From a small selection of gold baubles; to tartan dachshunds, skateboarding Jack Skellingtons, and knitted Santas. What 26 years of family life will do to your Christmas tree decoration collection.

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We got married just before Christmas 1988. The reception was to be at our flat, so we wanted a IMG_1346Christmas tree to give it a suitably festive feel. We went to John Lewis (as about-to-be-married couples do), to buy the decorations, and I remember spending what seemed like an inordinate amount of money on probably three-dozen tasteful, gold-coloured glass baubles.

Twenty-six years on, a few of them still survive.

Over the years, however, they have been joined by an increasingly eclectic, mishmash of decorations, each of which has some special significance, and a particular memory attached to it.

I’ve now come to think of our tree decorations as a metaphor for the trajectory of married life. You start out, assuming you know what to expect: confident that your future will be happy, ordered, and largely within your control – as reflected in the choice of the tasteful, if faintly dull, matching baubles. You end up – after more than a quarter century of ups, downs, joys, sorrows (including bereavement and serious illness) – recognising that it was never going to be like that. You also discover that, far from being something to be regretted, the chaos and unpredictability of family life is cause for celebration – hence the fairly bonkers collection of ornaments we are proud to display each Christmas.

IMG_1295Our sons are now both six-foot plus, but the tree tells the tale of their smaller selves. There are festive plastic shapes bought from the Early Learning Centre, painted with more enthusiasm than talent when they were toddlers (and not much enthusiasm either, if I’m honest). There are umpteen Tiggers (both Disney and AA Milne versions); and many a superhero: batman with the Joker’s head as a Jack-in-a-box; Superman carrying a sack of presents. There are cartoon characters like an ice-fishing Taz: each of these figures is a mini work of art and irreplaceable.

There is a Santa and a snowman, knitted long ago by my mother-in-law for the grandsons that she is no longer capable of recognising. There are characters from Harry Potter, but less because we are fans of JK Rowling, and more because my late father-in-law’s name was Harold Potter.

There is a misshapen clay star covered with glitter, made by one of our sons at nursery (I can’t remember which); and a perfect, vivid green silk star, bought in memory of a new-born baby girl (whose name meant ‘emerald’), who survived just two hours.

IMG_1347 There are Christmas robots (me neither…); and Oogie Boogie, the bogeyman from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. In the film, Oogie is made of a sack filled with maggots, but our version is just plastic.

We have a Santa on a gondola, bought on a trip by the four of us to Venice marking our 20th wedding anniversary (we’d also been there on honeymoon, but would never have bought such a thing back then). There is a cheesy Statue of Liberty, bought the year we all went to New York; and a wooden reindeer from a trip to Lapland. Ironically, the sub-standard Santa – supposedly the highlight of the trip – couldn’t actually name a single one of his own reindeer when asked.

There are various breeds of dogs; some (I confess) sitting in sparkly stiletto shoes. The most numerous are dachshunds, in honour of our mini dachs, Flash, who is only just marginally too big to hang on the tree himself.

One of the biggest ornaments that we do manage to fit on the tree is a foot-long, glass and pointed. I think it is meant to be an icicle, but it reminds me more of a dagger, although that might be because it was a present from a friend who was in the middle of an unhappy split from her much-loved husband at the time.

There is a brace of baubles in the shape of Arsenal shirts – which were an absolute bargain, reduced to under half price in the Arsenal shop; and also ones to mark the 2012 Olympics, an event which showed the city where our children have been privileged to grow up at its absolute best.

London is also where we as a family have made some of our most stalwart and loyal friends. This year, we lost one of the staunchest of these; someone special to each of us, that our sons have known and loved and seen regularly all their lives. Her death left us all reeling, united in grief and incomprehension.

It is only a tiny act of remembrance, but we were all cheered to discover the glassware design company she worked for all the time we knew her, makes Christmas decorations. This year and every year from now on, we will hang an elegant engraved glass snowflake in her memory.

It seems a fitting tribute.

However brilliant the lawyer or enlightened the judges, the law can only develop if there are brave souls like ‘Mr and Mrs E,’ prepared to put themselves through the mill of the legal process

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It was supposed to have been a day of celebration.

Three years earlier, ‘HL’, a 48-year-old man with autism and learning difficulties, had come to live with a foster family. Despite having spent 32 years in institutions, he had adapted quickly to family life and had made remarkable progress.

Cheers! This year 'HL' (pictured) celebrated 20 years with his foster family and 10 years since the European Court ruling

Cheers! This year ‘HL’ (pictured) celebrated 20 years with his foster family and 10 years since the European Court ruling

‘He was off all medication and doing amazingly well,’ says Mrs E, one half of the married couple that cared for him. The health authority agreed the placement had been a success, and announced that it wanted to formally discharge HL from its care.

It was just the news that Mrs E and her husband had been hoping for. (Neither they, nor HL can be identified for legal reasons.) ‘He was part of the family by then, very popular with our three sons and the wider family,’ she says. While HL went off to the day centre, the pair went shopping for the party they were planning that evening to celebrate the arrangement being made permanent.

When they got back, they had a phone call with shocking news. HL had become distressed at the day centre after a mix up with the transport arrangements; when Mr and Mrs E couldn’t be contacted, he had been admitted to a hospital severe behavioural unit.

Not only was there to be no party for HL, Mr and Mrs E were not even to visit him. ‘We had to take him some clothes, but had to leave them at the entrance. They said we weren’t allowed to see him because it might upset him and he might want to leave with us,’ says Mrs E. It was to be several months before they would even set eyes on him again.

