Running For Life

On the 25th September 2016 I did something that I have not done for many years.

I took my first steps on the “Couch To 5K” program. I had downloaded the app, selected my vocal coach, you have a choice of celeb voices to listen to and when Michael Johnson says run you run I can assure you! I had not run for a number of years, however, I figured that as a keen cyclist I would have the leg strength and endurance to complete the course. How wrong I could be! On my first outing I couldn’t manage more than a minute without having to stop. Fortunately, the scheme is designed in such a manner that builds up your running strength gradually – walk a minute then jog a minute…. and so on.

It was the aforementioned cycling that prompted the desire to start running. I don’t cycle a great deal in the winter and was looking for something to do to maintain my leg strength in my close season. I had not ran since 2001 when I completed the Great North Run. That was a bad event for me, I had not prepared properly (with the benefit of hindsight) and had started at too quick a pace resulting in me barely being able to jog after 8 miles. I resolved “never again” at that point and indeed my exercise regime was non existent until I discovered cycling.

The couch to 5k scheme worked well for me all the way up until Week 3. Then I got the first of many calf injuries. This is apparently common for inexperienced runners and the trick is to know when you have recovered enough to resume. Something I didn’t master! Long story short, with repetitive injuries it took me 6 months until I could finally manage to jog for 30 minutes without stopping. So what to do for the next challenge? Well I attempted a 10k run in May and couldn’t complete without stopping. That was my limit I figured, so it was back to the bike for me. However, I then got the opportunity to run in The Great North Run for The Anthony Nolan Trust. After much umming and arring I decided to go for it for two very good reasons.

Firstly, The Great North Run is a race that I have previous history with. Prior to my 2001 effort I had completed the event on a number of occasions as a teenager, my pb was a respectable 1 hour 45 min (in 1987 I believe if memory serves) and having grown up in the North East it is a route and region that has a special place in my heart.

Secondly, I have been inspired by the work of Anthony Nolan. I have been introduced to the charity through a family friend who required a bone marrow transplant. The donor was identified through the Anthony Nolan Trust. It costs the trust over £60 to recruit and match every donor. Effectively the cost of saving a life. My wife Sally has recently joined Linton Jazz Band, a band who plays for charity and who are supporting Anthony Nolan this year. The opportunity to contribute to the fund raising was too good to refuse.

So with a goal for the year established I have reluctantly had to forego the bike temporarily. I attempted to carry on but yet another leg injury (this time to my right Achilles, a recurring problem) meant that I was struggling to keep up with both sports. Finally I have got to a stage where I can hopefully do myself justice, running with the aid of ankle supports. So, providing the ankle holds I will be taking part in the Great North Run this Sunday, almost a year since I had taken my first tentative jogging steps.

To sponsor me, follow this link . Thank you.

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Remember.

11th November.

We remember those who have given their lives so that we may have our freedoms. We wear our poppy if we choose to do so, we honour those who have fallen in the most horrific of circumstances and teach our children about the World Wars.

But what actually are we commemorating?

Is it, for example, an act of National pride that we must wear our poppies? Is the poppy, as FIFA would lead us to believe, a political symbol?

Certainly some right wing groups, notably Britain First, have hijacked the poppy in recent years in order to spread their name far and wide on social media seemingly unaware that their brand of extreme Nationalism is precisely what The Fallen have freed us from.

And in 2016 we should remember this more than ever.

The political tone is moving further to the right. In the UK the referendum on whether the UK should remain a part of The European Union was marred by a campaign poster based on a Nazi propaganda film. Newspapers supporting Brexit constantly publish stories blaming migrants for the problems in this country, most notably a newspaper that was publicly in favour of The Third Reich in the 1930’s. Sadly, owing to the drip drip tactics of the media in question it is a wide held belief that there are people who flee persecution in a war torn country, leaving behind all they ever owned, risk the lives of themselves and their families on crossing the Mediterranean Sea on a small raft before crossing the Channel in order to try and jump the queue for their £65 a week. In actual fact it is only the middle classes of countries such as Syria that have the resources to make it this far, the doctors, health workers, the educated, those people who we would welcome in normal times but that doesn’t get reported quite as widely.

The real problem with this is that while extreme Nationalists like Farage and his UKIP followers or Newspapers such as The Daily Mail constantly force their agenda upon the British people they will nudge what is acceptable further each time until their message becomes the new normality. But hatred sells papers. I believe in the freedom of the press, however, we are becoming desensitised to extreme views, to the likes of The Mail, Express and Sun screeching that anyone who is opposed to their Utopian Fascist view of Britain are enemies of the people. We can’t object to the independent press complaints board as it’s chaired by the editor of The Daily Mail. The Sun complains about millionaire “foreigners” forcing their views on Brits without any hint of irony that they are the mouthpiece for a Billionaire Australian who now lives in America for tax reasons.

I live in a country where it is now an insult to call someone liberal.

Well, if believing in Human Rights, investment in education, health care for all, freedom of movement and the judging people on what they can contribute to society rather than their age, gender, ethnic background or any other level of discrimination is an insult then I can take it on the chin. So can many others apparently as the “Stop Funding Hate” campaign is growing rapidly, a campaign that encourages to stop companies advertising in newspapers that make money from their continuous publication of hatred.

