Why and how I’m raising money for the Brain Tumour Charity and how you can help

In May 2013, a good friend of mine – Matt Morton – lost his fight with cancer. He was just 43, and even though he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour for a couple of years his death was felt very deeply by all who were close to him.

I got to know Matt through music. I was invited to join a covers band as rhythm guitarist – Matt was the lead guitarist. I hadn’t played in a band for over a decade, but was made to feel very welcome and Matt was no small part of that. He was one of the most genuine and friendly people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

I wanted to do something to mark his passing and to raise money in his name.

matt
Mat Morton

 

I ruled out things like a 10k run or a parachute jump in favour of something I felt was more fitting, more personal … a night of live music featuring some of the people that played in bands with Matt.

And so, with the help of some fantastic people (including Matt’s widow Helen, and Adam Vickers & Justin Chilvers who also played in a band with Matt) on 26 July there will be a gig night in Matt’s memory, at which three (maybe even four) musical acts will perform, and there will be raffles, auctions and bespoke plectrums you can buy.

mfest
Plectrums will be on sale

The money we raise will be split between St Barnabas House, who looked after Matt and his family so well, and the Brain Tumour Charity, who do fantastic work in this sector.

If you can get along to the 3Bs bar in central Reading on 26 July, I’d love you to join us.

But if you can’t, please consider making a donation instead – any amount large or small will be gratefully received.

Here’s the link – http://www.eventbrite.com/e/mattfest-2014-tickets-11672622127

UPDATE: we raised more than £1,600 on the night, far more than we hoped for.

Brothers in arms – my interview with Veterans Aid CEO Hugh Milroy

Veterans of the armed forces are at risk from many of the same pressures as anyone else, I learned from speaking with the CEO of Veterans Aid. It’s all too easy to generalise about drunk, homeless ex-squaddies, and doing so isn’t just wrong, it fails to get to the heart of the matter. 

Dr Hugh Milroy leans back in his chair and fixes his gaze upon me from the other side of the desk. His is an intense stare that accompanies a relaxed manner and a ready smile. This is not, I find myself thinking, quite what I had expected.

A former Wing Commander in the RAF, recipient of an OBE and holder of a PhD, what I had expected was that the CEO of Veterans Aid would be altogether more formidable and imposing.

The room itself also belies many of the usual preconceptions you might have of a CEO’s office. Boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling against one wall, full of clothes and other essentials. Another wall is dominated by a painting of a WWII Spitfire. There’s a meeting table, which I’m later told is second hand. Elsewhere there are collection tins inserted into old boots, a portrait of the Queen, and artwork produced by some of the veterans the charity has helped. But more on that later.

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid

What wasn’t in evidence in his office was any trace of standing on ceremony, of self-importance or of lavish expense. It is a businesslike office with enough personality about it to feel genuine, without being over-bearing.

Affable and amiable he may be, but Milroy is clearly a driven man, a man with a clear sense of purpose and deep understanding of the people Veterans Aid supports. And it is in regard to these people that I soon begin to realise that much of what I had considered to be received wisdom was actually nothing but misleading.

Veterans Aid works with former service personnel who, in civilian life, have hit upon hard times for one reason or another. The charity regards anyone who is ex–Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, or from the Merchant Services to be a veteran. It also covers Reservists, such as the Territorial Army, and in fact just one day’s service qualifies any of the above to be considered veterans.

The charity sees itself as very much part of the Victoria/SW1 scene and has been for much of the 80 years it has been in existence.

 

Myth busting

Anyone paying even scant attention to the media will have read or heard that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers in the capital are veterans and that they all have drink and drug problems.

This is perhaps the first myth that needs dealing with, and it’s one that Milroy dispels with the relaxed sense of focus he displays throughout our time together.

“We see veterans who are in crisis,” Milroy explains. “Real crisis – homelessness is only one aspect of that.”

Veterans Aid provides in excess of 20,000 nights of accommodation every year, and can house between 60 and 80 people per night; in addition to its Buckingham Palace Road HQ, Veterans Aid has its own hostel in east London.

“You could look upon Veterans Aid as the accident and emergency service for the veteran community,” Milroy tells me.

“If someone needs accommodation we’ll find them somewhere, whether it’s in our hostel or in a hotel. If they need detox we’ll get them on a detox programme. If they need clothes, a suit for a job interview perhaps, we’ll do that. We try to be as pragmatic as possible in the way we handle things.”

There are no hand outs. But there is a helping hand up to those who need it and, just as importantly, are willing work hard to make the most of the help available.

I ask Milroy if this pragmatism is because the organisation, and the majority of the people working there are ex-military – do people with a military background have a particular approach to fixing things and making progress because of having served in the armed forces?

“There may be something in that, perhaps we are quite straight in our approach to things. But I think it’s important to point out that people don’t come to us because they’ve been institutionalised by the time they spent in the armed forces. If we were dealing with problems caused by institutionalisation, then it would seem strange that we rarely see people who have served for a long time.”