Mr and Mrs E had fostered HL after answering an ad in the paper seeking carers. ‘We just wanted to do something nice for somebody, now our boys were growing up.’ says Mrs E. They were to discover that in order to continue doing something nice for HL, they would first have to take on the entire UK legal system.

The 1997 ‘Bournewood gap’ case, as it came to be known, highlighted a loophole in the existing law, and the lack of protections for those like HL without mental capacity, who had been informally admitted to hospital and held in conditions amounting to detention. During a period of five months, the case wound its way through the high court, appeal court and House of Lords. At one point they even thought of contacting publicist Max Clifford, although are now glad they didn’t. They lost at every stage, and when they did eventually see HL again, he was barely recognisable. ‘I couldn’t believe it was him. He was covered in blood, where he had self-harmed, and had lost so much weight,’ says Mrs E. Eventually, and despite the courts ruling against them, HL was allowed to return to their care. Mrs E says: ‘When we gave him his coat to put on and said it’s time to go home, he was out in the car park before we could keep up with him.’

In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights was asked to rule on whether HL had been unlawfully detained by the hospital. The court agreed that he had, and that his human rights had been breached. It also called for UK law to be amended to fill the gap that HL’s case had identified, and for the creation of a legal mechanism for challenging the informal detention of someone without mental capacity. The ruling led directly to the introduction in 2009 of the deprivation of liberty safeguards (by way of an amendment to the Mental Capacity Act).

The DoL safeguards are far from perfect (of which more later), but they are an important recognition of the need to protect the rights of what one local authority director of social care calls ‘the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable’.

It was thanks to the safeguards that Mark Neary was able to get his son, Steven, out of the hospital where Hillingdon council said he should live, and back home with his dad. It was thanks to DoLS that a man who had been uprooted from the city where he’d lived all his life and stuck in a rural care home, was able to be moved back closer to his three daughters. His solicitor Nicola Mackintosh, who specialises in mental capacity cases, says: ‘He was really distressed. The DoLS best interests assessor came in and said, we have to get him a place in the city. The local authority said no. It’s in his best interests to be where he is.’ After two years during which the local authority ‘fought tooth and nail to keep him,’ Mackintosh finally succeeded in getting him back. ‘He is now much, much happier,’ she says.

Under DoLS, if a hospital or care home wants to deprive a patient of their liberty by restricting where they can go or what they can do, it has to apply to the local authority for approval. (A similar process applies where people are deprived of their liberty in their own homes, albeit with these decisions being overseen by the Court of Protection.) The patient has the right to have someone speak on their behalf, and to have their best interests taken into account. Restrictions must be the minimum needed to keep them safe from harm; must be regularly reviewed; and subject to appeal to the Court of Protection (which is what happened in the Neary case).

Most observers agree that the DoLS system is unnecessarily bureaucratic and lacks independence. The Law Commission has been asked to review its workings, after a critical report by a House of Lords select committee, in March this year. However, for all their failings, the safeguards introduced as a result of HL’s case will have made an immeasurable difference to the quality of life of many, many vulnerable people. Roger Hargreaves, a former mental health social worker, who leads on DoLS issues for the Mental Health Alliance, says the system needs overhauling, but adds: ‘There is a lot of good work being done. Care plans have been amended and people have been allowed home.’ Mr E says: ‘What happened to us just couldn’t happen now. Then, it was just a clinical decision by the doctor to keep him there.’

Nicola Mackintosh knows of patients who hadn’t been outside their care home in nine months, who are now taken out on a regular basis. Sophy Miles, the solicitor who acted for Steven Neary and chairs the Law Society mental health committee, points out that even a small change to a care plan can make the world of difference. She cites the example of a woman who was barred from entering the kitchen, to stop her getting hold of knives. After her case was assessed, her DoLS authorisation specified that the knife drawer should be kept locked. “So she was free to go into the kitchen if she wanted to get a biscuit or something,” says Miles.

Mr and Mrs E are by no means alone in winning significant legal changes by their willingness to put their heads above the parapet. There would have been no second Hillsborough inquest had it not been for the tenacity of Anne Williams, whose 15 year old son Kevin died in the 1989 disaster. In 2013, a remarkably brave young man, Hughes Chang, brought a judicial review which has led to better protections for all of the 75,000 17 year olds who are arrested each year.

The doyenne of courageous clients must, of course, be Doreen Lawrence, whose battle on behalf of her son, Stephen, led to sweeping legal and social reforms. I have written before on this blog of my admiration for Doreen, whose bravery and doggedness, has rightly been well recognised. By contrast, legal restrictions to protect HL’s anonymity mean Mr and Mrs E cannot even be identified, let alone feted (they sign off their emails with a cheery: ‘Yours anonymously, Mr & Mrs E!’). For them, there is no prospect of a seat in the House of Lords, or opportunity to carry the Olympic flag; no chance to be photographed alongside Emma Thompson and Annie Lennox in an advertising campaign for Marks & Spencer.

What also sets them apart is that Mr and Mrs E weren’t seeking justice for themselves or for a family member, but rather for a man they were being paid to foster, and who was no relation to them. Mrs E says: ‘If it was any other form of employment, you’d just walk away from it, but we couldn’t do that. We just wanted to get him back where he belonged and where he wanted to be.’