We look across the pond to America where the recent Presidential election. Here we also see that extreme right wing views have surfaced. The winner of the election, Billionaire Donald Trump, has mocked the disabled, insulted Muslims and Mexicans, boasted on camera of abusing women, threatened hecklers with physical violence and political opponents with jail. And yet America voted for him. The preferred candidate of the Ku Klux Klan. Sound familiar?

We must remember from history. We must learn that extremism will raise it’s ugly head at times in society when we choose to let it, when we don’t oppose it, when we think our vote doesn’t matter. It is therefore the fault of liberals after all. The fault of those who are disengaged with politics, the fault of those who don’t care. Political opposition needs to be strong in order to check and balance those who wield power. Currently in both Britain and The States we have the weakest oppositions ever.

We remember today the millions who lost their lives in World Wars where extremism was finally defeated and it was vowed that it must never happen again. Now, in 2016, we need to remember this more than ever.

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I’m Backing Britain

I’m backing Britain in the forthcoming European Union referendum.

I’m backing Britain to be the liberal, tolerant country that I’m proud of.

A Britain that is forward thinking, progressive and dynamic.

A Britain that judges people on what they contribute, not where they are born, the colour of their skin, gender, sexuality or any disability.

A Britain where a free press reports with impartiality and challenges those in authority as opposed to a handful of press barons having power over the Government.

A Britain that closes tax havens and is tough on tax evasion rather than paying lip service to the issue

A Britain that supports and protects those who need help rather than labelling them “scroungers”

A Britain that has a welfare system that is fair to all and cannot be taken advantage of

A Britain that offers the same safe harbour to those fleeing war and oppression as our previous generations had provided to those escaping Nazism.

A Britain that accepts that the fallen heroes of our grandparents’ generation died defeating Nazism rather than “Europe”

A Britain that has enjoyed the longest continuous period of peace with other European countries in its existence.

A Britain that learns from history in so much as Nationalism is not the solution and distinguishes between Nationalism and “National Pride”

A Britain that is made all the more interesting by the varied backgrounds of all the people that live in this country.

A Britain that has a strong flourishing economy, based on the contribution of all of the people that live here, an economy that takes strength from trading on a level playing field with our European partners

A Britain with a National Health Service that is the envy of the World but is over stretched due to under investment over successive generations and a country whose population is thankfully living longer owing to a general improvement in National Health rather than just blaming immigrants, without whom the service would not be able to operate.

A Britain whose citizens have the same freedom of movement to work and travel around the Continent as citizens from other European countries.

A Britain whose people have the same rights and protection as other European people.

A Britain that enjoys the same low cost air travel, reduction in mobile phone charges and credit card charges that all European countries benefit from.

A Britain where Nigel Farage goes back to being a golf club bore, Boris Johnson returns to being an affable buffoon on panel shows and they stop poisoning the country with dangerous divisive rhetoric.

A United Kingdom that celebrates all regions of the nation and is a leader in Europe because of its strength and not Little England isolated from the Rest of the World.

 

That is the Britain that I am backing in the referendum, a nation I am proud of. I want MY Britain back.

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On A Journey

Ah, it is time to re-visit the blog. Yet again I have lapsed since I last put my thoughts down on record. I decided to have a quick read of previous posts to remind me why I started doing it in the first place. I tend to write when something pops into my mind  that interests me enough to commit to the internet although from the blog you’d think my thoughts lie predominantly in two areas, Politics and my own well-being. My last blog post was on the eve of the European Elections and I stand by every word I wrote then. More on elections soon I feel in the run up to the UK General Election 2015.

So that leaves my own well being as the current subject of interest. As I mature deep into middle age (currently 45, if I reach 90 I think I’ll be doing well!) I had become unfit, flabby and lazy. Last year was the nadir – by May 2014 I’d ballooned to my heaviest weight ever. Cripes!! I had to do something about it pronto! Over the summer I followed a well being programme at work which was based on a step count system, I stuck to a healthy eating plan (I’ve grown to despise the word “diet” over the years) and I decided to take up cycling once again. By the end of the summer I’d lost almost 3 stones in weight and gained a modicum of fitness, giving me an increased spring in my step and renewed zest.

However, over the long dark cold days of Winter an additional stone had crept back onto me from somewhere. Many factors have contributed to this; a holiday in Italy, birthdays, the Christmas period (which extended over a month), the quality of my home brewed beer and a fair weather easing on the exercise front. I had attempted jogging but I suspect that I was still too heavy and it wasn’t long before a muscle in my calf went twang. January came and went and another couple of pounds sneaked their way onto my body. I had to ensure that the rot stopped there before returning to my Michelin Man physique so I decided to set myself a challenge. It was back on the bike for me and with the encouragement of my loving family and a gentle press ganging of my brother to join in we declared that we would participate in the London to Cambridge bike race on 26th July 2015.

A little family history here. After some research it turns out that my Grandfather’s cousin was rather good on a bike. So much so in fact he was the first Scot to take part in Le Tour De France. I have also been inspired by my cousins in South Africa and Australia who cycle hundreds of miles a month. It must be in the blood! I loved biking to work when I was able to last summer, an activity I’m quite good at and won’t shatter my knees and shins in the same way that running would. However, this is not the sunny climes of the Antipodes but the cold and gloomy late winter of Britain. I don’t intend cycling in the dark, not for fear of seeing but more being seen and so I have to plan a weekend ride to fit around my family’s hectic schedule. I’m blessed as they couldn’t have been more supportive.

