Westminster incident

On a blustery March afternoon 12 women made their way to Westminster for a meeting at The House of Lords. As they settled down with tea and notebooks to discuss women, peace and security in Afghanistan there was a sudden noise in the corridor outside. Muffled shouts and the thud of running feet provided a momentary distraction, but barely impacted on proceedings .

Moments later, as phones started pinging and a fractured announcement about ‘the palace’ interrupted a speaker, it became evident that something was wrong.

Even then, with minds focused on events in Kabul, several members assumed that the ‘palace’ in question was there. It was not. The appearance of an armed police officer in the room soon afterwards confirmed that The Palace of Westminster was in lockdown. For those peers, MPs, employees and visitors inside it was the start of a long incarceration. Similar cells of captive groups were confined all over the building, informed by calls and messages from anxious friends and family about what was occurring outside.

Nearby a policeman and his attacker lay dying while paramedics and passers by tended to the horrific injuries of those mown down by a car on Westminster Bridge. One woman had apparently leapt into the Thames to avoid it.

We were at the heart of what was being described as a terrorist attack. Close but cocooned from it, detached yet connected by smartphone technology to reports from all over the world.

Many hours later, as we were led from Westminster Hall and released into darkness and the unusually quiet area that formed the cordon around the Houses of Parliament, the practicalities of getting home began to surface.

Half a mile away in Victoria, all was ‘normal’ but the events of the afternoon had changed some lives for ever. For those injured, or related to the maimed or dead, nothing would ever be ‘normal’ again.

 

 

Re-evaluating veterans – it’s time we were honest

Speaking to Glyn Strong of Veterans Aid, the organisation’s CEO, Dr. Hugh Milroy,  says the nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but our stereotypes of veterans may end up having a negative impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system.

It’s worrying that veterans are being singled out as a societal ‘group apart’; a cohort of universally vulnerable, damaged, deserving and abandoned individuals, says Dr Milroy.

As the Government contemplates a radical shake-up of its housing policy to end rough sleeping, perhaps it’s time to decouple the issue from military service – a linkage that, despite evidence to the contrary, comes up in debate with monotonous regularity!

The nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but like any long-term relationship it can be turbulent and complicated.

CEO of Veterans Aid Dr. Hugh Milroy – a combat veteran of 17 years who has been involved in the world of homeless veterans for more than 20  – is quick to point out that service in the Royal Navy, Army, or Royal Air Force does not confer sainthood. He runs a charity that has been helping veterans who are homeless or in crisis since 1932 and his bête-noir is stereotyping.

“I applaud the CSJ for advocating a ‘Housing First’ approach to chronic rough sleeping. ‘Housing First’ is a seductive and appealing concept for politicians and policy makers but a quick Google search shows that it is not regarded as being universally successful. There is a real danger of urban myth subjugating reality. The world of homelessness among veterans is a case in point.

“I’d like to use the current focus on Housing First to point out two ‘inconvenient’ things; firstly, veterans do not feature disproportionately in Government homelessness statistics and secondly that ‘Housing First’ isn’t the only solution! The Veterans Aid ‘Welfare to Wellbeing’© model has been delivering holistic solutions to street homelessness for many years with a heavy focus on prevention. It is a transferable and highly successful pathway with 92% of those completing it going on to lead sustainable independent lives.”

There are now fewer than 3 million veterans in the UK and the strength of HM Regular Forces is just 153,470. Unsurprisingly, most voters get their information about military life via the media. And as we know from recent debates about ‘fake news’ and the power of controversial ‘tweets’ there are people who will say, and believe, anything.

“The shorthand that treats veterans as an homogenous group, comprising heroes, victims and villains, has implications that impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system. Claims become certainties, trapped like redundant ghosts in popular search engines, ready for rapid recycling before they pass into public perception and crystalise into fact.

