this is a very special group of athletes, and the fact that two of them (Katie Walton and Genevieve Slater) are about to taste National Prem 1 for the first time with their club side, Grangetown, adds a strong sense of local pride to what has been achieved across the Irish Sea.
A lot of recent netball coverage has centred on the England Roses, and quite rightly so following their dramatic gold medal performance in the Commonwealth Games; Ireland reaching the top twenty might not make the headlines, but in its own way, this is every bit as inspiring a story … and I can’t wait for the next chapter.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about finishing my challenges to raise mental awareness in December, after what will be five years and hopefully 120 tasks (the total currently stands at 115).
The time and effort - both physical and mental - required to plan, prepare and complete the challenges, along with the travelling (8,000 miles and counting); and not forgetting all the work involved with my book … had left me emotionally drained. I realised that I needed time to reflect, to talk (the very thing I was trying to encourage others to do…), and to regain some strength.
Elaine and I have now had the chance to spend some quality time together, and I do feel refreshed … and totally comfortable with the decision to bring down the curtain on the challenges. Aspects of my life have been put into a clearer perspective and priorities re-evaluated.
Of course I will keep doing what I can to keep raising mental health awareness – the subject remains massively important - but it has to be on a more manageable scale.
It’s no secret that Grangetown Netball Club has become a big part of my life, and I am looking forward to doing more interviews and match reports as the Prem squad prepares for its first ever season in the top division of English club netball.
I’ve had so much support from Head Coach Gel Williams, captain Vicky Rees and many others involved with the club, that I want to try and give a bit more back. So, in addition to all the articles and reports, I’m going to attempt a third – and final – 12-hour solo darts marathon to try and raise funds for a club that is flying the flag for local elite women’s sport.
The venue will be the Cleveland Inn in Normanby; the date will be Saturday 15 September, and the festivities will get underway at 8am.
Obviously, having done two of these events before, I know I can complete 12 hours – although I can barely move by the end – so I’m adding a target to make the day genuinely testing.
At this point you need to bear in mind that I don’t play any kind of competitive darts, I’m not in a team or anything like that; I just have the occasional throw at the board in our conservatory…
I’m setting myself a target of at least 300 scores of 100 and above. I won’t bore you with the calculation, but that roughly equates to a ton or more every seventh throw at the board over the whole 12 hours.
I think I’m going to need to practice!
If I can hit 300 good scores, maybe I can raise £300 as well? Not easy because I am far from a “natural” fundraiser. There are so many people out there doing amazing things for great causes … but I’ll just do what I’ve always tried to do – the best I can.
There’ll be more details nearer the time, but please put the date in your diary, and if you happen to be anywhere near Normanby on 15 September, pop in and keep me company for a while. If watching an old bloke throw darts isn’t exciting enough, Cobbler’s Champagne Bar is next door and the cocktails are amazing!
There haven’t been many occasions over the past five years when two of my challenges to raise mental health awareness were ticked off on the same day; but that’s exactly what happened on my recent visit to Kingston Park.
The initial reason for travelling up to the ground that hosts both Newcastle Falcons (rugby union) and Newcastle Thunder (rugby league) was to attempt to kick a conversion, but when Thunder’s Head Coach Jason Payne offered me the chance to chat to his squad about my experiences and challenges, I was more than happy to accept.
Newcastle Thunder was previously known (in numerous former lives) as Gateshead Thunder, and the club brought rugby league to the north east in an unforgettable summer of thrilling Super League action in 1999. The events that followed that amazing season are well-documented, but the fact that the club still exists is testament to the numerous people over the years who have worked tirelessly to keep north east professional rugby league alive.
Thunder was a massive part of my life when I lived in Gateshead and even though I have moved away, I’m still in touch with numerous fans and former players and always keep up-to-date with results. The club was, is and always will be very special.
The 2018 squad plays in League 1 and is currently mid-table but closing in on the play-off places. Jason was kind enough to let me sit in on the squad’s mid-season review, and whilst it wouldn’t be right to mention anything that was discussed, what I will say is that Thunder has a squad of determined, united and impressive athletes; and it certainly would come as no surprise to see the club continue climbing the table.