Seventeen years on, they continue to campaign on the issue, and provide support to others who find themselves battling local authority intransigence. Just recently, they heard from the wife of a dementia patient in his 80s, who was excluded from the DoLS decision-making process on safeguarding grounds. ‘He wanted to go home, but the local authority said the fact she called him “naughty boy” meant she was a danger to him.’ They were also contacted by a son was told he couldn’t bring his father home, because there was a cooker in his kitchen.

This year saw a number of significant milestones for HL. It is 20 years since he came to live with Mr and Mrs E, 10 years since the European court ruling, and his 65th birthday. Unsurprisingly, they threw a big party for him, which he did actually get to attend this time. The event was a great success and well attended. Mrs E says: ‘I thought to myself, if anyone tried to take him away again, there’s 40 people in this room who would vouch for him.’


Home Secretary: time to change your record on keeping arrested 17 year olds safe

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IMG_1240For my 17th birthday, my boyfriend gave me a single by punk band the Lurkers. My suspicion then (and now), was that he’d bought it for himself; had belatedly realised he couldn’t pitch up empty-handed on his (still relatively new) girlfriend’s birthday, and so gave it to me instead. It was still in the bag. I don’t remember if there was a card.

My 17th was also the day I had my provisional driving licence. That morning, I went with my mum in her red Opel Kadett to a quiet bit of road near the river to have my first go at driving. After several minutes of kangaroo starts, stalling, and yelling at each other, we gave up, and my mum drove us home again. (In fact, it was said boyfriend, who deserves much of the credit for teaching me to drive.)

Seventeen is a strange age. Still at school, but very much focused on life beyond school. On the brink of adulthood, but reminded daily you are not quite there yet. Able to take on the huge responsibility of driving a car, but not trusted to vote.

It can be an equally strange time for parents. Your child still lives at home, but probably spends less and less time there. They remain financially dependent on you (through no fault of their own), but are becoming increasingly independent from you in other ways. They may be taller and more streetwise than you, but remain your legal responsibility.

Recent social and educational changes have reinforced the message that 17 year olds are more child than adult. Not just the raising of the school leaving age (many of my friends left school and started their first job at 16), but also the advent of AS levels. The introduction of these exams, taken at 17, will only have encouraged parents (and schools) to grant children this age less autonomy than they otherwise might. Gone are the days when the first year of sixth form didn’t really count for much, so the lower sixth passed largely under the school radar. Now, the academic performance of 17 year olds is treated as a matter of great import, requiring intense oversight by parents and teachers, alike.

Once a child turns 17, they no longer receive all the protections in the police station given to younger children

Once a child turns 17, they no longer receive all the protections in the police station given to younger children

Whereas we’d been getting served in pubs from about 14, the age limit in pubs is now much more strictly enforced, which also makes the divide between 17 and 18 more significant. A friend’s daughter, the oldest in her year, bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t go clubbing to celebrate her 18th, because none of her friends were yet old enough to get in. (An offer from her dad to accompany her, was met with the disdain it deserved.) There was none of this ‘Challenge 25’ malarkey in my day; more of a ‘Don’t ask; don’t tell,’ approach by publicans. (There were no alcopops, either, and as no one could afford more than about one bottle of pilsner lager all evening, no great harm was done.)

No one quite knows what to make of 17 year olds: they’re neither fish nor fowl; not fitting easily into either camp.

When Socialist Worker wrote gleefully recently about the terrible death of Horatio Chapple (‘Eton by bear? The inquest begins’), it provoked outrage. How could anyone find the violent and terrifying death of a schoolchild an occasion for mirth and bad puns? I suspect it was the fact Horatio was 17, which made him fair game for this kind of (ironically) juvenile bile. If it had been an equally posh 16 year old who had been killed by that polar bear, I imagine decency might have prevailed, even among armchair class warriors.

While some confusion over the adult/child status of 17 year olds may be understandable (necessary, even, for the parents and teens, themselves), it seems less understandable for the law to share that ambivalence. If the law in question relates to the way 17 year olds are treated in that most adult of environments, the police station, it seems entirely inexcusable.

Yet legal confusion and inconsistency over the status of 17 year olds in the police station remains – and has now been linked to three deaths in three years.

Legal confusion remains despite a successful high court challenge (HC v Home Secretary) brought last year by the charity Just for Kids Law. It remains despite the judge saying the case showed just how vulnerable arrested 17 year olds can be, and how much in need of adult support.

It remains despite the subsequent assurances given by Home Secretary Theresa May that she would review all the legal loopholes which allow 17 year olds to be treated as adults in the police station. It remains despite the UK’s very clear obligations under the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child, to treat all under 18s as children.

Most damning of all, it remains, despite the third suicide of a 17 year old, who had not received all the protections that would have been given to an arrested 16 year old.

The deaths of these three 17 year olds were unrelated, but the families of Kesia Leatherbarrow (6 March 1996-3 December 2013); Joe Lawton (9 January 1995-11 August 2012) and Eddie Thornber (17 December 1993-14 September 2011), all believe that if their children had been given appropriate support after arrest, they would not have died.

It is to Theresa May’s great shame that she opposed the legal action last April, arguing for the status quo. It is to her shame that she did this, despite knowing that Eddie and Joe’s deaths had been linked to the loophole which meant their parents weren’t informed of their arrests. It is equally to her shame that, after losing the case, she paid only lip service to the judge’s ruling, making limited changes, and leaving the anomaly which allowed Kesia to be held for two nights and three days in the police station. If Kesia had been 16, rather than spending the whole weekend in a police cell, she could have been moved to local authority care, where trained staff would have been available to look after her welfare.