The first thing that hit me regarding cycling in a British winter is that hail hurts like hell on cold legs. I survived the icy bullets pebble dashing me and once the shower had passed over and the sun came out I was able to take the time to enjoy the countryside in my little corner of Suffolk. The snowdrops were just peeping through, there were embryonic buds on the trees and despite being soaked to the skin I peddled around a familiar route with a smile on my face. As this was the first outing of the year I kept it at around the 10 mile mark but incorporated one reasonable climb.

Gradually over the following weeks I have built up the distance and intensity of the climbs. There have been some additional challenges thrown at me by the weather, not least the 60 mph gusting wind that was blowing me backwards on one ride, the additional effort required rendered me barely able to walk afterwards. However, as I am getting fitter and stronger I’m also learning to take the conditions in my stride, when to force the pace and when to drop the gears and get through the tough stretch until you can catch your breath again on a down hill.

The race will be a tough challenge but I think I’m now at least in a position where I’m confident that I’m capable of completing it. I have many more miles to put on the clock before the off but it’s not a chore, I’m relishing the open road. This event is not going to be a conclusion to my bike riding, more a stepping stone for me on a journey into increasing my overall fitness levels.

To sponsor Iain and I on our ride from London To Cambridge follow the link here, https://www.justgiving.com/Graeme-Iain-Johnston – all monies raised from the event are going to Breakthrough Breast Cancer, a charity registered in England & Wales (No. 1062636) & Scotland (SC039058). Whilst breast cancer has not affected our family directly many good friends of ours have lost loved ones. Please feel free to donate in memory of someone personal to you.  Thank you.

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You Choose For Europe (But never UKip)

Today the good folk of the UK go to the polls to select who will represent us in the European parliament. This country doesn’t have a great record in voting for Europe (aside from the Eurovision Song Contest of course) and has one of the lower voter turn outs across the continent. This is a worry as the voting method is proportional representation as opposed to the traditionally British election method of first past the post and low turnouts can have a much more significant impact on who actually goes to represent us, the electorate. For example, in the North West region in 2009 the turn out was 31%. Out of that 31%, 8% voted for the extreme far right BNP and their leader, Nick Griffen was duly elected as an MEP for that region. We have to assume that the BNP managed to mobilise all their voters, we can also assume that the vast majority of the 69% of the electorate who didn’t vote would not wish to be represented by someone wish such extreme views. But they chose to leave the voting up to someone else.

And that is the point.

Voting is a choice in this country but it is a privilege that we as a nation appear to have taken for granted over recent times. In history, countless people have lost their lives purely for the chance to vote and many millions of people around the World still do not enjoy the democratic freedom to elect those who purport to lead or represent them in some form or another. We must use the vote wisely, with a well thought out rational as to who we will finally put our cross against inside the polling booth. I have always felt the polling booth to be one of those sacred places in life, one where we go with clear thoughts in our head in regards as to how we as a people select representatives.  For a quiet minute the ballot paper is read, re-read and checked prior to placing a thick well-formed cross in the correct spot. (I still don’t get those who spoil their papers by the way, even as a protest, it isn’t difficult!) The paper is folded neatly and posted, democracy is achieved. We still have to educate those who are new to the process and I see with amusement that on the news today first time voters are being told not to take selfies from within the polling booth.

The other point worth making is that in a way it doesn’t matter who we vote for as long as we actually vote. In the last UK General election 45% of those eligible under 25 years old did not vote whilst for those of retirement age the figure was well over 70%. So what happens? Recent budgets have benefited pensioners. Young people are still struggling to get on the housing ladder. There has been threats to remove their housing benefit and so on. And if we don’t vote we don’t have the right to voice our opinions and to be disappointed with those who eventually were elected.

Which brings me neatly round to UKIP. They are a recent force in British politics led by the carefully cultivated image of a harrumphing pub bore (and former stock broker) Nigel Farage. The sort of person who has a loud voice and drowns out all those who he disagrees with, in turn refusing to listen to anyone with a valid point against him. UKIP are fundamentally a one trick pony with an anti-Europe anti-immigration stand point pandering to the paranoid and playing on stereotypes of certain nations.

In practice, what UKIP and Farage has achieved is to generate the sort of aggressive bigotry not seen in this country since the 1970’s. I don’t like the tone of the debate. I don’t feel comfortable with people making such generalisations based purely on here say and regardless on your views of the European Union I really don’t feel comfortable being represented by those who will do nothing about any of the issues that will arise in the parliament. UKIP are a negative party. They  have no positive policies as far as I can determine and the candidates who will stand to represent UKIP are questionable to say the least. Each day on the run in to the polls there has been one comedic UKIP story where one of them has harrumphed out-of-place and yet the current opinion is that they may get 24% of the vote. What UKIP have been proficient in doing is to mobilise their vote and in a proportional election they may return an increased number of candidates. This would be dreadful for the country and I’m sure the silent majority, those who can’t be bothered to vote would not wish to be represented by UKIP either. But they can’t complain about it.