I was invited to speak at the end of the meeting; it’s actually quite daunting talking to a group of people you don’t know (Jason and club captain Joe Brown apart), but I was given a positive response (which was much appreciated) and talking to the players provided a brief distraction from my upcoming kicking duties.
After the short talk, a couple of the lads came over to shake my hand and say a few words before we headed out onto the pitch for the second part of the evening.
Place-kicking a rugby ball in 2018 is not the same as it was the last time I slotted over a conversion – I reckon it was somewhere around 1980. Back then the ball had laces, weighed a proverbial ton and you had to dig a divot out of the turf and create a mound on which to place the ball…
No divots these days, especially on Kingston Park’s synthetic pitch; instead the much lighter ball is placed at an appropriate angle on a plastic kicking tee.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well when you’re surrounded by a group of elite athletes, the answer is quite a lot. The first attempt was scuffed, the second drifted wide of the upright … as did the third. The ball was moved closer to the posts, but that didn’t stop the ball from sailing just outside the right-hand post once again. All very reminiscent of Don Fox in the classic 1968 “water splash” Challenge Cup final.
“He’s a poor lad!”
Plenty of encouragement (and understandable laughter) from the players behind me – whose training session I was now shortening – but the next kick was sweetly struck and flew high over the middle of the crossbar. Cheers and applause echoed around the stadium – sort of – and just in case you want to relive the magical moment … here’s the video of the penultimate and belatedly successful kicks.
I want to say a massive thank you to Jason and the whole Newcastle Thunder squad for making me feel so welcome. I’m heading back to Kingston Park next month to watch the team in action – and if anyone wants to book a kicking master class … I’m always available!
At first glance, this is a simply a lovely photograph of a proud-looking elderly gentleman and a young bride on her wedding day, but behind the smiles is a remarkable … and tragic story.
The gentleman is Thomas Liddle; my great great grandfather, and the woman is my grandmother Gertrude Liddle, pictured on the day she married Eric Kirby in August 1934.
This is not just a random family snapshot though; Gertrude was given away by her grandfather, because her father had died when “Gertie” was just nine years of age.
William Liddle was born in Darlington on this very day in 1885, the third oldest of ten children born to Thomas and his wife Annie (née Trotter). He married Gertrude Horton in 1910, and by the time the census was taken the following year, the couple had set up home in a house on Cockerton Green. William was working as a cellarman for a wine and spirit merchant, and my gran was born on 9 March 1911 (she was barely three-weeks old when the enumerator called…).
William and Gertrude had three other children: Vera (in 1914), William (in 1916) and Leslie, the birth of the last-named being recorded during the first half of 1920; yet within months of becoming a father for the fourth time, William had passed away…
One of the causes of death (on 6 September) was given as “phlebitis”, which had resulted in an eight-day stay in hospital. Many years ago, I had heard that his condition may have been as a result of complications following injuries sustained in the First World War, but I wasn’t prepared for the awful truth that was revealed in William’s pension records.
On 1 August 1917, William was in the Belgian town of Poperinge. It was an important rail centre behind the front line, used for distributing supplies and billeting troops, Poperinge had been a target for German long-range artillery, but on 31 July 1917, the town and surrounding areas were bombed by enemy aircraft. The Allies launched an attack on German lines, which marked the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, one of the most controversial and costly offensives of the First World War. The heaviest fighting would be concentrated around the village of Passchendaele; and this is the better-known name of the battle that ended in November 1917, with the combined loss of over half a million lives…
William was injured on the first full day of fighting, and the immediate sense of foreboding came from the title of the first document I found: “Medical Report on an Invalid”…
I’m not sure that the bare statistics – shocking as they are – convey the true horror of war; for me, that comes from reading individual stories or experiences, trying to comprehend how a few words represent a life that has been extinguished or changed forever in the cruellest blinking of a proverbial eye, thinking about the resulting devastation for the family that is left behind … then multiply all that half a million times.
William’s injury – sustained on the first full day of fighting – was described as the “amputation of right arm at shoulder”.
Just six words … with such far-reaching consequences.
The graphic report continues: “… arm amputated on Aug 2nd. Aug 4th gangrene set in in ant[erior] muscle flap. Flap was excised. Sep 22nd excision of head of humerus” (“excise” means to completely remove – in medical terms).