May’s stance towards 17 year olds is in stark contrast to that of her counterpart at the Ministry of Justice, who seems clear that they are still only children. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling recently announced that 15-17 year olds in young offender institutions will have to be tucked up in bed with the lights out by 10.30pm, or face punishment..

Yet, as the new policing minister Michael Penning recently confirmed, the government doesn’t even bother to collect centralised figures on the number of 17 year olds who are arrested, and so may be at risk. Infantalising 17 year olds is fine, it seems, if it’s punitive, but not if it’s in the interest of protecting their welfare

Eddie was a former head boy and keen sportsman; Joe was bright and ambitious; Kesia was a troubled soul, with a history of depression and self harm. What their tragic deaths show is that all arrested 17 year olds, regardless of their situation or previous mental state, need proper protections. Thrust into the alien, isolating environment of a police station, even the most confident among them is likely to be vulnerable, in a way that someone even just a little older, with more experience of life beyond home and school, may not be.

The three bereaved families recently wrote jointly to Theresa May, calling on her to act. ‘We do not want to meet another family whose lives have been devastated by the failure in the law to comply with its duties to children. None of us wants to see another family suffer as we are.’

Nothing will ever take away these parents’ suffering over the loss of their beloved children, but if the Home Secretary were to heed their call for change, it really would be music to their ears.

Fiona is working with Just for Kids Law on its #stillachildat17 campaign, to force the Home Secretary to close all the remaining legal loopholes, which allow 17 year olds to be treated as adults in the police station.




Maybe it’s because I’m (not originally) a Londoner…


Londoners showing characteristic insouciance   & ignoring 40 foot tall spider...

Londoners showing characteristic insouciance by ignoring 40 foot tall spider on South Bank…

Not so long ago, late one evening, a man who lives on our street in north London hammered on the front door. It was my 18-year-old son who heard him and opened it. Rather breathlessly, the man – whom my son didn’t recognise  – explained he had nearly been mugged and had headed for the nearest front door to get away from his would-be assailants.

After waiting a few minutes in our hall, it appeared the muggers had disappeared, so he went on his way.

The next night, he came back. This time, he was carrying a bottle of red wine, by way of thanks for the previous night. My son opened the door again, gratefully accepted the wine, and they had a bit of a chat. It didn’t occur to him to ask the man’s name or which number he lived at on our (not very long) street.

For me, this episode (the attempted mugging bit aside, obviously) encapsulates everything I love about my adoptive home town (of which more, later).

One in three  22-30 year-olds who move city move to the capital

One in three 22-30 year-olds who move city move to the capital

There was a moment when, as a fairly disaffected teen living at home in Reading, Berkshire, I realised the only place I ever wanted to live was London. It wasn’t the sights, or the shops, or even the fact that so many of the punk bands we wanted to see played here. It was the green Mohican. I was on a busy bus heading back to Paddington station, when a youth, in full punk regalia and foot-high green plumage, got on – and no one took the slightest bit of notice of him. Not one eyelid was batted. This, I remember thinking, is the place for me. Not because I wanted green spiky hair, but because I wanted to live somewhere no one would care if I did. Having seen my mum tell my sister to move out after she came home with an afro perm (for fear of what the neighbours would say), it felt like liberation.

In Reading in those days, anyone outlandish or unconventional would get stares at best, a good kicking from the New Town Boys at worst. The NTB were local hard nuts, who lived around Cemetery Junction – the area featured in the Ricky Gervais film of the same name (although the filmatic version bears no resemblance…). A bit like skins, with crombies and DMs but longer hair, the NTB thought it only their duty to beat non-conformity out of anyone they happened upon.

In London, I was delighted to discover, even the most ludicrous hairstyle wasn’t enough to warrant a second glance, let alone a punch in the face.

It may be that places like Reading have changed in the last 30 years, but perhaps not as much as you might think.

When I was growing up, an elderly man who lived two doors down, put up a sign in his front garden berating the man opposite for regularly parking his car outside his house. On a public road. Not blocking his drive way, or anything. Just parked outside, entirely legally. It probably didn’t help our neighbour’s temper that the family opposite were Asian – still a rarity in that area at the time.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the close where my mum now lives, when one of her neighbours came out to say I couldn’t park directly opposite his drive. I was more amused than annoyed (displaying characteristic Londoner tolerance); explained I hadn’t realised he owned the road, and meekly parked elsewhere. (In fairness, he did have the good grace to apologise to my mum subsequently for being a bit of a prat.)

So what is it about the doorstep incident that cheers me so much?

I love the fact that that the man knew he could call at our door for help, even though he didn’t know us from Adam (or vice versa). I love it that my otherwise streetwise son’s instinct was to open the door to someone in apparent distress. Although not unaware it might be a scam (and we have had plenty of those…), the desire to help overrode other worries. I love it that the man was sweet enough to bring wine, and the fact he went out to buy it the next night, rather than sitting at home worrying about getting mugged again. And I particularly love the fact that, although both wanted to acknowledge they’d done the other a good turn, neither my son or the man felt the need to go crazy and act as if they were now best buddies and ask the other’s name or anything…..

People criticise London for its anonymity, but that is also its greatest strength. With anonymity comes acceptance, tolerance, and suspension of judgement, all qualities which, in my (possibly atypical) experience, tend to be in shorter supply outside the capital.