 

Common ground, common language

Milroy talks to me at length about the need to help people rediscover their resilience, something he describes as running like a thread through all service personnel. He refutes my suggestion that while those who have served in the armed forces are less inclined to accept hand outs whereas run-of-the-mill civilians are that bit softer, lacking in resilience, and will gladly take a hand out.

He is quick to correct me in a firm yet non-chiding manner that sits well with his overall demeanour of a man who is thoroughly relaxed and at home with himself, yet uncompromisingly focussed and alert. “The ‘service’ part is a very good way of getting to ground zero, where we can all talk the same language,” he tells me. “Beyond that it’s down to the individual.”

Finding a common language is clearly an important aspect of helping someone in need start to find their self respect once again. After all, few of us flourish as a result of being patronised and talked down to. Veterans Aid works to sow the seeds of a physical support network of friends and acquaintances in the lives of those it helps, addressing one of the most pernicious demons many of its clients are facing – social isolation. The downward spiral of drink and drug addictions, much like the burdens of growing mountains of debt, will ultimately push people away from their friends and family until, all too often, they have no one to turn to, no one to talk to.

The typical user of Veterans Aid’s services is male and aged somewhere between 38 and 45. It is generally the case that they joined up at an early age and served for around three years. Like many people they encounter difficulties in later life and some simply struggle to overcome these difficulties.

The younger veterans, in their 20s, encounter the same barriers to social housing that face anyone else of their age in the UK.

 

Far and wide

Last year, Veterans Aid received around 2,000 calls for help, and it put 216 people into accommodation. But it also works hard through a network across the country to identify those needing support before they arrive in London – Victoria coach station being one of the key magnets.

Milroy talks of people graduating from the Veterans Aid service, and how they must be ready and capable individuals that can sustain themselves once they’ve received the helping hand up. Otherwise, he cautions, it’s a waste of both time and money.

“We see people from all branches of the services and all ranks. But very few are in trouble because of their military service. They’re here because of life in Britain today – which can be difficult for anyone.

“In fact, it is extremely rare (Milroy places a great deal of emphasis on the words extremely rare) for Veterans Aid to see somebody with PTSD. What we see is people with complex problems. Addictions, alcohol abuse, debt, general mental health issues – just like one-in-four of the general population might also suffer at some point,” he says, referring to a statistic often quoted by the NHS and mental health charities such as MIND.

 

Not just art for art’s sake

It’s not all detox and emergency housing though. There are examples of veterans going on training courses that will enable them to get regular, well-paid jobs. Some have gone to university, and in December Veterans Aid will be hosting an exhibition at the SW1 Gallery of works of art created by some of the people it has helped.

Veterans Aid is an integral part of the Victoria community and this year is its 80thanniversary. Clearly held in high regard, it was the recipient of Victoria BID’s jubilee fund raising lunch in May and has received the support of the Lord Mayor of Westminster. It is involved in training officers from the Metropolitan Police on how to identify and help veterans in need of support. It seeks to stem the flow of homeless people arriving in SW1. It rolls up its sleeves and finds practical, sustainable solutions to the problems facing many people who at some point in their past have served Queen and country.

I reflect on what I’ve learned as I leave Milroy’s office, and upon the ordinariness of it all – the lack of pretention, the absence of affectation.

On my walk up the two flights of stairs earlier that morning I had met two Veterans Aid staff who had once been on the receiving end of the charity’s help, and a third man who was clearly there in need of said help.

It is someone’s birthday at Veterans Aid, and as I leave I hear an office full of people singing “happy birthday” to their colleague, as happens in pretty much any and every office all across the country.

You can find out more about Veterans Aid by visiting their website here.

Portrait of Dr Hugh Milroy is copyright Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid

Beating domestic violence needs more than Clare’s Law

Read the next sentence slowly and carefully please, because it’s important you understand my position on this subject.

Domestic violence – of any sort – is inexcusable, wrong and should not be tolerated.

At a time when charities are struggling to provide real practical help to women who have been the victims of domestic abuse, the government is introducing a piece of legislation which, in my opinion, will never achieve its aim of helping women avoid abusive relationships in the first place.  At least, not in meaningful numbers.

Furthermore, it does nothing to shift the focus and responsibility away from women and on to men, who make up the majority of abusers.

The introduction of the so-called Clare’s Law will be done via four 12 month pilot schemes in Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire, Gwent and Greater Manchester.

For those who don’t know, Clare’s Law is an idea predicated very much on the existing sex-offenders’ register – only relating to crimes of domestic violence.  The idea being that a woman can check if the man she is about to start a relationship with has a criminal conviction for domestic violence.

But I see a number of flaws in what I am quite sure started out as a laudable attempt to do something to help women who are suffering domestic abuse. Maybe that’s because I think that doing something is not at all the same as doing the right thing.

Perhaps the biggest flaw I can see is this – no crime = no criminal record.

You can be bullied into psychological submission, ground down, have your self-worth and self-esteem eroded, live in fear that the threats and sinister atmosphere will one day become a painful, life-threatening physical reality, all (and more) of these things can take place in your home without anyone ever laying so much as a finger on you in anger, or breaking any laws.