It was difficult to read, and all sorts of images started to flash through my mind. The next section of the report described William as being 5’9” tall, with light blue eyes and light brown hair; information that suddenly made those mental images even more real – especially as the only two pictures I have are creased and stained black and white portraits (and this is one of them).
What I found really surprising is that details of William’s injury (both the cause and extent) were never passed down to subsequent generations. The loss of limb would have been impossible to hide; maybe there was some social stigma, I don’t know, but in my eyes William was a hero.
William was awarded the Victory medal, as well as the 1914-15 Star and British War medal – although it would seem unlikely that these were any great source of comfort for Gertrude (above), who just three years after her husband returned from Belgium was facing life as a 33-year old widow with four children to raise…
It is hard to believe that things could have got any worse for Gertrude, but in August 1923, she had to deal with the loss of her elder son William, who was crushed to death after slipping and falling from the coupling bar of a traction engine that was on its way to the annual Cockerton fair.
He was seven-years old…
I can’t even begin to imagine how you can cope with the death of a husband and child in such traumatic circumstances, but over the decades that followed, Gertrude displayed genuinely humbling courage and selflessness. In her own quiet and dignified way, she devoted her own life to giving her family the best chance she possibly could. Gertrude never remarried – in fact, to the best of my knowledge she never had another relationship – and by the time she passed away in 1983 (aged 96), she had been widowed for almost 63 years.
Gertrude’s slight stature belied her incredible strength and resolve and I am fortunate that she lived long enough for me to visit her, spend time with her, and most importantly remember her.
Everyone’s family history will include stories of remarkable people and events that have helped to shape our own lives. One picture can paint a thousand words – in this case, the image at the top of the page tells (in exactly 1,000 words) the story of two people who weren’t even in the photo.
This blog is dedicated to William and Gertrude Liddle, from your proud great grandson Richard, with much love x
Some eight months after I travelled down to Elstree Studios in Boreham Wood to appear in an episode of The Chase, the final recording was somewhat belatedly transmitted on Tuesday evening.
During the intervening time, any sense of genuine excitement or anticipation had long since disappeared, but as the seemingly interminable wait drew to a close, it was still a decidedly nervous viewer that settled down to watch his fifteen minutes (or so) of proverbial “fame”.
The show is recorded in small chunks with numerous on-set breaks, and a fair amount of recorded interaction is edited out of the final broadcast. So, as well as having forgotten quite a lot of the questions and conversation, I had no idea how the completed episode would be constructed – how I would be portrayed … and perceived.
It is often said that television “adds a few pounds”, so I was at least semi-prepared for the chubby face with the strangely recognisable voice that introduced himself as Richard from Middlesbrough. My fellow contestants were Liz, Ash and Jessica … I’ve stayed in touch with Jess, but that morning in the studio was the first and presumably last time I will meet the other two.
Liz was first to face the Chaser. She did well in her cash builder (£6,000), but then told Bradley Walsh (who is every bit as nice as he appears by the way) that she was quite keen to face Jenny Ryan because she was the “easiest to beat”.
Statistically, the “Vixen” is actually one of the hardest to beat … but much as the mock confrontation might make “good television”, I was cringing inside. Paul Sinha appeared – decent bloke … clever bloke – and duly dispatched his opponent after Liz contrived to throw away a three-step lead when she needed just one more correct answer to progress through to the Final Chase.
Her last question effectively asked about the length of reign of King George III. I happened to know he’d been on the throne for 60 years, and to my slight embarrassment, the camera picked me up mouthing the answer to Ash – after Liz had already given her response I hasten to add. Bradley must have seen (or been told) because as Liz’s fate was revealed, he looked over and said: “You knew that didn’t you, Rich?” and asked me for the dates in question.
“1760 to 1820.”
The face gave away nothing at all, but I was ever so smug inside..!
As Liz exited stage right (or left if you were the Chaser), Bradley introduced me as “King Richard”; and it was time for my cash builder. Interestingly, whilst I clearly remembered the two answers I got wrong (and the one pass), I could only recall a couple of the seven I managed to answer correctly. One was about the 1980s kids’ toy My Little Pony, and I had no memory at all of Bradley asking how I knew something so random….
