Safe for now

There were 6,188 deaths by suicide in the UK in 2017. Men are three times more likely to suicide than women; but suicide rates among women are at their highest rate for a decade. These are the facts of suicide. Each incidence of suicide represents a massive emotional upheaval : for the person who suicides; for the people who are left behind; for the emergency services and other support networks that are brought into play in the aftermath of a suicide. And yet most of us still find it incredibly difficult to talk about suicide; and the idea of raising the possibility that somebody is suicidal and may need our help, is a terrifying prospect.

ASIST – Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training – is a programme developed in Canada which is now being rolled out across England with support from the NHS and organisations including Samaritans and local authorities. I was lucky enough to complete the course on Thursday and Friday of this week, alongside colleagues from the residences pastoral care team at the University of Bristol. The programme starts by challenging individual assumptions and attitudes towards suicide, and reflecting on how those assumptions and attitudes may impact on our approach to somebody contemplating suicide.

The aim of the training is to equip people with a framework for providing ‘first aid’ to somebody contemplating suicide, with the overall aim of keeping that person safe for now. The emphasis is very much on building the confidence to identify and respond to the invitations to talk about suicide that people with suicidal thoughts will typically send out. These invitations may not be obvious – and may not even be deliberate. Changes in behaviour – becoming withdrawn and cutting themselves off from friends and family; behaving erratically; a sudden and unexplained fall of in academic or workplace performance – all can be signs that somebody is struggling to live. One of the key points of the training is the fact that asking somebody if they are feeling suicidal won’t put the idea into their head if they aren’t already contemplating it. And actually asking somebody if they are suicidal can be an enormous relief to somebody who may have been waiting for that one person to accept their invitations to talk about it.

The training is inevitably emotionally charged. An early session which invites participants to talk about their experiences of suicide revealed the extent of suicide and the impact that it has on family, friends and colleagues. In our group of 14 trainees, everyone had had some direct experience of somebody close to them who had suicided. In my own case, talking about those experiences exposed a part of me that had been suppressed for a long time, and the feelings were as raw as they had been at the time. That in itself is reason enough to increase awareness of suicide, and increasing the confidence and competence of all of us to speak openly with somebody who is struggling to live, and to support them to stay safe for now; and to put in place a plan to keep them safe in the longer term.

I hope that I will never have to use the skills that I’ve learned in the past two days. But I know that if I am in a position where somebody is struggling to live, I now have a framework to respond positively and in a supportive way to the invitations to talk about suicide; and hopefully to help somebody keep safe for now.

If you get the chance to attend an ASIST course, please consider it very carefully. I doubt that you’ll regret it.

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Crisis averted

Having gone through a bit of a lean spell, I am pleased to report that my mojo has returned. With the help and encouragement of you, dear reader, I am running again! A gentle reintroduction in the beauty of Bute Park last Sunday, was followed up with a couple of runs around The Downs in Bristol during the week, and a Blackweir parkrun yesterday. However, the reason why I know I’m back on it is because this morning I set out on what was planned as a gentle 7.5 mile run to Roath Park lake and back. The sun was shining in a sky of unbroken, azure blue, the roads and paths were quiet, Roath Park was its usual jewel-like self, and well – to cut a long story short – I got carried away and ended up running 10 miles at more or less 2.15 half marathon pace. This is the first time that I’ve run more than 6 miles since the Llanelli Half Marathon in March, and whilst I am aching a bit at the moment, it felt good! I am now much more confident that the Bristol : Cardiff half marathon double header in September/October is achievable.

The motivation provided by a number of regular runners who happen to read this stuff occasionally, and who continue to inspire me with their performances in half marathons, marathons and trail runs (thanks Kev, Sarah, Tom, Bob in particular) has been complemented by Vassos Alexander’s book “Don’t Stop me Now!”. It is a fascinating compendium of insights and advice from a whole range of elite athletes, coaches and scientists, woven around an account of the 26.2 miles that Alexander ran as the final leg of an Iron Man event. It’s a highly accessible book and is a great reminder of all the benefits that come from simply putting your trainers on and getting out there. I highly recommend it, and I will be keeping it really close to my bedside to act as a kind of reminder of all the good things about running when I get up occasionally and the rain is falling and my whole being is screaming for me to stay under the duvet!

