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The Agony of Britain’s Missing People

Their faces gaze out at us from newspapers, documentaries, the internet. Some of their names are well known to us – Claudia Lawrence, Corrie McKeague, Madeleine McCann. Many we have never heard of. They are the missing people, the ones who vanished one ordinary day and were never seen again.

The families of the missing continue to wait for news of their loved ones. Some run campaigns to keep awareness alive, some have put their energies in to helping other families going through the same thing. The wait must feel interminable, and sometimes there is no end.

So what happens to these missing people? How can someone just disappear without trace, without anyone knowing where they are? Some may have chosen to leave their old lives behind. Some may have been involved in a tragic accident but never found. I remember a boy I had grown up with suddenly disappearing just before Christmas, not long after his eighteenth birthday. He had been on a night out, had been seen saying he planned to walk home although he was very drunk. His mother was distraught, searching, asking for information , to no avail. Eventually, one of his trainers was found stuck in the mud at the side of the canal. And soon after, his body was dredged up. He had lost his balance while walking down the narrow towpath. It was a terrible, spur of the moment end to what had been a drawn out mystery.

I wonder how many other missing people have met a similar, non suspicious end but were never discovered?

Currently, a landfill is being searched in the hunt for Corrie McKeague. How many other missing people ended up in such a place but were never discovered?

It is a terrible thing to consider – that those families will never have an answer to the whereabouts of their loved one.

Then there are those who clearly did not leave by choice, did not come to an unfortunate but non-violent death -, those who were taken. People like Claudia Lawrence, who seems to have been taken – possibly by someone already known to her. The police believe that there are those in the York area who know exactly what happened to the young chef, but won’t divulge what they know.

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There is Damien Nettles, a teenager out on the town with a camera, drunkenly taking odd snaps of those around him. Last seen on a chip shop CCTV, waving goodbye to the owner before disappearing in to the night. Again, there are those on the Isle of Wight who know what happened to Damien that night. They know where he lies, but will not tell his desperate family.

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What about Andrew Gosden, a fourteen year old who inexplicably decided to travel to London alone instead of going to school in September 2007? Did he go to meet someone? Where is he now?

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Sometimes the missing become the found – in devastating circumstances. Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were once two missing girls. They are now known as the tragic murder victims of Ian Huntley.

It is every mother’s worst nightmare – to lose a child, even when they are considered adults. The police say that if a missing person has not been found within 72hrs, the chances are that they are dead or have come to harm. It is a frightening prospect.

It is beyond belief that individuals may know information relating to missing people and their whereabouts, but do not come forward. How these people can face their guilt every day while families suffer the tremendous grief of not knowing, not being able to say goodbye, is a mystery to anyone with a heart.

There are anonymous ways you can give information to the police – through Crimestoppers for example, which you can do online with an anonymous form.

https://crimestoppers-uk.org/give-information/give-information-online/

If you have information about anyone you know has been reported missing, please do the right thing. Do it for their families, who are still waiting to find their loved ones.

 

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Remembering Diana

The mass of white flowers interspersed with cheery colourful tulips casts a wonderful fragrance in to the air around those waiting to view Kensington Palace’s new exhibition, ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’. The garden, usually called The Sunken Garden, has been transformed in to a gloriously beautiful space entitled The White Garden, in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales twenty years after her death. People mill about, quietly taking in the scent of the flowers and the splendour of the planting. It seems a fitting tribute to a lady who loved flowers, was herself beautiful, fragrant and a one off. The garden will be re-planted through the season to maintain it’s beauty, the tulips and tiny white forget-me-nots replaced with roses, lilies and jasmine.

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The exhibition inside the palace is equally stunning. Although the queues are lengthy, even with a pre-booked ticket, (and one of the assistants informed me it has been like this every day since opening) – it is worth the wait. The exhibition consists of several adjoining rooms, each featuring several iconic outfits worn by the princess. Early items included are a pretty blue ballgown worn by the teenage Diana, the delicate pale pink blouse she wore for her Vogue portrait pre-engagement and the earthy tweed suit worn at Balmoral on honeymoon. Later dresses include the dramatic red and black flamenco-esque she wore with contrasting red and black long gloves, the magnificent beaded ‘Elvis’ dress and the dramatic midnight blue velvet of the ‘Travolta’ dress she famously wore to a ball at the White House.

For me, I loved the Catherine Walker designs best. Superbly tailored, with an eye for detail and perfectly fitted, they became Diana’s ‘uniform’ – whether a smart red business two piece or an intricately embroidered evening gown, each one is a work of art.

There are several designer sketches of outfits hanging on one wall, while other walls are covered in quotes about the princess and the impact she had both in fashion and in humanitarian terms. One room has beautifully carved, white wooden panels which seem to luminously echo the embroidery in some of the dresses themselves.