“My Saturday hobby,” came my reply. Quite funny (well the Brad laughed), but I honestly couldn’t remember saying it.
My approach to both host and Chaser was always going to be totally respectful; and Paul actually had some very kind words as he took his seat. Beforehand, I had decided that I’d go for the higher offer if my cash builder was under £5,000 and stick if it was more. I therefore went for the £7,000, and Paul said I might regret it as I was, in his words, a “very, very good player”. I certainly didn’t see myself that way; I was also very nervous … oh, and a born coward.
I knew the answer to my first question, but nearly pressed the wrong button – firstly because the buttons are really small (like on a computer keyboard); and secondly because my hand was shaking so much. After that, it was basically a string of semi-educated guesses. Luck was certainly on my side as Paul got one wrong that I guessed correctly, but watching the show back, I couldn’t recall what I’d pressed and actually got the question wrong at home!
When I was one from home and four clear … the gift of quality guesswork suddenly deserted me. Within moments, the gap had been halved, but I was absolutely sure I knew the answer to the next question (which was about Dante’s “Divine Comedy”). I was all set to press B … until the third answer appeared and it sounded equally convincing.
Get it wrong, and I would be only one question away from being caught … after being four in front … on national television. I tried to look calm, but my heart was racing.
Bradley laughed after noticing me go to press and sharply pull back. In the end I forced myself to go with my gut instinct (and sadly, it looked like quite a large gut). B was correct, I was “home” and now I would be able to enjoy the full Chase experience. It was a good feeling.
Ash got back with an impressive £8,000 despite confidently stating that Penny Lane (as in The Beatles song) was in London, not Liverpool – there was quite a backlash on Twitter too … all a bit unnecessary, but thankfully it diverted attention away from a particularly poor choice I made to a question about ice cream flavours.
Jess duly boosted the imaginary pot by a further £5,000, and after Ash picked out ping-pong ball “B” (representing a set of questions) from a purple bag, the three of us got ready for the final instalment of the show. If one of us knew an answer, then fine, but our strategy was to go “one, two, press” and then pass or guess at any questions that weren’t immediately obvious, to waste as little time as possible.
The questions felt quite tricky … and the pressure of being against the clock, under lights, in front of television cameras all have a sudden and frustrating effect on your memory. But we got 19 – one short of the nominal target we had set ourselves.
It seemed competitive. The “Sinnerman” thought so too … before rattling off a virtually faultless round that saw us caught with fully 20 seconds remaining.
Paul only got two questions wrong – which we (or rather Ash and Jess) got right, so we couldn’t have done any more. On the day we probably needed another four correct answers (or Liz plus another three answers). Basically, however well we had done (and Paul was generous in victory), we had been hammered; but I’d rather have lost by a distance than been pipped with a second to go.
And that was that. A farewell handshake from Bradley Walsh and the adventure was over. It was a good experience, but too regimented to be totally enjoyable – no chance of any photos … in fact you don’t even get to meet the Chaser. Even on the tightest schedule, it would have taken two minutes to make the day really “special”. Thankfully, courtesy of my laptop’s snipping tool, I now have a couple of pictures to remember my brief foray into the world of television quiz shows … the day I won absolutely nothing, but also the day I was crowned “King Richard”.
all pictures copyright ITV
So much has happened these past few weeks that I’d almost lost track of the number of “challenges” to raise mental health awareness that I’d actually completed; but after a swift recount, I can confirm that as of today, the number is 110.
The 110th task (which took place last Saturday) to receive a tick was “to sing with a band” – a big enough challenge in itself, but something that was also arranged without Elaine’s knowledge so that the event would come as a total surprise…
As has been the case for the majority of the hundred-plus challenges, I had to ask for help. I know it’s that same old reference or link to the first time I sat in front of my GP and tried to explain just how low I was feeling … but it remains every bit as relevant as it did when the very first task was attempted back in January 2014.
On this occasion, I got in touch with Carl Pemberton to ask if he might be willing to get involved. Although we live just a couple of miles apart, we didn’t know each other; but if you thought Carl’s name was familiar…
He was one half of Journey South, who finished third in the X Factor back in 2005 and whose eponymous debut album reached the top of the charts the following year.