“My staff and I have been verbally abused for speaking out about stolen valour, self-diagnosed PTSD and our daily experiences with veterans whose life-crises have less to do with military service than poverty, homelessness, social isolation, addiction, relationship breakdown and debt. Some of our clients come straight from prison; not because ‘war drove them to crime’ but because, after serving for as little as one day in HM Armed Forces, they are ‘entitled’ – to call themselves veterans and tap into a vast dedicated support network.  This has to be said: The ‘hero, victim and villain’ tagging of veterans simply isn’t helping anyone and it’s time that those politicians, members of the media and charity world who routinely use such designations, stop doing so.

“My PhD was about homelessness among veterans and my experience, over years as a researcher and practitioner, is that very few can ascribe their life problems to military service. My worry is that if veterans continue to be regarded as causally damaged, it may impact on the defence of the nation by deterring young men and women from enlisting.”

Veterans Aid has been accused of ‘talking itself out of business’ by challenging the universal hero narrative – a claim that only underlines the power of the media and huge lack of understanding among those who confuse reportage with research.

“It seems to me that by assigning the term ‘hero’ to everyone who has served, society is devaluing the actions of the few who truly deserve the label. Many veterans are never deployed, never serve on operations and never find themselves in harm’s way. And let’s be clear, today’s ex-servicemen and women are not conscripts; they chose to enlist and wear a uniform. They signed up to a career and accepted a wage – just like members of the police, fire or ambulance service.”

Perhaps uniquely among military charities, Veterans Aid confirms the service of putative veterans seeking its help. Those who exaggerate or lie about their service are quickly identified. The irony is that they don’t need to make fictive claims; the charity is there to provide immediate practical support to any veteran in crisis, regardless of his/her age, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, length of service or rank – on humanitarian grounds and because they are entitled.

“It’s worrying that veterans are being singled out as a societal ‘group apart’; a cohort of universally vulnerable, damaged, deserving and abandoned individuals. This perception has been shaped by media activity, which, in turn, has driven legislation, and on 16 May 2011 The Armed Forces Covenant was rolled out.  (“A promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly.”) I’m on record as hailing its worthy motives  . . . and questioning its relevance.”

Many homeless veterans, lionised by local media and described as heroes, are former clients of the Veterans Aid.

Milroy concludes, “The number of genuinely ‘street homeless’ veterans is so small that we now recognise many of them as they move around the country. Some have complex mental health or behavioural problems that long pre-date their military service. Some have alcohol or drug addictions that they have been unable, or unwilling, to face.  Hardly any are there because, at one time in their life, they served in the Armed Forces.  A recent example was a chronically homeless ‘veteran’ used as a flagship case study.  His ‘PTSD’ was highlighted and there was a distinct impression that the man’s 30 years on the streets was linked to his military experience. The reality is that he served for fewer than three months and had never been deployed on military operations. This linkage has to stop.

“As for not enough being done; for some years it has been clear that there has been over-capacity in facilities for homeless veterans.  There is no reason for any veteran to be on the streets of Britain today but this doesn’t seem to stop almost daily exaggeration and exploitation of the issue.  Challenging the script is a constant battle, whether it relates to homelessness, PTSD or numbers in prison.

“I fervently hope that whatever approach the Government adopts to tackle rough sleeping in future, reflects this and acknowledges that veterans are a part of – not apart from – society.”

First published in POLITICS HOME

In Absentia maybe – but Bob Dylan’s was a powerful presence at the Nobel Awards.

IF literature is that which moves us to pause, reflect, explore, question, cry, rage, gasp, laugh and wonder – walk for a short time in the footsteps of other people, real or imaginary – then yes, Bob Dylan’s songs and narratives qualify for the designabob-dylan-nobel-laureatetion.

Watching an emotional Patti Smith stumble over the words of Hard Rain at last night’s Nobel Award’s Ceremony and seeing members of that illustrious audience wipe away tears, I too felt a wave of empathy, nostalgia, sadness and wonder. Dylan’s lyrics are hardwired into my DNA it seems and during that brief ceremony I was catapulted down a corridor of time that took me back to schooldays.