Kooky, creepy, and totally brilliant

The Addams Family Musical (Cardiff Millennium Centre until 12th August 2017) is a clever, funny, and highly entertaining musical take on the franchise that started as a series of magazine cartoons before progressing to TV series and films. Originally launched on Broadway in 2010, the UK touring production opened in Edinburgh in April 2017. The musical opens with the annual gathering of the Addams Family (those alive, those dead, and those still undecided) at the family vault in a cemetery near the family home in Central Park, New York. We learn that Wednesday Addams, the (original emo child) has fallen in love with an all-American guy from the mid-west. Wednesday has invited her beau and his parents to dinner at the Addams Mansion that evening, and implores her parents to just be ‘normal’ for the evening. Wednesday emphasises the extent of the gulf between her family’s love of the ghoulish and macabre, and her boyfriends more traditional family values with the line : “We are what we are, and they’re from Ohio!” The rest of the plot plays out in a series of increasingly funny scenes as the two families become acquainted and as each learns a lot from the other about the true values of honesty, love, and the changes that come as children become adults and forge their own paths.

The casting for this UK touring production is excellent. Carrie Hope Fletcher gives a wonderful performance as Wednesday Addams, neatly capturing a young woman struggling with the emergence from sulky adolescence into womanhood. Samantha Womack* is stunning as Morticia Addams – all moody darkness and brooding suspicion. Les Dennis is literally unrecognisable as Uncle Fester – and effectively acts as narrator for the piece, neatly linking scenes and acts and generally gluing the whole plot together. Oliver Ormson neatly encapsulates just the right amount of ‘cool’ and gormless as Lucas Beineke, the boy who has stolen Wednesday’s heart; and Grant McIntyre (Pugsley Addams) is perfect as the irritating younger brother who does everything in his power to break up the relationship between Lucas and Wednesday – fearing that the ‘loss’ of his older sister to this interloper will leave him abandoned and with no-one to torture him! Charlotte Page (Alice Beineke) is arguably the most accomplished vocalist in the show, and gives a great performance as a the strait-laced, greetings-card verse mid-west mother, whose repression and frustration is only fully revealed when she accidentally drinks a potion intended for Wednesday that takes down all her inhibitions.

However, the real stars of the show (for this 50-something father at least) were the two fathers : Cameron Blakely (Gomez Adams) and Dale Rapley (Mal Beineke). I’m definitely biased, but their differing portrayals of 21st century men, husbands and fathers, caught in the competing challenges that each of those roles brings; struggling and (despite everything) managing to make a mess of most of it, resonated strongly! It’s fair to say, though, that Gomez also gets all the best lines, including my favourite : “What I lack in depth I make up for in shallowness!”. I’m stealing that as my personal tagline.

Finally, a word for the musicians. The music throughout the show is uniformly outstanding, made all the more so by the fact that there is a full, live orchestra. In a world where digital recordings are increasingly the norm for touring productions, it was a pleasure to hear live music – and to hear it played so well.

 

* declaration of interest : I have been completely in love with Samantha Womack since her selection to represent the UK at Eurovision in 1991 – views expressed here may, therefore, not be entirely objective!

Because he’s worth it?

A footballer is on the verge of being transferred from one European football club to another European football club. No big deal. It happens all the time. Except this is a big deal. A VERY big deal. Paris St-Germain propose to pay Eu220m (£198m) to Barcelona to secure the services of 25 year old Brazilian striker Neymar. On top of that, his wage bill will exceed £775,000 a WEEK during the 5 year contract that he has signed. The total cost to the French club (assuming he sees out the full contract) will exceed £400m.