As well as running his own studio, Carl now sings and plays guitar in a band called V12; and he kindly agreed to help me get on stage and sing a song at one of their upcoming gigs.
If he’d heard my voice in advance, the answer may have been different, but after choosing a song (“All the Small Things” by Blink 182), I drove down to meet my new “band mates” (Jason and Adam play bass and drums respectively) and Carl’s wife Vic who was in charge of all things managerial and technical.
We had a quick chat about the reasons behind the challenges before a first full run-through of the song. At this point I should say that my singing voice is actually really deep (and incredibly manly … obviously), and I had to sing an octave below Carl. As an 11 year-old, I was in the school choir and had an angelic treble voice to match my equally angelic looks. Sadly (as I’m sure you’ve already guessed) things went badly downhill in both the vocal and facial departments during my teens. My voice hasn’t deteriorated too much over the subsequent decades … oh well; one out of two…
The first attempt went far better than I expected – as did the second – and Carl and I arranged to have one further session a week or so before the actual performance (which was to be at The Fox Inn in Guisborough on 12 May).
Elaine had been at work for that initial rehearsal, but that wouldn’t be the case for the next one. I made up what I thought was a plausible excuse to pop out for an hour, and Carl and I duly recorded an acoustic demo version of the song which would help me practice on the trips to and from work during the week.
Carl reassured me that I was not only in tune, but actually the two different pitches blended together surprisingly well. In fact, he told me twice because I didn’t believe him the first time…
I wasn’t totally convinced the second time if the truth be told!
Anyway, the plan was that Carl would do a bit of an introduction and get me up on stage during the second half of the performance at The Fox. The only problem was that as Elaine was still blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, Vic, the band and I would all have to ignore each other so as not to arouse any suspicion!
Once the evening got underway, V12 sounded fantastic; but with every passing song, I was getting more and more nervous. The biggest of a number of worries was finding the right first note – start in tune, stay in tune; but what was becoming clear was that at full volume, I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to actually hear if I was in tune or not!
Elaine knows me incredibly well and she later admitted that she was wondering why I was wearing a black t-shirt (was it just to look “trendy”?); why I hadn’t gone to say hello to the band (because I’m a sociable chap), and why we hadn’t left at half time (I usually get tired…). However, the possibility that I might actually get up and sing had never crossed her mind.
Carl said a few words, and on hearing my name, all the pennies dropped at the same time. “You’re not…?”
Up on stage, it was just a case of going for it. A short guitar intro, I opened my mouth … and it was Barry White meets Blink 182 – sort of!! As expected I couldn’t hear my voice, but I didn’t sense that I was off-key, and Carl wasn’t giving me any funny looks, so I just decided to do my best and enjoy the next two-and-a-bit minutes.
And I definitely did – even though it all went in a bit of a blur. There weren’t too many in the audience – in fact the whole of Guisborough was really quiet for a Saturday night – but the reaction was great (or so I was told; I actually can’t remember!). As I returned to my seat, the first thing I had to do was to apologise to Elaine for the previous weekend’s white lie; Vic then came and sat down with us, relieved I think that she no longer had to pretend we didn’t know each other!
The gig ended with covers of two U2 songs – far from easy to play or sing, but the guys nailed them … really impressively. Afterwards, it was introductions all round and a chance for a chat and a couple of pictures, before the curtain came down on the briefest of careers as a rock singer.
I honestly can’t say a big enough thank you to Carl, Jason, Adam, and to Vic as well. V12 are a superb band made up of three top-class musicians; they absolutely didn’t have to get involved, but I’m so glad that they did – and it was a memorable experience.
This blog unintentionally coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week, although really this week shouldn’t be any different to the other 51 as far as talking about mental health is concerned. I know how difficult it is to be open about how you feel, and how much courage it can take to ask for help; but I also know what can be achieved if you can find the strength to take that first step.
The 109th of my list of 120 “challenges” to try and raise mental health awareness was “to meet a current or former soap actor”; and latest tick was duly added when I had the chance to spend a few minutes with Cheryl Fergison last night.