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Towards the end of the exhibition, a short video runs with iconic shots of Diana – the charity worker, the mother, the fashion icon. People watch in silence. There is a heavy emotion in the air – this is a woman who is missed. I could hear people as they walked around the glass display cases – “This one was when she was still happy,” I heard one say while gazing at the tweed suit. We, as a nation, embraced Diana and her story. We supported her and wanted her to succeed. Her presence in the royal family is sorely missed, and the massive queues and quiet comments serve to underline the great esteem in which Diana is still held.

I highly recommend a visit to both the garden and the exhibition. Uplifting, memorable and yes, just a little bit emotional too.

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Fighting the Stigma

As I covered in my previous blog, the current media campaign of Heads Together as fronted by Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, is encouraging people to be more open about their mental health problems. This week has been a particularly high profile build up to the London Marathon on Sunday, when hundreds of runners will take part under the Heads Together banner to raise awareness and raise funds for mental health charities.

As the royal threesome stated so eloquently in their video today, mental health problems can be rooted behind so many other issues such as homelessness, domestic abuse, bereavement and drug abuse. A huge percentage of us will suffer emotional problems at some point in our lives, some of us will live with mental health difficulties for years without speaking out for fear of seeming weak or being labelled ‘nuts’.

Twitter: Kensington Palace

Over the past few weeks, several high profile celebrities have joined the campaign to start the conversation on mental health, being filmed discussing their own private difficulties and how they deal with them. The culmination of this has been the admission by Prince Harry himself that he has had to deal with his own demons in relation to the sudden death of his mother, The Princess of Wales.

I personally hope that this campaign will continue to encourage us as a nation to be more accepting of mental health illness as being just as debilitating as physical injury or disease. I have personally spent years struggling with anxiety and issues around low self esteem, initially due to a difficult childhood then exacerbated by other traumatic events that happened during the course of my teenage and adult life. I have sought to find answers to the moments of self doubt, of crippling anxiety and times of deep depression. I have turned to therapy, to counselling, to mindfulness, to exercise, to positive thinking, to medication … you name it, I have tried it. Some of it has been useful, some not at all. Each individual will find value in different strategies, and sometimes just being able to talk about your worries or express the dark thoughts you have been struggling with can be enough to clear your head.

Over the years, I have come across a wide range of responses to my mental health illness – from the “Pull yourself together” viewpoint to the much more sympathetic. I find that people who have also dealt with mental health issues themselves are usually the kindest, most understanding people of all. They have been at the bottom of that pit and they know just how dark and hopeless it can seem.

If the Heads Together campaign can encourage even a small number of people to have a better understanding of mental health illnesses, or persuade even a small number to seek help for their own desperation, then it will have been a success.

And that is surely something of huge value to us all.

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Heads Together – The Diana Harry Connection

 

When Prince Harry spoke openly about his mental health problems this week, it was a welcome diversion from the usual royal ‘stiff upper lip’ and also, very reminiscent of another royal personage, not too long ago, who also wanted to use their own issues to help others in need.

Harry’s admission, made during a podcast for The Telegraph with Bryony Gordon, allowed us a glimpse in to the reasons behind the campaign for better conversations about mental health, ‘Heads Together’. The campaign, fronted by Harry, his brother William and sister-in-law Kate, has sought to bring awareness to the problem of mental health issues and the impact they can have on other areas such as addiction, violence, and homelessness. For some time now, the campaign has consisted of a series of royal engagements, short speeches and some engaging video montage sequences. All very well done, but not really hard-hitting or particularly memorable. For someone like the prince to actually express his own difficulties with emotional issues and how it has impacted upon his life, has far more lasting effect than all of the previous occasions put together.

While listening to Harry’s podcast, I was reminded of his mother, Diana, whose willingness to share her own problems in order to help others was part of her huge success in her later royal career. I recall her speech about eating disorders, (“I have it, on very good authority…”) along with her speech to women’s charity, Wellbeing,

“I think you are very fortunate to have your patron here today, I was supposed to have my head down the loo for most of the day. I’m supposed to be dragged off the minute I leave here by men in white coats. But if it’s alright with you, I thought I might postpone my nervous breakdown.”

 

Diana’s tongue in cheek use of her own difficulties was partly to dilute the media’s stories of her emotional problems and partly to reach out to sufferers to let them know she understood their hardship. She sat with eating disorder sufferer groups, domestic violence groups – and was becoming a strong advocate for women’s issues globally before she died.

Harry’s willingness to open up publicly about his mental health problems and feelings of anger following the loss of his mother has the very same impact that she had in sharing what is usually ‘behind closed doors’ stuff for the royal family. And perversely, it is the very thing about Diana that the public loved and valued so much. It has been clear for some time that Harry, not William, has inherited Diana’s inherent skill in dealing with people of all backgrounds. Regardless of Harry’s feelings of anxiety, which he admitted in the podcast, he has that very magic ability to charm and seem like ‘one of us’ to those he meets – whether army veterans, pensioners, young people or the microcosm of people he meets on walkabouts.