Leave morality to one side – if you can – because the law is not a function of morality, and Clare’s Law is indeed a law.  While I’m no lawyer, I don’t think you’ll find many people have been convicted of bullying behaviour toward their spouse.

Similarly, you can avoid a criminal record by not getting caught or not being reported in the first place.

Over the course of my adult life, I think I’ve known two close female friends who had been physically assaulted by their male partners.  Or perhaps what I mean is I’ve known two women who felt able to talk about it.  In both cases it was after the fact, not during.

The 2010/11 British Crime Survey revealed that at least one-in-four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their life.  According to other estimates, there may be around 40,000 incidents of domestic violence in the UK every year.  These are sickening statistics.

I know a serving police officer who works in the Met’s domestic violence unit.  The biggest problem she faces, she says, is convincing the victims to see their abuser arrested, charged, and tried.  Far too many will back down at the point of having to commit to a statement or giving evidence, leaving a prosecution impossible. The police can now prosecute without the partner’s direct involvement, but if the victim won’t cooperate this means the possible omission from a case of the only witness and a great deal of evidence.

The cases that have made it to court and secured a conviction are, sadly, the minority.  The Liberal Democrat Party undertook research in 2009 that showed only 6.4% of reported incidents of domestic violence resulted in acriminal conviction.

That’s a lot of people (men, in the overwhelming majority) not picking up a criminal record for domestic abuse.  A lot.

Clare’s Law might be able to tell a woman that the guy she might be about to fall in love with doesn’t have a record for domestic abuse.  But it’ll never be able to tell her the reason might be because he’s one of the 93.6% of cases that evaded a successful prosecution.

However, something Clare’s Law does achieve effectively is to create the impression that we have a government committed to helping the victims of domestic abuse.  It’s a very visible thing to do and legislation is a great way of demonstrating to the country that you take a matter very seriously.

Let me be clear here… if it helps just one woman avoid falling into the clutches of one of the 6.4% that will, of course, be a good thing.

But it doesn’t address the causes, only the symptoms of the problem, and will never offer real help and real hope to the overwhelming majority of women, many of whom find their only lifeline to be charities and support groups.

Local authority funding to charities working with the victims of domestic violence fell from £7.8 million in 2010/11 to £5.4 million this year, according to the Guardian.

In fact, the decline in government-funding of this vitally important sector is such that some campaigners (again, according to the Guardian) claim as many as 230 women seeking help are turned away from shelters and refuges every day.

One of the leading charities looking after these women (and their children) is Refuge.  It has had its funding slashed by 50% and may have to close.  Clearly, that would be catastrophic for the 1,600 or so women and children it currently supports, not to mention all those who will never be able to turn to it for help in the future.

(The above points can be referred back to here.)

Sometimes having a safe place to turn to can literally mean the difference between life and death.  Sometimes it can mean getting the right support to be able to find the courage to press charges and cooperate with a prosecution.  Sometimes it is the first step toward rebuilding your life, regaining a sense of self-worth and everything that comes with it.

On one hand I see charities that save lives, and that provide shelter and support, having to turn women away now and possibly facing closure in the future.

On the other hand, there is a piece of legislation that will record the past crimes of the fewer-than-10% of men convicted of domestic violence and make that information available to those who request it. And let’s not forget, there’s nothing anyone can do to make it compulsory for women to CRB check all their future partners, so even some of those will slip through the net.

This is another key flaw in the make up of Clare’s Law in my opinion.  It puts the responsibility on women to conduct background checks on men they may be starting relationships with.  From a practical point of view, I can’t help but wonder how likely it is that this will actually happen? This means every woman having to request a background check on every potential partner, anything less is a failure of the system.

Human nature will be the undoing of that, I fear. I think we’ve probably all rushed into a relationship half-blinded by love and optimism at some point in our lives. How many of us would stop to carry out some sort of background check on someone we were already starting to feel attached to?

There is, of course, also a role for men to play in tackling the problem of domestic violence.  I’d like to see the government do something more inclusive and more sustainable that involves men (the whole of society even) in an attempt at breaking down the taboos that still surround so many of the issues connected with domestic abuse, something that engenders a real deep-rooted sense of the unacceptable.

If you’ve read this far, thank you.  If you’ve read this far and are thinking “you’re a man, you could never understand” you’re a bit of an idiot.  Domestic violence can, and does, affect everyone.

I will offer this hesitant apology though.  This is a very serious topic.  I don’t claim to be an expert.  Nor do I claim to be the most eloquent of writers.  So, reader, I implore you to forgive any rough-hewn turns of phrase or arguments that don’t quite go as deep as they could.

Frankly I could have written several thousand words on this, decorating it with anecdotes and more research. I haven’t even touched on the countless cases where women had lodged complaints with the police about their partner (or former partner) only to end up being murdered before the police had done anything meaningful to intervene. In fact, Clare’s Law is named after one such woman.

But that isn’t what this piece is for.

This is my opinion on things my government is doing that will ultimately allow tragic loss of life to occur by reducing access to life-saving refuge, while blithely seeking to appease us with a piece of no doubt well-intentioned legislation that will never do more than warm the tip of the iceberg.