So many memories, so many moments frozen in time with friends, lovers, places, events. I’ve queued at his concerts, raged at his idiosyncrasies, smiled at his wit, berated his ‘betrayals’ (sic) and cried over his lyrics.

My love affair with Dylan has waxed and waned over the decades like a tempestuous marriage, but like his own affirmation of life – The Never Ending Tour – it will endure. It will also be my best memory of Christmas 2016.

The Nobel Committee said that Dylan had changed its idea of what poetry could be (HERE): Smith’s performance of Hard Rain, and his own acceptance speech (below) came close to explaining how.

In his own words:

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: KiplingShawThomas MannPearl BuckAlbert CamusHemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan

 

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/absentia-maybe-bob-dylans-powerful-presence-nobel-awards-strong?trk=prof-post

Why giving tents to UK’s homeless is an admission of failure

AN UNINTENDED ORWELLIAN OUTCOME OF MISGUIDED COMPASSION?

Justin Parkinson’s (BBC News Magazine – 28.04.16) raises the question of whether homeless people should be given tents.

While he nowhere suggests that anyone in the UK is officially advocating this, I’m dismayed that the wisdom of doing so is even posed as a question.

If Britain has reached the point where people think its acceptable to acknowledge that homelessness is so much part of the landscape that it should be ‘accommodated’ (sic) rather than addressed, its politicians should hang their heads in shame.

Tented shelter is provided universally as a last resort, as a short-term reaction to natural disaster or situations where immediate humanitarian relief is the only option.

Homelessness in the UK is unacceptable, but it is a man-made situation that should be addressed – by prevention (ideally) or at least by effective remediation.

The moment we make even a quantum shift from intolerance to tolerance of the social isolation that leads a human being to street homelessness, we have compromised our humanity.

There are officially more than 200,000 empty homes in Britain; 22,000 in London alone. According to latest DCLG figures there are 3,569 rough sleepers in England – 940 in London.

Even the most numerately challenged can work out that this is not a problem about roofs and heads!

There are myriad reasons why men, women and children end up homeless. Existing statutory safety-nets catch only a few of them (i.e. those who ‘qualify’). Of course compassion has its place, but the ad hoc distribution of  ameliorating comforts  is not the answer.

The sophistry employed by those who assign discrete ‘reasons’ for why specific groups are homeless is a distraction. As long as service in the armed forces, mental health issues, lack of education, unemployment, relationship breakdown, residency status, alcohol dependency etc are treated being unique triggers by those with vested interests, the underlying issue will remain unaddressed.

No-one can sustain a home in 21st Century Britain unless they have an income, a support network of some description and good health. A meal, a sleeping bag and a tent may offer transient comfort, but proactively normalising any of those things is abdication of responsibility of the most dangerous kind.

This suggestion is not progress and no amount of smart words and policies will ever make it so.  Housing is the “elephant in the room” for our politicians.  Few it would seem, have the courage to deal with the national housing scandal but if there is a “silver-lining” to this dreadful suggestion of tents it that it may provide a rude awakening to those in power…21st Century Britain must be better than this.

There are solutions. There are models that work – and for the few who will always and inevitably prove to be beyond help, there are better options than handing out tents.  This shocking story makes it hard to believe that Britain has a future as a truly humanitarian nation…need, not greed, must be the guiding principle.  Houses are not a commodity.

Mission Critical Afghanistan – Britain’s legacy.

Mission Critical Afghanistan

A ‘must watch’ report for anyone who is interested in Afghanistan or the legacy of British involvement. A depressing film made by a brave reporter. For once – no comment. This narrative speaks for itself.

https://youtu.be/m2_B80PM8lg

  • Published on You Tube 8 Apr 2016 – First shown at The Frontline Club and Channel 4 news.

    Abigail Austen has unique, extraordinary access to the battle against Isis and the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are threatening to take everything Britain helped fight for.