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Some Comedy Would Be A Relief…

The immediate dust has settled on another epic fund raising telethon which was broadcast to the nation last Friday, 15th March 2013, namely Comic Relief. Now I rather like events such as this and have supported “Relief” in it’s various forms over the years, whether it is Comic or Sport or indeed the BBC annual telethon Children In Need with dancing newsreaders, Pudsey Bear and Sir Terry Wogan persuading us to help others. The umbrella branding of the events is powerful and the main objectives are worthy in the extreme. The community spirit that is encouraged to raise funds to support those less well off than themselves is a tonic to partake in, whether it be at work, school, social club or even a street and there is great strength to be taken from the will of people to join together and support such events. And I wouldn’t dream of belittling the efforts that people go to in order to support these worthwhile causes. But I do have a lot of questions going round my head.

As we are so used to Lenny Henry shouting at us to donate money the reality documentaries have been made harder and harder to watch. Watching a little boy die on screen from something as treatable as malaria is really tough. Having to explain this to my 8 year old son was equally tough. But ultimately rewarding to attempt to teach him a little about how lucky he is and then listening to him say that he wants to donate all his money to help other people. Watching people who have suffered at the hands of others and ultimately overcome their issue was also laudable. There were clear demonstrations of how the money we had raised by doing something funny had gone to help. And this is all rather lovely.

However, some things are just not funny.  Through the years the televised event has had many famous and worthy comedians lending their support but this year the flippancy of some of the remarks made by those presenting were obscene. For example, immediately following a tough watch on domestic violence the next sketch featured the character Mrs Brown hitting someone (albeit off camera) and I suspect the silence of the audience told us all we needed to know – we couldn’t believe what we were watching. Other examples of such crass stupidity involved Jack Whitehall doing a rape gag and David Walliams doing an over long routine about unprotected sex following an HIV film. Was this deliberately timed? To be honest if it was deliberate and designed to be clever it washed right over me. The one thing that was generally absent from the evening was comedy timing. Can we really be encouraged to support the poor by a collection of individuals in cheap suits who usually spend their time being rude selling out arena tours?

The sums raised appear fantastic especially in what is a collective time of hardship for many individuals in this country. We have always been a charitable nation and pride ourselves on it. My son even asked if other countries, especially America, raised money for the poor like we do. I couldn’t answer him as if they do news had not reached me. There have been some £800m raised by Comic Relief since it started. For many the sums have been life changing. Events have moved on from when the movement was founded in 1985.  There was always the ratio of funds being split – two thirds to Africa and one third allocated to UK projects. In Africa there was an immediate need to feed people who were starving through no fault of their own. The projects quickly changed and moved on from sacks of grain being shipped to water supplies, purification and then onto other issues such as further medication, education and illness prevention.

The issues faced are overwhelming and sometimes you feel that no matter how much money you can throw at a problem it is never enough. The Western World owes Africa a great debt given how we have sapped the continent dry of it’s resources both human and natural over the years. There are so many hardships that each country faces and it is gratifying to see that a number of key issues are supported that affect all outside political constraints – striking at the root causes of social injustice and poverty. All this in the face of some of the political horrors that the leaders in Africa subject their people to, the stories of Presidents for life pocketing funds from their respective countries’ GDP are commonplace.

In the UK, which now commands 41% of funding from Comic Relief as Lenny revealed on Friday, we see similar projects being funded. Those that are trapped by poverty, abuse, addiction and generally unable to fend for themselves in society. Society is quite a topic in itself and I refer you to this excellent blog by Fiatpanda. Despite the protestations of our Government, and all the recession doom laden statistics, Britain is not a poor country, far from it. My worry is that more state funding will be withdrawn from such telethon schemes and projects will end up being solely funded by charity because no one else will. In a civilised country, we should be supporting projects such as these through funding from Government. 

This is a country where Police Commissioner Elections cost £100m, where two weeks of sport in 2012 cost  in the region of £9 billion, where we have nuclear weapons and we sell weapons designed to kill to some of the more unstable nations in the World and where we can bail out unscrupulous banks who gamble their money at will. In terms of spare money that British people have we are able to play the National Lottery, another charitable source for projects that don’t require Government funding, and we are able to support football to such an extent that the annual Premiership wage bill is over £1.5 billion. We have more individuals in employment than ever before but we allow the corporate World to disregard the tax laws.

This is a country that has a welfare system developed to cope with the social hardships at the end of the Second World War and is in major need of reforming, where those who genuinely need our help can benefit rather than allowing the system to be abused by those who are able to. With imagination and effort the welfare state can be updated for the needs of the 21st Century. We could afford to support these projects, we could do something about poverty and we could make a change to the people of this country if there was the will to do so. And yet we keep telling the people of Britain that we are all in it together, we keep alienating the poorest in society, taxing bedrooms of those in council houses and blaming addiction on the availability of supermarket lager rather than focussing on the root causes of poverty. Therefore we still have the need for telethons bringing the country together doing a sterling job in raising awareness of our own shortcomings as a nation.

And this isn’t funny at all.

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Spinning The Records?

Last nights telly viewing was built around two deceased disc jockeys, Kenny Everett and Jimmy Savile, the former in a docudrama ( biopic) on his life and the latter exploring allegations into his private life.