Reaction has been predictable. Football has lost its way; the amounts involved are obscene; how can anyone possibly be worth that sort of money; and so on and so on. It’s not clear to me why £198m for Neymar is somehow more indicative of a sport that’s lost its way than the £54m that Manchester City has allegedly paid to sign Kyle Walker from Tottenham Hotspur; or the £40m that Manchester United will pay Chelsea for the services of Nemanja Matic. The sums involved are frankly ridiculous and are sustainable only because European football is increasingly seen as a vanity project for US, Russian, and middle eastern billionaires with (literally) more money than they know what to do with. Following the ‘silly money’ transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, I wrote that the concentration of wealth in a small number of European super clubs would lead inexorably to the creation of a larger European Super League, to the detriment of both domestic and grassroots football. I have no doubt that that remains the direction of travel. What’s less clear now, though, is whether that journey can be completed before the cash runs out. The old joke still has some validity : “How do you make a millionaire from a billionaire? Sell him a football club!”

Admittedly, the sovereign wealth funds underwriting the likes of Paris St-Germain and Manchester City are of a different order of magnitude from the corporate vehicles behind Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, or the complex public:private status of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Nevertheless, its hard to see how the financial bubble growing up around much of European football can be sustained in the medium to long term.

More worrying to me, though, is the growing void that is opening up between football at the elite, professional level, and the game that is played by girls, boys, women and men in parks and recreation grounds across the country every weekend. I have written previously about my reservations around the use of video assistant referees. My objections are not just about the technology (which inevitably slows the game down and which – on the evidence so far at least – has not reduced the controversy around decisions made). Rather, my concerns are about the way in which the professional game is starting to look and feel very different to the lived experience of football at the grassroots. This is particularly the case in respect of facilities and playing conditions. It should be a national disgrace that the Football Foundation (the Premier League’s charitable development arm) invests 75% of a Matic (£30m) a year IN TOTAL into grassroots football. To put it another way, if Neymar’s move to PSG goes through, then his annual salary will be one third more than the total amount being reinvested into grassroots football in England. Inequality at that level is obscene, but worse than that, it will prove to be ultimately self-defeating.

 

Help me out, here!

I’ve fallen off the wagon. I haven’t so much as put my running shoes on for over a month, and my motivation has flat-lined. Coming on the back of a first half of the year that went so well, it’s hard to explain why my running mojo has – well – run off. But it has. So here’s the deal. I’m asking for your help to get me back on track. I’m committing to getting back on the road from tomorrow morning, and I’ll post weekly updates on my progress as I build towards half marathons in Bristol and Cardiff in September and October. If you could help me out by demanding to know how things are going if the updates don’t appear, I’d be really grateful. Shame and embarrassment are great incentivisers for me!

In the meantime, I’ll also try to put into practise the 12 habits of regular runners here.

Passchendaele, Hedd Wyn, and enduring beauty

The centenary of the start of the battle at Passchendaele carries a particular poignancy in Wales. Amongst the first wave of casualties was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer from Trawsfynydd in the foothills of Snowdonia, who wrote poetry as Hedd Wyn, and whose poem “Yr Arwr” – “The Hero”, would have seen him receive the Bardic Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Ironically Hedd Wyn translates as Blessed Peace, but it is clear that the reluctant soldier found little peace or blessing amidst the mud and squalor of First World War Belgium.

There is, however, an enduring and heart-rending beauty in the poetry that Evans left behind, and which is exemplified in his poem titled “War” (this translation by Louis Flint Ceci) :

Alas, this is an age so mean
That everyman is made a Lord,
For all authority’s absurd
When God himself fades from the scene.

As quick as God is shown the door
Out come the cannons and the sword:
Hate on hate on brother poured
And scored the deepest on the poor.

The harps that once could help our pain
Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
The cry of battle fills the wind
And blood of lads–it falls like rain.

In common with other First World War poets, Evans struggles to reconcile the peaceful orderliness of the world he has left behind, with the godless devastation of the battlefield. The observation that the suffering and pain of war falls disproportionately heavily on the poor and least powerful, is one that is repeated throughout the poetry of the time (and has been borne out in every conflict to the present day).