It is an innate ability, which cannot be assumed or pretended.

Harry’s genuine approachability was again seen this week when he unexpectedly enlisted a five year old to help cut the ribbon to open the London Marathon Expo. These characteristics have helped to endear him to the public in a way that no other current royal family member can equal. Anyone who has been present at any royal event will bear testament to the roar of the crowd whenever Harry appears, in contrast to the perhaps lacklustre response to some other members of the royal family. The Queen, of course, receives the biggest cheer of all.

Harry’s quality of human warmth is so reminiscent of his mother that it might be said that he is the true heir to Diana’s legacy. His willingness to take on the mantle of her causes such as continuing the campaign to rid the world of landmines shows him to be the rightful successor to her populist crown.

Diana prided herself, above all her roles, in being a good mother. Her boys were the most important part of her life and she worked hard to instil the sort of values she believed in with them. She wanted them to understand the difficulties of the lives of others less privileged, to have empathy for the vulnerable of society and to be prepared to help, as she was. While the youngest of her two, it is clear that Harry is the one who has most embraced her ethos. Whether nature or nurture, it is apparent that Harry is her natural successor.

I can’t help but feel that if Diana could see now the impact of the life she lived, the one element she would be most proud of would be to see the transformation of her youngest son from ‘party prince’ to ‘caring prince’. As Shakespeare once showed us in his Henry IV plays, a young, wild Prince Hal might just surprise those around him by becoming the most committed, dutiful King Henry possible. And what a shame it might be that popular Harry is not the man next in line for such a title.

Instead, perhaps, we should remember the words of his mother, and think about the son she has left us to continue her work in her absence:

“I don’t see myself being Queen of this country. But I’d like the be the Queen of people’s hearts, in people’s hearts.”

Harry might never be the King of this country, but he is certainly well on his way to being embraced by people’s hearts.

Something of which Diana would have been very proud.

 

 

Photograph – Getty Images

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Kelvin Mackenzie and the Hillsborough Legacy

Twenty eight years ago yesterday, one of the worst ever footballing disasters took place at Hillsborough. Ninety six Liverpool Football Club fans left their homes to spend the afternoon watching their favourite team play in the FA Cup Semi-Final, but never came home. Their deaths a result of huge overcrowding at the Leppings Lane end of the Sheffield ground, and a lack of immediate response from the police and emergency services due to poor management.

We all know the story of the ensuing years of fighting to have justice for the victims – and the final verdict that the dead that day had indeed been ‘unlawfully killed’ rather the victims of an unfortunate accident. Along the way, however, it was not just the victims, their families or those involved whose characters were sullied, but those of an entire city. Liverpool was painted as home to petty criminals who would steal from the dead, self-pitying idiots who would not accept fault for the incident or their supposed part in events that day. The main culprit for such slurs was Sun newspaper editor Kelvin Mackenzie, whose headline of The Truth stood above an article of complete untruths – that fans had urinated on the police, stolen from victims, got what they deserved. Mackenzie’s disdain for the truth and his apparent vendetta against Liverpool continues to this day. His recent article comparing Everton footballer, Ross Barkley who is part Nigerian, to a ‘gorilla’ and implying that the only rich people in Merseyside are footballers or drug dealers, shows an unapologetic and contemptuous mindset against a city who have never forgotten his lies.

Mackenzie was seemingly happy to write that Barkley was ‘dim’ – yet claims that he did not know the footballer was partly Nigerian, therefore excusing his ‘gorilla’ comment. One might presume a journalist should research facts before writing any article – Mackenzie thought he knew enough to opine about Barkley’s intelligence, yet says he did not know anything about his heritage? The racist and derogatory comments about Barkley and Liverpool as a whole suggest Mackenzie is more concerned with writing sensationalist rubbish than anything close to factual, a skill he has apparently not lost since 1989.

It may be twenty eight years since that sunny day in Sheffield turned in to a day of terrible sorrow and injustice, and Liverpool may have finally received the legal verdict it so desperately wanted for those who were lost – but the message that the city will not suffer in silence stands strong. Both Liverpool and Everton football clubs have both now decreed that Sun newspaper journalists are no longer welcome in their stadia or at news conferences, as a direct result of their continued affiliation with Kelvin Mackenzie. One might wonder why The Sun newspaper still continues to employ this man, and what it would take for them to reconsider his position with them?

The legacy of the Hillsborough disaster is not just that the ninety six victims will never be forgotten or that huge steps have been made to protect the public at large events – but also that the city of Liverpool will not tolerate their naysayers, or those who continue to spin lies about the city or the people who live there.