As most of you will already know, Cheryl played the role of Heather Trott in Eastenders, a great character, wonderfully brought to life (before her untimely demise courtesy of a photo frame of all things). What some may not realise though is that Cheryl has also appeared in my all-time favourite programme Doctor Who (as Mrs Lloyd in the 2005 episodes “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”). Instant and permanent credibility in my eyes!
Anyway, Cheryl was starring in “Menopause the Musical” at the Billingham Forum; I had been in touch with her agent a few weeks in advance to explain the reasons behind the challenges, and to ask if it might be possible to meet Cheryl after the show. A short while later, I received a lovely message from the lady herself to confirm the time and place…
Totally by chance, I had ordered tickets for the musical on the very day they were released, and in my infinite wisdom, I picket seats A3 and A4 … front row centre. What could possibly go wrong?
Well I had an inkling after my boss from work went to see the show in Doncaster a few weeks earlier. She told me it had been a great night; but where was I sitting, because the nearest bloke to the front was, let’s say, “picked on”.
I checked my tickets again … oh dear.
When we arrived at the theatre, it was glaringly obvious that there was a distinct lack of males – one lady said I was “brave” as I took my seat … another simply smiled that knowing smile…
For the record, the show was amazing. The four ladies on stage, Cheryl, Maureen Nolan, Rebecca Wheatley and Hilary O’Neil were fantastic; there were laughs galore (I laughed even when I didn’t understand what they were talking about…), and their singing, both individually and collectively was superb.
Was I picked on? Oh you bet I was!
My reactions ranged from amusement, via slight embarrassment, to genuine fear … but I sat and took it like a man (not that I had much choice…). Actually, in all seriousness, the interaction actually made the evening even more enjoyable.
A thoroughly deserved standing ovation greeted the end of the show, and Elaine and I made our way to the stage door. The cast were due to leave almost straightaway to head north to their next location (Newcastle upon Tyne), but we arrived just a couple of minutes before Cheryl appeared.
Obviously, there are quite a few “soaps” on television, and by definition a lot of people who have appeared in one (or quite often several), but I’m so glad it was Cheryl who I asked to help me with this particular task. She not only recognised me, but had taken the time to find out about what I was doing – and why – and she could not have been nicer. We were able to have a quick chat and a couple of photos, and Cheryl even encouraged the other audience members gathered by the stage door to find out more about my efforts to raise mental health awareness, which was such a kind thing to do.
So many of the challenges have involved asking someone I didn’t know for some kind of help (just as I did when I first visited my doctor to try and explain that I was struggling…); and it’s amazing how many of those people I’ve approached have been willing to give their time to support someone they’ve never met before. So thank you Cheryl; it was just brilliant to meet you…
As a brief postscript, over the past four-and-a-half years I have been incredibly lucky to meet a number of people like Cheryl who are talented (in their chosen field), generous and inspiring – but until last night, I’d never met one of my teenage crushes before; and on the basis she’s unlikely to ever read this…
I met Maureen Nolan!!
The passage of time hasn’t been all that kind to me, but I have to say that Maureen remains a stunningly attractive woman. It was lovely to briefly meet her, and I’m glad (and relieved) that I kept my composure and didn’t blurt out something totally embarrassing along the lines of: “I fancied you when I was 15…”!
Anyway, 109 challenges down, 11 to go before this five-year adventure draws to a close. There are more plans in the pipeline, but for now … that was the story of the evening when Walford and a series of hot flushes converged on Teesside. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog, and please always remember that it’s fine to talk about mental health … and to ask for help if you’re struggling.
This week saw the completion of my 108th challenge to raise mental health awareness, as well as the official launch of my book, “Today, Just Like Yesterday”.
The challenges will come to a close at the end of the year – and my only (and therefore final) fundraising event will be a skydive in July, which I will undertake on behalf of the Shaw Mind Foundation, the charity which is the parent company of my publisher Trigger. The proceeds from book sales all go back to the charity, which is doing so much to support those suffering from mental health issues.
I’ve never jumped out of a plane that is safely on terra firma, let alone one that is flying at 10,000 feet; the prospect is really scary, but I’ll be strapped to someone who’s done this kind of thing loads of times before - and he apparently brings a parachute with him too … which is reassuring.