The senseless loss that is represented in Passchendaele is perhaps best described by Evans’ cousin, Gerald Williams, who still lives near the Gwynedd farmhouse that Evans’ was forced to leave on conscription : “All the cream of the young men had been killed – a whole generation wiped out – for what? I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. I don’t understand war at all.”

 

Dunkirk : some thoughts

Christopher Nolan has written and directed a thoughtful and visually stunning piece of cinema in “Dunkirk”. In contrast to the graphic and (frankly blood-spattered) portrayals of the second world war in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Fury, Dunkirk focuses not on the physical trauma of the events of May/June 1940, but rather the emotional and psychological impact. The film focuses exclusively on the behavior of allied (mostly British) soldiers and airmen, and the civilians who sailed the flotilla of small craft from the south coast of England to Dunkirk to assist with the evacuation. There is barely sight of a German soldier until the closing frames of the film. The ‘good guy : bad guy’, Allied forces : German forces, narrative that so often permeates film dramatisations of events from this period in history, is therefore noticeably absent from Dunkirk. Instead, the tensions and ethical conflicts are all played out amongst the soldiers and civilians on the British side. Thus, we see French soldiers prevented from embarking onto British ships in the initial stages of the evacuation; and soldiers from different units being turned away from a line waiting to go on board because they aren’t “Grenadiers”. The opportunism (borne out of desperation) that leads two privates to pick up a stretcher and run across the sand to get a casualty on board a hospital ship (hoping that this would be their ticket out) only serves to highlight the ethical and moral compromises that are made in the name of survival. The fact that the two soldiers, having delivered the casualty, are then ordered off the ship and back to the beach seems scant reward for their efforts, until the ship itself is then bombed and sunk while still at the jetty waiting to depart. This is one of a number of episodes in the film that brings into sharp relief the randomness of war and the way that casualties occur. Soldiers who are injured but survive the bombing on the beaches, then drown when their hospital ship is sunk at sea; the only civilian casualty in the film is killed accidentally in a scuffle involving the boat’s owner and a survivor picked up from the sea en route to Dunkirk; a Spitfire pilot shot down over the channel is on the verge of perishing when he is rescued by a passing small boat. To this extent, at least, Nolan captures perfectly the lottery of life and death in the theatre of war.

Similarly, the scene in the Dutch trawler where soldiers who have sensed an opportunity to escape under their own steam, then turn on each other seeking a scapegoat when the trawler becomes target practice for unseen but advancing German troops, demonstrates the all-to-human trait of demonizing the ‘other’ when things go wrong. In this case, the ‘other’ taking the form of a French soldier who has ‘borrowed’ the uniform from a dead British soldier in order to try to get off the beach. Ultimately, the French soldier dies not at the hands of one of the group, but drowning as the trawler sinks under the incoming tide as water pours in through the bullet-ridden hull.

If I have a criticism of the film then it’s around the fact that there is little character development and so it’s actually quite hard to feel any particularly strong sense of emotional attachment to, or even empathy with, the main protagonists. We learn right at the end of the film that the eldest son of the owner of the small boat through whose eyes the account of the evacuation fleet is told, was an RAF pilot who was killed in the early days of the war; and we get some insight into the fears that evacuated soldiers had about their reception back home having retreated in the face of the Germans and needed to be rescued (unfounded fears as it turns out). Beyond that though, we learn little to nothing about the backgrounds of the main characters. That was doubtless deliberate as Nolan sought to focus on the ‘here and now’ of the situation facing the soldiers on the beach; but it did leave me feeling more like I had watched a drama-documentary – engaging me on an intellectual level; rather than a piece of cinema that works both intellectually and emotionally. I was reinforced in my view that war is wholly barbaric and utterly de-humanizing, but I can’t say that I was particularly moved by or sad or even anguished at the plight of any of the individual characters.

Overall, Dunkirk is a good film, succeeding in depicting historical events accurately and immersively, without over-playing things. Perhaps, though, it’s just a little too cerebral to be compelling drama.