Not then, not now, not ever.

And that includes Kelvin Mackenzie.

 

 

(Image from Getty)

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A Very Middleton Marriage

Pippa Middleton, the sister of the Duchess of Cambridge, is due to marry James Matthews, financial whizz-kid and billionaire, in Berkshire on 20th May 2017. In typical fashion, the details of the upcoming wedding have been breathtakingly revealed bit by bit – until last week, we were treated to an actual statement from Kensington Palace about which royal family members would be actually attending the nuptials. Considering that neither Pippa nor her family are actually part of the royal family, this seemed a step too far to many royal observers.

The Middleton family have an unfortunate habit of making themselves seem publicity hungry. Their apparent desire to be front and centre, rather than taking a side seat like other royal in-laws, has caused them to be called social climbers, showy people who want a slice of the lifestyle their daughter and sister has access to, being the wife of Prince William. ¬†They have gone from being a quiet, affluent family living an a typical middle class village home to living in the local manor house and wearing crest-engraved signet rings. The British have never been fond of those who try to be something they are not. The whole concept of the popular sitcom, ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ was that the audience could laugh at the character of Hyacinth Bucket (“Bouquet”), a working class woman who created an upper middle class fantasy life through her immaculate home and expensive china tea-sets. We all know people like Hyacinth, to greater or lesser degrees. However, it feels more than slightly incongruous that the family of the Duchess of Cambridge should be perceived as behaving like this – we somehow expect the royals to marry into families who are equally illustrious, like the Spencers for example who had been aristocracy for hundreds of years. Those families without such background should have the class to stay low-key and maintain a quiet dignity. Sophie Rhys-Jones, who married Prince Edward, was from a less grand background but her family have stayed private figures, rewarded for their decorum by several invitations to spend time with the Queen and her family.

The Middletons have apparently chosen not to take this path. The fact that Pippa’s upcoming wedding is being sold as the ‘wedding of the year’ and every snippet of organisation for it apparently leaked, might suggest that there is a certain enjoyment of the celebrity this endows to a couple who would never have been heard of had the bride’s sister never met Prince William.

It remains to be seen how much of the wedding will be photographed, since Prince George and Princess Charlotte are to be pageboy and flower girl. This strange hybrid of private family wedding and quasi-royal event seems to sum up the problem of the Middleton family themselves. Neither private nor royal, their half way house style of managing things is unprecedented and raises quizzical eyebrows amongst traditionalists. In a media-hungry culture, when people may become stars from reality shows or merely drawing attention to themselves, is it so unlikely that this family have allowed themselves to become the sort of celebrities who apparently have no claim to fame, other than close proximity to someone who married a famous man?

 

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PC Palmer and the Re-Appreciation of the Police

When, on Wednesday 22nd March 2017, a crazed fanatic drove his car down the pavement of Westminster Bridge before plunging a knife in to the policeman who was standing guard at the Palace of Westminster, nobody could have foreseen the national feeling of sorrow and loss for a serving policeman doing his job.

Unarmed and at the front line, PC Keith Palmer was used to checking in arrivals at parliament, fielding questions from passersby and having his picture taken with tourists. While trained for such possibilities as terrorist attacks, it is unlikely that he was expecting that moment when an armed Khalid Masood approached him, with murder in his mind.

PC Palmer was, by all accounts, a decent man. He had served in the army, he was good at his job, he had a family and friends who loved him. He didn’t deserve to die in such a gruesome way, by an attacker who just wanted to make a political or religious point.

The outcry following PC Palmer’s death was genuine and heartfelt. So often, the media are happy to complain about our emergency services – particularly the police – for missing clues or not acting as deemed appropriate by some journalist or other. The truth of the matter is, that while some police actions may not be adequate, or may be mis-judged, every day these men and women face dangers and unpleasantness that most of us would happily run away from.

PC Palmer knew that there was a minute possibility that someone might target him for the very uniform he was wearing. Now, more than ever, when our service men and women are warned not to travel to or from work in their uniforms, he knew what it meant to stand where he was, acting as the policeman on duty that morning. He still did his job.

While others ran for safety when gunshots and screaming were heard, our emergency services were running in the opposite direction -straight in to danger. It is gratifying to know that so many felt the loss of this policeman doing his duty that his body was allowed to rest in the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft at the Houses of Parliament – an honour usually reserved for heads of state – and that he was given a funeral at Southwark Cathedral, after being taken along a route lined with mourners and 5000 police officers, standing in silent tribute.

So often our police forces, and other emergency services personnel, bear the brunt of not only dealing with our worst moments of crisis, but our vitriol when things go wrong. Let us remember that every day they risk their lives and their safety to make sure that WE are all kept safe. And that makes them the biggest heroes of all.

RIP Keith Palmer.