Vince Cable, the business secretary, recently said London was ‘draining life out of the rest of the country,’ oblivious to the fact that the capital is creating the kind of life for some people that is just not possible elsewhere. No wonder, one in three 22-30 year olds who move city, move to London. The only surprise to me is that when they hit their 30s and start families, 60% of Londoners move out to the ‘burbs. Maybe it’s (largely unwarranted) fears about London schools that does it, but why anyone would want to deprive their children of the chance of growing up in one of the best, most divese cities in the world, I cannot imagine.

When I see the class photo of the daughter of friends who live two hours up the M1, and it is a sea of white faces, I feel faintly depressed and slightly claustrophobic. When I hear the father say their holiday hotel was run by ‘two poofs,’ I reflect that the word ‘poofs’ has probably not been uttered in polite society in north London in 30 years.

As the roll call of dead emerged after 7/7, mixed with shock and outrage was very real pride, that people from so many different countries and cultures, had chosen this magnet of a city as their home, and been rubbing along in the same tube train. The week after the bombings, the cover of Timeout magazine read: ‘London Carries On.’ And, of course, being Londoners, we did. (And, if UKIP leader Nigel Farage feels ‘slightly awkward‘ only hearing foreign voices, may I suggest he stops taking up valuable space on rush-hour trains out of Charing Cross and buggers off back to the 1950s.)

What some perceive as Londoners’ unfriendliness, I would characterise as keeping our noses out where they’re not wanted. Where help is obviously needed, it tends to be forthcoming. The friendliness of the 2012 Olympics was not an aberration, but London doing what it mostly does. Anyone who travels by bus – and invariably witnesses people springing up to offer a seat if someone pregnant, or with a walking stick gets on – can testify to that. Just this week, a friend over from Paris (only two-and-a-bit hours by Eurostar…), who was making a pig’s ear of getting through the Arsenal tube barrier with her suitcase, had two Underground staff instantly at her side offering joshing assistance (while I waited further ahead shouting, ‘Get a grip, woman!’)

Obviously, London isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The journalist Ian Jack recently compared London’s ‘noisy, febrile and decadent’ restaurants (I think it was meant to be a criticism) unfavourably with one he had just visited in Belgium, which was ‘full of middle-class and middle-aged-to-elderly people in forgettable clothes’. Each to their own. What sounds to me like a geriatric ward – quiet, men in white aprons, elderly people eating ‘potato soup and cod’ – is Ian’s idea of a good night out. That’s absolutely fine, Ian. I am a Londoner, and I Do Not Judge (even though you’re wrong).

I am of course horribly biased. All the best things in my life, have happened to me in London: studying, working, meeting my husband (who also grew up in the sticks, and had a map of the Underground on his bedroom wall), setting up home, getting married, having children, the opportunity to forge friendships with all manner of fine folk.

London is not Nirvana. But Londoners should take pride in the fact that, in the main, we don’t care if you’re gay or straight, or somewhere in between. We don’t care if you’re black or white. I’d be lying if I said we’d got to a state of indifference towards transgender people, but I’d like to think we’re starting to get there (thanks in no small part to my good friends at All About Trans), and I’m prepared to bet we’ll do so before anywhere else in the UK. We absolutely don’t care if you keep your front garden tidy (should you be lucky enough to have one), and feel free to park outside my house any time. On a good day, we don’t even care what class you’re from. If you’re here, you’re one of us, and you’re very, very welcome. Just don’t expect us to make eye contact on the tube.

In sickness and in health


My husband, Tim, and I are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary today (17 December).

This is us 25 years ago; on honeymoon, on xmas day, in Venice. No wonder, we are smiling.

This is us 25 years ago; on honeymoon, on xmas day, in Venice. No wonder, we are smiling.

There was a time just a few months ago, when I thought we might not get here. Not, as you could be forgiven for thinking (given that nearly four out of 10 marriages end in divorce), because we might decide to go our separate ways, but because in July this year, he nearly – very, very nearly – died.

The details of his sudden illness are not especially relevant here (and that is his story to tell, not mine), but such a close brush with widowhood inevitably makes you reappraise some beliefs and confirms you in others. These are my reflections on a traumatic few months.

Things the medical profession should know, but doesn’t appear to

Patients’ families are not annoyances to be tolerated at best, avoided and ignored, if at all possible. Ill people are not islands. They come with baggage, called families, to which they hope to return. There is little point in doctors employing all their skills and expertise and precious NHS resources to save someone’s life if, by the time they have fixed them, there is no family to go back to because everyone is in pieces, having been driven to the brink of craziness by the medics’ failure to treat them with any kind of respect, or tell them what the hell is going on during what is the most important, difficult and frightening time of their lives.

It is not ok to say to the wife of a dangerously ill patient who was hospitalised while on holiday in Cornwall, that he may be stuffed in an ambulance and shipped 265 miles back to some random hospital in London, if they happen to need the bed over the weekend. Nor is it ok to tell a patient in the early stages of recovering from brain surgery that, now his life is not in immediate danger, you can’t continue to treat him for budgetary reasons. This kind of stuff does not aid a patient’s recovery, however marvellous the surgery performed or drugs prescribed.

To the consultant who couldn’t be arsed to turn up to an agreed meeting the day my husband was discharged, shame on you. It would have taken you 10 minutes. It would have saved us untold distress, when we had already been through quite enough, thank you. When someone is going home after an emergency craniotomy, it is not unreasonable to allow his spouse the chance to ask questions such as: do we have to watch him like a hawk, or can he be left on his own for short periods? Basic stuff, like that.