The Everett biopic was sandwiched between compilations of his TV sketches. They are a reminder as to what an innovator Everett was, how far ahead of his time he was and indeed how much he understood  a new medium for him in order to take his comedy to another level. His work rarely appears these days sadly and so this timely showcase of sketches perfectly helped frame the main subject of the evening, the biopic entitled “The Best Possible Taste”.

I haven’t always enjoyed the biopic format in the past – some are sensitive to their subject whilst others are over dramatised focusing on a single facet of the character or indeed events are completely made up for effect. I am happy to report that The Best Possible Taste fell into the former category. The drama was beautifully acted, well made but more importantly it embraced the full character of Everett. He had many demons to conquer in his life, many prejudices but ultimately he faced up to them.

The Best Possible Taste was set predominantly around his radio days, revealing the hours he spent alone perfecting his jingles, his sounds and his zany style. It emphasised how different he was to his contemporaries in the BBC and what a fusty organisation it was at the time! The main element of the piece, however,  was the relationship between Ev and Lee, his wife, living in a reality that they had constructed for themselves but was being constantly shaken by the awkwardness of a man coming to terms with his homosexuality in a straight marriage. Ultimately it showed Everett’s own vulnerability and even if you weren’t a fan of his surely you would admire him or even love him after this portrayal. Everyone seemed to in reality.

One memorable scene from the drama was the doorstepping by the press of Everett where he came out as openly gay. He had been building up to this moment for some time, an emotional roller coaster for him certainly as this was a period in which the tabloids were taking an exceptionally close interest in the sexuality of celebrities. My attitude at the time is unchanged today – live and let live, if this is how they lead their life in private and are doing so legally why the fuss? It clearly took courage to come out openly in those days and all due respect to the makers of the show for depicting this struggle so well. It was refreshing to see that the drama didn’t start moralizing over the issue and I am relieved that his long and painful death was not dwelt upon given that his homosexuality and promiscuity led to Everett contracting AIDS. The drama merely concluded with a line in text referring to the courage in which he faced up to his illness prior to his untimely death.

And so to Savile.

The allegations made against him were of sexual abuse and rape of under age girls.

The investigation was a difficult watch for me for a number of reasons. Firstly, my utter abhorrence for the topic of child abuse.  Secondly, I was feeling emotional after watching The Best Possible Taste, but in a good sense. Thirdly, at the time of writing, there is a young girl missing from her family and the whole country is praying for her safe return. However, perhaps against my better judgement, maybe to confront my distaste for the subject, I decided to stick with the show “Exposure” due in part to the publicity it has received in the media in recent days.

Even as a young boy I had mixed feelings about Jimmy Savile. His radio show on a Sunday was a fixture in my family for a number of years, we watched Jim’ll Fix It (my letter never was answered) and  I admired his enormous fund raising efforts for the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. But there was always something of the “creepy uncle” about him and suspicions about him were never far away. Jimmy had cultivated an image of an eccentric loner and I guess that was his smoke screen. He lived the image but kept his private life very much to himself, only allowing the public glimpses of his quirky nature on his own terms. He was well connected and a very powerful media figure of his era. In fact, the phrase “National Treasure” was often used.

Certainly it was very brave of the women who came forward to speak of their experiences. My heart goes out to them, I hope that they find a degree of comfort and closure from speaking so publicly. I can’t pretend to understand their feelings, the years of hurt and injustice they have suffered, I guess no one can unless you have shared the same experiences. I won’t comment further on individual cases – collectively they make a powerful case against Savile.

And there in lies the issue of the programme – there isn’t a case for the defence. The interviews are powerful and moving and indeed the same descriptions were used by more than one subject – I couldn’t help but feeling that were they planted there cleverly by the interviewer at times – but the defendant is no longer around to answer questions. Some of ladies only felt brave enough to talk about the subject after Savile’s death given the hold he had over them from such a young age.  The only defence as such was snippits of Savile denying any paedophilia to Louis Theroux in his incisive documentary made a few years ago. A police investigation into Savile’s assaults was launched in 2007 but was closed through lack of evidence. Other stories have come to light in advance of the broadcast including the threat made by Savile to a journalist that exposing his proclivities would effectively dry up the funds for his various charities, especially Stoke Mandeville,  and no one would want to be responsible for that.

Exposure left you in no doubt that Savile was a nasty bully, a manipulating and devious man and his charitable efforts were a front to the grooming of vulnerable children on an industrial scale On the evidence presented I have no reason to doubt this point of view. The most satisfying conclusion to the documentary is that there is now a new police investigation into Savile’s affairs. This is only right and proper and I hope that would provide further comfort to his victims.  I am much more comfortable with the new police inquiry than I was watching trial by media. Perhaps back in the 80’s any journalist with suspicions about Savile should have gone to the police in the first place. However, the press felt we were all far too worried as to whether other celebrities were gay, weren’t they Kenny?

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What’s A Bramble Worth?