Why the UK needs a Stolen Valour Act.

MedalsToday The Sun became the latest national newspaper to highlight the need for a Stolen Valour Act as the scale of the ‘Walter Mitty’ problem among men falsely claiming military service, acts of valour or conflict-related PTSD unfolds.

Wg Cdr Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of the 84-year-old charity Veterans Aid, has long been an advocate of a UK Stolen Valour Act. He wants the Government to consider a UK equivalent to America’s Stolen Valor Act, and similar laws in Australia and Canada, under which it is a crime to make false claims about military decorations.

The frontline charity he heads up checks all propsective clients’ credentials and has first hand knowledge of how widely fantasy is used to excuse or explain failings, gain public sympathy and feed vanity

In the UK, pretending to have served in the armed forces is only illegal if the person doing so stands to make financial gain, for which they can be pursued for fraud. But prosecutions for such offences are rare.

Dr Milroy said:  “This is a really important  issue and we mustn’t let the military become an object of derision or mistrust in British society because they are part of society. In the end this behaviour, if unstopped, will end up putting the defence of the nation at risk.

“If we have a system where politicians think this is nothing more than a joke then they are colluding in this. It’s not a joke. It offends. People are really angry about it.

“The fact is that these people can do and say what they like with virtual impunity. We had a guy yesterday, here at Veterans Aid,  who had done three evenings with the TA and declared he had PTSD.”

It’s not just a question of Stolen Valour but also Stolen Trauma. This latter leads to NHS and charity resources being wasted on people pretending to be mentally ill; it leaves Social Services unable to do their job properly without knowing which clients are genuine and which were not.

Dr Milroy believes that even those within the Criminal Justice System – the police, courts and prisons – do not know if indivduals are  claiming military trauma and PTSD to get lighter treatment.

He said: “We are working with a major British prison and of the 45 people who have come forward since Veterans Aid came on board  to verify their military service, nearly half were found never to have served.

“We can cite lots of cases. We’ve   got a guy who must have been in prison the best part of 100 times and he tells them every time that he has ‘served for 10 years , fought undercover in the Lebanon, and got PTSD’. The reality is  that he spent just three weeks in the Royal Marines.”

See The Sun article HERE.

A salute to Sir Terry Wogan

In May 2012 I had the privilege of meeting and filming Sir Terry with colleagues from TTV Pictures, for the charity Veterans Aid. We met at the BBC on a Sunday morning shortly before he was due to go on air.

Terry Wogan - Stand by MeHe was affable, relaxed, professional and friendly – interested in the charity’s work and in no hurry to get the recording done; in short, one of the nicest individuals I have ever met. His time, to raise awareness of the charity’s event (The Big Bus Pull),  was freely given; it was a relatively brief encounter, but the  memory of his charm and gracious reception will endure. I know that colleagues at Veterans Aid and TTV Pictures will be as saddened as I am to learn of his passing.

The last time I saw Paris . . .

Two months ago I was in Paris, enjoying a short holiday in a beautiful city that I first visited as a teenager. It was warm and sunny; I enjoyed a meal with a friend near Sacre Coeur and reflected on hoLes Deux Magotsw well  it had worn over the years.

We went to the charming district of St Germain des Pres with its distinctive atmosphere of  fun and freedom.

Today Paris is a city in mourning as yet another terrorist atrocity turns death into a shared spectacle; ugly, needless, cruel and so very public. Raw grief unites humanity as nothing else; the stunned, dazed, stupefied expressions of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances  . . .

“Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”

 

Auschwitz revisited – a chilling parallel

Last year a record 1.5m people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Oświęcim, Poland. In ‘dark tourism’ terms the former concentration camp is a success story. A Google search pulls up more websites advertising  tours than relating to Holocaust history, but underlying this phenomenon there is a message.

(*Originally published in UK Progressive )

“I don’t think he needs those” said the young boy’s mother as we approached the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei arch spanning the entrance to Auschwitz.