Things I probably should have known, but didn’t

You can survive a lot longer than you might think on a diet of chewy mints, Pro Plus and tea.

One of the earliest 'selfies'. Wales, easter 1988. Our first trip together

One of the earliest ‘selfies’. Wales, easter 1988. Our first trip together

Cornwall is lovely, but I wouldn’t advise getting ill there. Everything is so far away from everywhere else. My husband ended up in a hospital a three-hour round trip from where we were staying. (Even the closest hospital was an hour away.) If we hadn’t been able to hole-up in a charity-run hostel near the hospital (until I was less wired and more fit to drive), I don’t know what we would have done. Anyone thinking of retiring to Cornwall, might wish to take note.

Casualty is not necessarily a hellhole. It can be the NHS at its finest. When the A&E doctor takes you into a room with pastel sofas, you should brace yourself for bad news. But however bad the news, the fact that it is delivered with such sensitivity and kindness will be really, really appreciated. Casualty doctor, you were a credit to your calling. We met only briefly and in the most difficult of circumstances, but my son still remembers your name.

When it comes to arrogance, QCs (and I deal with them quite often), have nothing on consultants. I used to think the question: ‘What’s the difference between god and a surgeon? (Answer: God doesn’t want to be a surgeon),’ was a joke. I now realise this is not the case.

Sometimes, only a cliché will do. Nurse Cathy at Truro hospital, you were not just an angel, but a star and a marvel. Even in our distress, we know how hard you fought for us. When, after a hellish day’s waiting, a doctor we had not seen before, arrived to announce that no specialist hospital would take Tim, after all (but they would discuss his case at their next regular case conference in five days’ time….), your face was as much a mask of horror as my own. I honestly do not think my husband would be alive now if you hadn’t stayed beyond the end of your shift to argue his case in a way, at the time, I could not.

Having GP friends (even if they are hundreds of miles away) can be bloody reassuring, if you are ensnared by NHS bureaucracy. I will never, ever, forget the response of doctor friends to my increasingly desperate and hysterical phone calls, when we were told there was no transport available to move my husband to a specialist neurological unit. When I phoned them again, this time on the verge of a complete meltdown at the hospital’s intransigence, my friends had already organised the charter of an air ambulance and accompanying anaesthetist.  (In the event, such DIY tactics were not needed because, after much pleading and arguing, the hospital suddenly found a solution…)

Intensive care is an amazing, humbling place. Witnessing every medical device available to the NHS devoted to keeping your husband alive and monitoring his progress, is awe-inspiring. Intensive care nurses have a unique ability to be constantly and reassuringly present, but unobtrusive and almost invisible. Nurse Alan was particularly impressive in this regard. We were also pleased to discover that, if needed, he could get in the face of an elusive consultant. When Alan saw the agony we were in, two days after Tim had been admitted to intensive care and still no doctor had come to talk to us (against the hospital’s own guidelines), we watched Alan go and just stand next to the doctor on the ward, until he agreed to come over to Tim’s bed. That was the first time anyone told us that, despite being intubated and apparently completely unaware, Tim would most likely make a full recovery. It would have been nice to have known a bit earlier that we were safe to dare to hope.

Sometimes you have to shout, literally, to be heard. Sometimes, you have to argue and demand and sob to get anyone to take any notice. Acting like a demented harpy is distressing and draining, but it may be what keeps the person you care about alive.

Things I was right about

That you should not believe all the negative crap you read about teenage boys (hello, Daily Mail!). Ours two sons are:

a) Fairly typical teens, and b) Wise, selfless and mature young men; fantastic in a crisis.

There is no contradiction between those two statements. I can think of no finer tribute to my husband’s abilities as a father than the way his sons reacted to his near demise. Whatever worries I may have for the future, those two going far wrong is not one of them. You were both brilliant, brave and resilient, and I have never been more proud to be your mum.

Animal lovers can be people lovers, too. Among our logistical nightmares, was what to do with the dog and the cat, while we decamped nearer to the hospital. Huge, huge thanks to the two complete strangers who run the local kennel and cattery. Their response to a panicky, middle-of-the-night, email was to phone first thing the next morning and say: ‘Just bring the animals, now.  Do not worry about bringing food or bedding or anything else. We have everything here and you have enough to worry about. We will keep them as long as you need us to.’ Ladies, you helped save this family.

Things I was wrong about

There is an assumption that, when the chips are really down, members of your extended family will rally round to help. Not in every case, I discovered. A couple of other things: uninviting those who are in the middle of a medical emergency from a family wedding because they didn’t RSVP in time, not kind; leaving sobbing messages about how hard you are finding it to cope on the answer phone of someone who is stuck 265 miles away from home, with a husband in intensive care, and two teenage sons scared out of their wits that their father is going to die, also not kind. Nobody likes a drama queen – particularly in the middle of a very real drama.

Whoever said that while you can’t choose your family, at least you can choose your friends was spot on. I would, therefore, like to congratulate myself for my excellent choices.  Friends, you are lovely, lovely, people – and I salute you all. We would not have got this far without you. To those who dropped everything to come to Plymouth, who sent flowers and gifts, and endless, endless, texts and emails, who visited the hospital so many times, who love-bombed us into surviving, there are no words. To the friend who, although more used to five-star luxury, came and shacked up with us in the hostel, without demur; who packed her Kindle and her unrelenting air of calm, and just sat in the waiting room for days on end, so I would have company when I emerged from the ward, I can never thank you enough. To my friend in France who really was there on the phone, day or night, with extreme good sense and wise counsel (even at 3am) – that’s a debt I can never repay.