This weekend I threw back the years and done something that I’ve not done in a very long time – I went brambling. I also asked my son if he would care to join me. “Go what?” he said. So we covered the basics. Make sure they are nice and black, make sure they are juicy, don’t bother with any ones that has grubs on them and certainly avoid the ones splattered with bird poo. Once my finest brambling togs had been donned (I selected a loud multi coloured shirt and burgundy trousers on the basis that any juice stains would be unseen) it was straight to the shed to mount our bicycles. Oh yes, we were riding for our brambles. But where to go looking for them? All of a sudden I realised that I had no idea of where the good spots were in town. So, passing some likely bramble spots en route, we headed off to an area of managed wild ground,  a flood defence area that is carefully maintained to grow wild but there were no brambles in sight. At least none that were easily accessible on our side of a stream. We did have a super bike ride however, enjoying the wild life, the scenery and each others company. So where to next? Laddo remembered a prime spot from an Autumn walk we did last year when we lived in a different house. So we decided to check there. Allowing Laddo to make decisions about the day was very important to me. I was impressed with the way he wanted to take charge.

He was right – we struck brambles! I couldn’t help but share his joy as he discovered his first bramble, glistening like a jewel in the hedgerow. “Can I try one Dad?” “Yes, make sure it’s a really ripe one as they are the sweetest” and he was as smitten with the fruit as I was when I was a eight year old boy. The harvest continued at a pace now – we exhausted that particular bush but more than doubled our load as we crossed to the other side of the road. Working as a team we reached the top branches to get the juiciest fruit. My son then said that “this was so much fun! Much better than sitting at home watching telly or playing with lego! And we’ve had a brilliant bike ride too Dad and seen so much nature!” This day was as magic for me as it was for him, especially after that statement.

The next stop for collection was closer to home in Chivers Road, so named as it was once the site of soft fruit fields for the jam company. This provided us with some very rich pickings indeed despite the fact we were probably a week early for the finest fruit this bush had to offer. Some kids walked past us with their Gran, the kids couldn’t believe we were fruit picking, almost as though we were doing something wrong. The Gran said that she remembered doing this as a little girl with her parents to the astonishment of her brood. Without prompting my son offered the kids some of the brambles we had picked for them to taste. Not for the first time that day I was bursting with pride in my son.

Finally back home to turn our bounty into treats. I’d love to take the credit here, but I wont. I handed bramble control to the good lady wife. We opted for a blackberry flapjack recipe as we had everything in the house for with the exception of some caramel. For ease sake I went down to Sainsbury’s for a tin (and to be honest this is the quantity the recipe asked for so she wasn’t going to start boiling sugar up at this stage!) and whilst Laddo and I were hunter gathering for the second time that day I decided to have a quick look on the soft fruit shelves to see how much they were being sold for. £2.00 for a 150g packet. That equates to £13.33 per kilo! And yet we had collected that volume for nothing. Free food! The real value was the father and son time though. Doing something fun together, introducing him to something I did as a lad. For that reason alone a bramble is priceless.

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Antisocial Media

The Internet is a wonderful thing. Quite rightly it’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee was celebrated at the London Olympic opening ceremony for his gift to the world. And what a gift! Can you imagine life without the internet now? Online shopping, online news, information, data, entertainment and the ability for people to interact with each other via an online device – social media.

I absolutely love social media. I love the fact that I have got back in touch with long lost school friends, university chums, family in far flung corners of the globe as well as the joy of making new friends. I have met a fine group of people through my participation in Carry On Film chat forums, people who I have subsequently met in real life and shared many fine times together. I have embraced Facebook, sharing pictures with family, friends and colleagues as well as arranging events and the like. I have been able to keep on top of the ever changing privacy settings and hopefully don’t over abuse the amount of information I share with the World, or at least the couple of hundred folk I interact with. I also have the opportunity to write down my own thoughts in a blog and share them with those who care to have a read here on the pages of Yak Yak Yak! And then there is the micro blogging site, Twitter.

Ah, Twitter. I do love Twitter. The joy of Twitter is the speed at which news can be shared,  a barometer of public opinion, a sounding board to let off steam, a fantastic source of humour, an opportunity to interact with folk and a medium in which those in the public eye can be of an equal footing to those who care to follow them. Twitter has had an important place in World events and the so called Arab Spring of 2011 would certainly not have had the momentum it did without such instant shared news and views.

However, recent events have combined to reveal an anti social side to Twitter and indeed the platform has been the news maker rather than the news breaker.

I am sure there are other examples, but the ones that stand out for me include in no particular order…

A former Big Brother contestant decides that he wants another fifteen minutes of fame.  A little background here – mega famous Take That singer and all round good egg Gary Barlow recently suffered a personal tragedy when his fourth child was still born. What an opportunity for our nonentity to achieve some notoriety. He hits on the strategy of sending abusive tweets to someone who is considerably more famous than himself. That will get him noticed! So amidst the genuine outpouring of grief and sympathy from fans and members of the public alike our fame seeker crassly sends abusive messages and wallows in the limelight he has so carefully cultivated by being abusive. In fact he is seeking employ as a media consultant on the back of this.

Can this guy not see how wrong he is? I genuinely believe he can’t. I doubt for one minute that any employer would wish to hire the services of such a person who has crossed the line in such a bad manner. The guy then comments that he is being cyber bullied!

On the subject of Gary Barlow, it is well worth reading the wonderful blog constructed by comedian Jason Manford.  He goes on to explore the notion of online commentary in some detail and beautifully shreds to pieces those who think it is fair game to comment before engaging brain.