She was waving away a set of headphones, offered to amplify the audio commentary delivered by tour guides to the complex. Of course ‘complex’ hardly describes what remains of this notorious death camp and in the fading light of a September afternoon it resembles more a neglected school or hospital, with its institutional layout and designated departments.

Barbed wire and sections of once electrified fencing still serve to remind visitors that it was neither, but any sense of  menace is dissipated by the theme park atmosphere as coaches disgorge tourists from all nations to queue for tickets.

Our small group is constantly reminded that we have a ‘slot’ and that we must move briskly. Cameras and smartphones click and flash constantly as we are herded up slippery stone staircases to rooms displaying shoes, artificial limbs, hair, clothing, spectacles and innocuous-looking pellets of Zyklon-B. Inert until activated by exposure to air, these latter are perhaps the most sinister of the Auschwitz artefacts.

This is my first visit to a former Nazi concentration camp. It is in Poland, just over an hour’s drive from Krakow and not far from the equally notorious extermination facility of Birkenau. I am numbed less than I expected to be by the apparatus of death, knowledge of which I’ve subconsciously assimilated over a lifetime of reading and learning. What does stun me is the scale of the visitor operation at this living museum.

The child deprived of headphones looks bewildered as his parents are nudged by the momentum of the crowd from room to room. Fading black and white photographs replicate families like his own; they peer down from the walls, frozen in time with their pitiful belongings and anxious expressions. They reach out over the years to remind us that, like the refugees moving across Europe today, they are just human flotsam with no assurance of safety or welcome ahead of them.

Following the child’s gaze my eyes are drawn to the image of a man. Tall and dignified he wears a dark overcoat not unlike one my father once owned. He and  the well-dressed woman I assume to be his wife hold the hands of a little girl. In his other hand, a small suitcase. They are new arrivals, photographed at a point where they are uneasy but have no intimation of what is to come. Maybe they still have hope?

Later we move on to Birkenau for the last admission of the day. The threatened light shower has materialized as torrential rain and the temperature has dropped significantly.

Sometimes described as ‘Auschwitz 2’ Birkenau was the largest of more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. It opened in 1942 and approximately 1m people died there – Jews, Poles, Gypsies Soviet POWs and many other nameless individuals considered undesirable by the Nazis.

As we walk into the wind and rain a bleak and empty vista unfolds; ghostly railway lines describe a path towards a stark memorial. To one side of it are the remains of a hastily destroyed elimination facility; beyond that, on the walk back we enter the barracks where women deemed of no further value were  contained until they either died or were ready for disposal.

By this time I am soaked to the skin and numb with cold. The barracks we stand in are dark and the tiered wooden ‘bunks’ where sick and expendable women lay stacked like sardines represent the only furniture. “Two stoves would have been in here” observes our guide, “but there was rarely fuel – and no water or toilets. Death by disease or starvation was the only way out.”

In the warmth of our transport back to Krakow my fingers begin to tingle as life returns.  The members of our small group are tired and quiet. An English newspaper shows images of refugees struggling under razor wire, huddling in the mud as they wait to be ‘processed’. Families stare bleakly into the lenses of strangers’ cameras.

I wonder if I am alone in seeing a terrible parallel?

 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Burnt Norton – T.S. Eliot

Afghan women declare “We are ALL Farkunda”

A documentary chronicling events immediately before and after the murder of Farkunda Malikzada has just been released. It is a harrowing story, told mainly through the anguished tears of the student’s mother and father. (Background) 

Woman's Hour - Farkhunda

Not for the faint hearted, it is  a timely reminder that even in Afghanistan’s capital city the power of the (male) mob is still  potent and the most fortified bastions of ‘law and order’ are not safe. (Kabul Police HQ bombed).

Watch/listen HERE.

A scholarship established in memory of Farkhunda has been established. More information about it can be found on The Afghan Women’s Support Forum website by clicking HERE.