It won’t be the silver wedding anniversary we were expecting. We’ll have to have that party we talked about another year, but happy anniversary, Tim. It probably goes without saying, we are so glad to have you back.

Alison Saunders has just become the UK’s most senior prosecutor. So what did a Radio 4 profile of the new DPP choose to focus on? Her baking skills.


Alison Saunders is not just the second woman ever to become Director of Public Prosecutions, but also a domestic goddess. Her ability to lead the CPS is as nothing to her skills with an egg whisk, apparently.

Saunders: DPP and domestic goddess

Saunders: DPP and domestic goddess

I know this after listening to Radio 4’s Profile programme on Saturday, presented by Becky Milligan. Of the 13-minute show, nearly six minutes were devoted to celebrating Saunders’ abilities in the kitchen and as a dinner party host. Her controversial (and entirely wrong) 1996 advice against holding another inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, warranted far less – just over two minutes of air time.

While we learned that Saunders makes a mean tarte tatin, and ‘light and fluffy’ cheesecake, we heard nothing about her leading the London CPS response to the 2011 riots (which earned her a Companion of the Order of the Bath). Nor was there anything about her concern that demonisation of young women, particularly if they’ve been drinking, is a barrier to securing rape convictions.

Instead, listeners were treated to a school friend revealing the new DPP ‘can cook fabulous Sunday roasts'; and that when the pair had Saturday jobs on the cream cake counter in BHS, ‘cream cakes proved very popular’. A friend from university explained that, ‘it’s always the food that’s the pivotal point of the evening,’ at a Saunders’ dinner party. This not entirely shocking (or, indeed, interesting) revelation, prompts an almost forensic level of questioning by Milligan about Saunders’ pudding proclivities, which would do one of the DPP’s cross-examining barristers proud.

Becky Milligan: What’s the favourite [pudding], do you think?

Uni Friend: Oooh, well, it’s always something different, I means she’s –

BM: Trifle?

UF: Er, I’d say she takes on more challenging dishes than that.

BM: So, we’re not talking apple crumble.

UF: Well, she does some of the basics fantastically well, but also there’s always something else coming out, I’m just trying to think of –

BM: Prunes? [I swear I am not making this up.]  Um, custard with – what is it that you have could have – what’s the best pudding you’ve ever had?

UF: I seem to remember having a very great tarte tatin, which is challenging to do, and I can remember Alison cooking

E-FIT reconstruction of tarte tatin allegedly baked by Saunders

E-FIT reconstruction of tarte tatin allegedly baked by Saunders

one of those, but equally she will do the crumbles and the basics, as well. There’s normally a good choice there, when you’re being entertained by them.

School Friend: She cooks cakes, puddings. It really is amazing. I think, the phrase, ‘I don’t know how she does it,’ really suits Alison. Joking aside, It is amazing, I have no idea how she fits it all in, actually.

BM: What is your most memorable pudding at her house?

SF: Actually, one of the most recent was absolutely delicious.

BM: What was it?

SF: Wonderful cheesecake that was light and fluffy. It was a cheesecake. It was a new recipe that she tried.

This toe-curling segment, lasting nearly two minutes, is accompanied throughout by music from the Great British Bake Off. The programme then segues, somewhat surreally, into a news bulletin of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, followed by an altogether more pertinent comment about Saunders from the spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

At one point, the former solicitor-general, Edward Garnier MP (to whom Saunders used to report), is even asked

Garnier: had to bake own cupcakes

Garnier: former solicitor-general forced to bake own cupcakes

whether she ever baked for him. (‘I have unfortunately never had one of her cakes….’ ).

I should declare a slight interest, here. I interviewed Saunders as part of the Guardian/LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ research, and found her both impressive and approachable. She subsequently accepted an invitation to a Women in Journalism party, and I can confirm that, yes, she does seem pretty good company  – a point probably worth mentioning in any profile.

But for Radio 4 to subject a senior woman, doing an important and gritty job, to such fluffy, demeaning treatment is just jaw-dropping. Is Becky Mulligan auditioning to be the next Alan Partridge (now that Steve Coogan is winning plaudits as a serious actor)? Would she have asked the solicitor-general if he’d ever sampled any of Saunders’ male predecessors’ cupcakes?

It’s difficult enough for women in public life to be taken seriously as it is, and, whatever the intention, patronising Saunders in this way, can only serve to undermine her authority, both within the organisation she leads, and beyond.

If anyone is left in any doubt as to whether the DPP is more than just a pinny-wearing marvel, she should use her new powers to have Milligan tried for crimes against serious journalism, and acts preparatory to sexism. Trust me. It’s an open and shut case.

Why expanding the electorate to 16 year olds gets my vote

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The Labour Party’s announcement that it plans to lower the voting age to 16  gave newspaper columnists who are opposed to such a move the perfect excuse to trot out the usual tired old clichés about teenagers being spotty, monosyllabic morons.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Tom Utley says the average 16 year-old is ‘largely a nocturnal being,’ known for its ‘chaotically untidyUnknown lair’, and for messily wolfing down ‘industrial quantities of Crunchy Nut Bites’. Utley suggests that ‘Homo Sedecim’ (Latin for 16, apparently) is too unworldly to be given the vote, because he ‘never questions how his food and clothes are provided or how the bills come to be paid. He simply takes it for granted that he will always be fed when he’s hungry.’