Olympic diver Tom Daley received some abuse regarding his late father whilst competing. As mentioned earlier Twitter is a level playing field, but does this give anyone the right to sink to such levels?

My home town of Haverhill was recently blessed as the home of the Euromillions lottery winner who is now £148 million pounds better off. I am genuinely pleased for the guy and his family. However, a quick search on Twitter on the winners name gives an alarming number of returns of people who go onto the site to do nothing than throw abuse. Singe line comments such as “B*****ds” is one of the more polite offerings. Why do people think this is socially acceptable? Would you do that in the street, to his face? However, one of the better comments spotted did make me smile. The winner is of a bulky stature shall we say, and one observer suggested that there is now a demand for pie shops to be opened in Haverhill. This is clearly a gag without offense being made and brings to mind the recent Twitter Joke Trial which I’m delighted to report that the correct verdict was given.

The next incident that springs to mind was the reported death of Margaret Thatcher. Now, this occurs with some frequency on Twitter. The account that reported it this time was deliberately set up to look like the Sky News site in order to give it some credence. Of course, the news spread rapidly. On closer inspection it was very obvious that it was a hoax attempting to gain publicity and the “news” story was taken down. In it’s place was the advert for whatever programme they were attempting to glorify with the message “Of course Thatcher’s not dead you thick c**** but thanks for all the free publicity you f******!” Fame for fames sake and using the same brainwave as the Big Brother low life.

Finally, Twitter made the news and shaped events in the Kevin Pietersen affair currently ongoing within the England dressing room. Twitter is not the main issue, KP’s ego is of course, but the fact that a well constructed and extremely funny parody account (that England players including KP have interacted with) has managed to have an adverse effect on a national sporting side is a worry. The spoofer has owned up, apologised for his actions and closed the account. It was probably the straw that broke the camels back for the unity of the England team nevertheless. The majority of people I follow on Twitter are linked to cricket in one way or another. It is clear from their tweets that the volume of abuse they receive is dreadful and self proclaimed Twitter champion Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s cricket correspondent, was close to quitting the media following a specific incident. This turned out to be a journalist undertaking a baffling social experiment by attempting to be as controversial as possible. I’m glad Aggers didn’t quit, the medium is so much richer with his contributions.

It is all very well blocking / banning and answering back but it has the effect of increasing the publicity of the toe rags. I am a firm supporter of the notion that we have freedom to speak, to exchange our views without fear of persecution. This is a fundamental pillar of our society and a basic human right. However, there must be some method of starving the online abusers of the oxygen of publicity that they so crave and the appropriate legislation to distinguish online bullying from a bit of banter. I don’t know what the answer is, perhaps it is a question that needs to be addressed to Twitter at large. After all, they know best. Lol

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It’s Good To Be Back…. and Call Me Charlie Roper

A blog can be therapeutic and cathartic for the blogger as well as entertaining, stimulating and informative (hopefully) for the reader. I have enjoyed putting my thoughts down on occasion and it is nice to do so again. Just one of those things that have lapsed a bit over time. As my kids have grown older they become less dependant upon you for immediate needs but their requirements change and time devoted to parenting is still at a premium. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way and enjoy being “Dads Taxi” running them from place to place. Anyway, I sound like I’m making excuses for letting my blog lapse, I guess I am, and if I refer back to the content of some of the blogs I wrote in 2010 I am guilty of letting other good intentions lapse also.

My healthy eating and weight loss regime died a natural death in 2011 and I was back to some old bad habits. We still cook our own food, we are amazing cooks even if I say so myself, we rarely eat junk or anything “processed” – I just eat too much of it, too many “treats” especially at work and far too much bread. And beer. Who would have thought it? Beer fattening? It’s mainly water and hops, which is a natural antibiotic after all. I have also lapsed on any real form of exercise. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d run a half marathon. Even as recently as 2005 I was cycling 6 miles a day. These days I sit in a car, drive to an office where I sit at a desk for the day and drive home again. Then after all the kids stuff I drink beer. I kind of knew I wasn’t doing myself much good but didn’t put it at the top of my personal agenda. I had lapsed into that lifestyle. Throw some really good blow outs of late into the mix and I really wasn’t the epitome of health. My weight has crept up rather than ballooned,  my clothes started getting a little tight.

Then it happened.

After a couple of days of twinges in my chest I got a pain. This pain didn’t go as the previous minor pains did, it stuck. I had a quick check on NHS Direct and it didn’t look good from that perspective. So I made my excuses at work and drove to A&E in Addenbrookes, Cambridge. I declined any offer of a lift or thoughts of a taxi, I don’t know why, perhaps I just wanted to be on my own, to sort myself out, who knows? I didn’t feel particularly ill aside from the pain so thought I could tough it out.

Anyway, got there ok and parked up. I joined the triage queue as a patient soon to be patient behind those with gashed legs and the like. Nothing gets you through the system in A&E faster than a chest pain and as soon as they could find an ECG machine I was wired up to it.  It is really hard to put into words what I was thinking or feeling at the time, I was worried about my family and causing them grief certainly. The ECG results were good. Regular heart beat. No immediate evidence of a heart attack. But was there one in the offing? The nurse didn’t tell me my blood pressure readings but I could tell by the low whistle she gave that it wasn’t good. I was walked through to the next stage of the process and was assigned my own cubicle in the main treatment area. Quick as a flash I was stripped down to a hospital gown, one of the most impractical garments ever designed. I’m stood there with chest pains wondering how the hell to tie the damn thing up without my arse hanging out. I was seen by a doctor who bore a remarkable resemblance to Michael McIntyre. I don’t know if this made things easier or not.