Anyway, this most recent “challenge” was to visit six County Cricket grounds (nominally Durham, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire) in as short a time as possible. I’d be planning the “road trip” since December and, with a week to go, five of the six counties were fully supportive of the event … the sixth (am I allowed to say it was Yorkshire?) had said it would simply not be possible to come into the ground and take a photo on a match day– although a space on the pavement outside the ground would be available.
It was a situation I accepted (I was delighted to have received five positive responses), but a friend from work - a long-time member of the county in question - was far from impressed; and a couple of phone calls and e-mails later, the decision was, shall we say, “reconsidered”.
Notwithstanding parking at, and gaining entry into, the grounds on the day, the two biggest worries were the vagaries of the British weather and traffic. The forecast was reasonably encouraging, but it was still quite chilly as Elaine and I headed north to ground no.1 – The Riverside in Chester le Street.
I had played at the ground 20 years earlier, for Chester le Street against Durham’s Academy side. I remember we lost the game, I took one for plenty, but enjoyed a very relaxing bath afterwards. There weren’t many grounds that had baths as well as showers, but this one was individual rather than communal, and all the better for it.
The arena has changed considerably over the intervening two decades; and it is as much a great stage for a test cricketer now, as it was for a humble club player back then.
Only 15 minutes had been allocated for each stop; time for a couple of photos, a comfort break, then straight back on the road. The next stop was Headingley, the second of the three test arenas on the journey. I had played there too, sometime around 1980, but much as The Riverside has developed, Headingley is now unrecognisable from the ground that had witnessed that incredible Ashes test back in ’81.
Durham’s four-day championship game had lasted less than two; and Yorkshire were only two wickets away from defeating Notts when we arrived. That meant that entry was free for anyone wanting to watch the Yorkshire bowling attack deliver the final coups de grace … a fact that rendered the previous e-mail and phone various exchanges essentially meaningless. We strolled into the ground, and a couple of clicks later strolled back out, and set off for Derby.
Ground number three was quite exposed, but had a nice feel about it; the stewards were particularly helpful, and halfway through the trip, things were going better than expected. There had been no problems on the roads, and we were almost an hour ahead of schedule as we trundled along Brian Clough Way towards Nottingham.
Trent Bridge was the highlight of the day. Nottinghamshire had succumbed to Ben Coad up in Leeds, so there was no game on at Trent Bridge; but it is undeniably a superb setting. The outfield looked immaculate, and for the first time in many years, I almost missed the weekly ritual of taking to the cricket field, occasionally taking a wicket or two, but far more frequently being dispatched to all parts…
Matt Halfpenny, the club’s Media and Communications manager, was kind enough to show us into the Long Room and take us out into the ground for a couple of photos and a brief, recorded chat, which he later turned into a really positive article on the county’s website.
We made it to Leicester Forest East services before doing a short interview with Dean Jackson of BBC Radio Nottingham. The scheduled ten minutes was cut to four courtesy of the far more newsworthy arrival of the Royal baby, but I was so grateful to Dean and his producer Hansa, as well as Matt at Trent Bridge for making the Nottinghamshire leg of the journey so memorable.
The fifth port of call was Grace Road, home of Leicestershire, the county that my father had captained back in 1962. Perhaps naively, I was hoping to get some sense of what it would have been like to watch Dad lead out his side onto the field all those years ago, but sadly it didn’t happen. I didn’t even see the tractor whose engine would be started as soon as perennial no.11 Brian Boshier strolled out to the crease…
Five down, one to go; and Northamptonshire’s game had also concluded earlier in the day meaning the pleasant, modern-looking ground was almost deserted by the time we arrived. A few final clicks of the shutter and the challenge was complete.
Six grounds, 300 miles, eight and three-quarter hours … all designed to raise mental health awareness and show that it is fine (in whatever circumstances) to ask for help. I’m extremely grateful to everyone from the various counties who was willing to support the trip, and particularly to my beloved navigator Elaine, who did a sterling job in getting us from A to B … C, D, E and F.
And that’s just about it really; next on the list … to meet a current or former soap actor, which is planned for 9 May … blog and photo (as always) to follow.