How fortunate that all 16 year olds live in comfortable, middle class homes!

Whereas politicians like Ed Miliband only meet teens at stage-managed political events, as the father of four sons, Utley says he knows what ‘real’ 16 year olds are like. It would be ‘a cynical act of folly’ to extend the franchise to 1.5 million ‘stroppy teenagers,’ he concludes. In an earlier column, Utley quipped that, after votes for children, ‘It’ll be votes for sheep next.’

Well, if I were 16 and had a patronising old fart like Utley as my dad, I think I might be pretty stroppy, too.

But it is not just commentators on the right who are opposed. The Guardian’s political editor, Michael White, says 16 year olds shouldn’t be ‘burdened’ with voting, because they already have enough to worry about, including (I kid you not), their clothes and their zits. They should ‘concentrate on their music and having fun’, rather that worrying their zitty little heads about politics, he suggests.

Labour is by no means the only political party to support lowering the voting age. Last year, it was announced that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; and the Liberal Democrats have long supported such a move. Labour’s commitment to the change has not, however, met with universal approval, even among the ranks of its own MPs.

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, condemns the policy as an irrelevant distraction from more important issues. It will ‘impress and affect nobody’, he says. Even 16 year olds themselves are ‘apathetic or opposed’ to the idea. ‘But it’s exactly the kind of middle-class dinner party issue that tofu eaters throughout the country get really excited about,’ he says.

Now, I probably eat more tofu than most (being a veggie), but can honestly say that the subject has never, ever, been raised at any dinner party I have attended, middle class or otherwise.

What I have witnessed, however, is plenty of teenagers being caused great upset and confusion by finding themselves at the sharp end of endless government policy changes and increasingly trenchant rhetoric in areas like education.

GCSEs – the exams taken by all 16 year olds and the results of which will have a huge impact on their futures – are now a political battleground. Children who started their GCSE studies under one set of rules and with one set of expectations, have images-1found the goalposts being moved mid-way through courses. In 2012, grade boundaries for English were changed, so that those taking their exams in June were held to a higher standard than those who took them in January. Some children missed out on sixth-form places, as a result. The Qualifications & Curriculum Authority then announced that current students’ speaking and listening marks will no longer count towards their final English GCSE grade; to compensate, the proportion of marks allocated for written exams will go up from 40% to 60%. The changes were criticised by teaching bodies, including the Association of School and College Leaders, which said: ‘As a matter of principle, changes to assessments should never be introduced after students have started a course.’

Undeterred, Education Secretary Michael Gove has now decided to stop schools from entering pupils for exams a year early, and to ban re-sits. More reforms are planned.

As a parent, I may be hopping mad at seeing education turned into a political football; I may be outraged on my child’s behalf, at the stress, uncertainty and unfairness caused. But it is not me who is going to be personally affected; it is not my future university or employment prospects which may be blighted because of some politician’s whim. The educating of 16 year olds is unlikely to become less political any time soon, so it seems only reasonable that those whose lives will be directly affected should get a say in who gets to make those policies.

Under 18s also bear the brunt in the equally politically-charged area of criminal justice policy, but have no voice in its formulation or implementation. Teenagers are far more likely than adults to be stopped and searched by police. They are imagesdisproportionately likely to be victims of crime, particularly street crime, yet offences against them are massively under reported and politicians rarely talk about this issue. When ministers (and the media) talk about ‘youth crime’, they only ever mean young people as offenders, never as victims. The British Crime Survey didn’t even bother to record offences against 16 year olds until 2009.

Even while arguing against lowering the voting age, Michael White admits there is a direct relationship between an age group’s propensity to vote and how careful politicians are to protect that group’s interests. Quoting from an IPPR report which showed 44% of 18 to 24 year olds vote, compared with 76% of over 65s, he says:  ‘Guess which group’s benefits (the tabloids never admit pensions are benefits) have been protected by the coalition? Right first time.’

Small wonder then that, shortly after the 2010 election, the coalition scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance, which had been paid directly to 16 year olds from low-income households. The percentage of 16 years olds who vote is, of course, currently zero.

The school leaving age was raised last month to 17; in 2015, it will go up to 18. There is what Nelson Jones, writing in New Statesman, describes as ‘a much greater sense that under 18s need society’s protection, not just from sexual exploitation but from themselves.’ They have fewer rights and responsibilities than before, he says, citing the fact that the age at which it is legal to buy cigarettes, knives and fireworks, or hold a firearms licence, has been raised in recent years from 16 to 18.

I don’t say these changes are a bad thing.  Indeed, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more age-related restrictions: for example, I ‘d like us to give serious consideration to raising the minimum age for taking a driving test to 18 (the statistic that the leading cause of death of teen girls is in cars being driven by teenage boys always make me shudder).

But whereas Jones concludes that it would be ‘paradoxical’ to trust 16 year olds with the vote, when they are no longer trusted to buy a penknife, I take the opposite view. In the main, I agree that this age group deserves extra protections. But it is precisely because politicians, apparently with popular support, are increasingly restricting what they can do that these young people should now be given a voice in the political process. Never mind, ‘no taxation without representation’; it should be, ‘no restrictions without representation’.

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