He couldn’t have been more professional. I was immediately reassured. Another BP check. “Wow” said the Doc. An ultrasound and chest X-ray later as well as urine and blood tests confirmed that I hadn’t had any heart attack or aorta inflammation. No infection was present in my lungs. So what exactly was wrong with me? I guessed I had a high BP but was that causing the pain? I felt like Charlie Roper, Sid James’ character from Carry On Doctor. I had seen a couple more specialists at this stage and it was confirmed that I hadn’t any coronary issues but if the BP wasn’t checked soon then I may have. Only then was it revealed to me that it was 228/118. I’m no clinician but even I know that is in the high region. So up to the ward I went.

The nurse took my BP again straight away. “Oh my God, I’ve never seen such a large one as yours!” You couldn’t make it up. I felt rather flattered in a way. She had a credit card sized table indicating what the blood pressure results mean and mine were well of her chart. It was at this point that I looked around the ward I was in. I was in a bay of six beds and the first thing that struck me was that I was the youngest person there by about 30 years. And it hit me. My condition is that of a much older man. I’ve lapsed into this.

My fellow patients were a grumpy lot. There was one poor old boy who kept asking for a self discharge form and said he’d had enough. Trouble is he has a fit every time he stands up. We aren’t talking the sort of fit that comedy genius Jack Douglas used to throw, this was very disconcerting to watch. It went in a cycle – moan and get abusive to the staff, ask to be discharged, stand up, have a fit and then sleep it off. Another was a ringer for Dicky Attenborough and he couldn’t move either. He was grumpy too but all he wanted to do was to go home. I guess everyone did really. I was wired up to the BP machine which wrenched your arm on an hourly basis. Not shifting so time to pop a pill. And gradually it fell below 200.

I did a lot of thinking that night, all very reflective I guess, but most of all in my thoughts was my dear chum Dave who had died of a heart condition getting on for four years ago now. Was the sort of thing that I was experiencing the sort of shit that he went through? The blood pressure thing was starting to make sense now too. It explained the way my head had been feeling on occasion especially at work, the pressure which I had attributed to being bunged up was really my blood circulating around my brain like a pressure cooker coming to steam. The night staff couldn’t be better but fat chance of any sleep with the arm torture machine going hourly, Noddy doing his stuff in the bed opposite and all the thoughts swirling around my head.

Daybreak. Quite literally in fact as my son was appearing on the TV show of the same name in a rent-a-pupil type shot in school whilst a local student was receiving a prize for writing a book in a competition. Sadly I didn’t see the feature that he was on – I was busy putting up with the morning routine in hospital. A second reference to Carry On Doctor here – where Francis Biggar spent his first morning in a ward. It was all so similar. Nothing has changed since 1967! I managed to configure the patientline thing by 7.30 but by then had missed my boy’s claim to fame. (I have subsequently seen it and it was a bit of fun for him!)

The other major thing regarding today is that it happened to be the first Doctors strike in 40 years. Just my ruddy luck! However, I was still critical enough to be seen by a doc, it was only routine stuff they were putting off. The moment was classic, you have all seen it in the films, a senior consultant bursts in surrounded by juniors all making notes. If only he had turned around to one of the trainees and asked “What’s the bleeding time?” and my day would have been made! The upshot of this was positive. I was informed that my chest pain was almost certainly viral but the blood pressure needed urgent attention.

The care was questionable today however. I had been seen by a number of different individuals but they didn’t appear to share their notes. At one stage I was woken up from my post lunch snooze to ask me what time my blood tests were taken. Surely that should be recorded in my notes? They had cocked it up anyway as apparently two files had to go on ice immediately. So had to have another test. I then asked the nurse on duty if I was ready for more paracetamol. Apparently my entire file had gone down to the pharmacy. When I first cut my teeth in the hotel industry the technology existed to send a message from a till to a kitchen telling a chef what a customer wants to eat, you’d think that 20 years later a similar system could be implemented in a hospital!

Finally when my medicine came it was discharge time. The lack of information was staggering. But I didn’t care, I wanted home. To my own bed, my family. I bet that took 10 points off my BP at least. I’m currently having a week of complete detox, no caffeine, no fat,  no booze. Automatically £25 came off the weekly shopping bill! As I write this, two days after discharge, my BP has fallen to 162/102. Still far too high but going in the right direction. I am monitoring it myself at home.

Basically, the key to lowering it is to up my exercise. It’s not so much the diet, but that helps of course, but the exercise. So I have to build a gentle-at-first programme that will start to develop my most important muscle (no sniggering at the back), my heart. And I’d like to encourage fellow couch potatoes to reform too. I’ve had a warning. Not quite a second chance, but a lifestyle warning. I’m only 42, it’s no age to be in an old man’s ward in a hospital. I’m heeding my warning, I hope I have taken a warning shot for others. You may not get one.

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