Tom Hanks Being Mr Rogers
By Viva Press
Tom Hanks is generally recognised as the nicest man in Hollywood, if not the entire planet. Now he’s starring in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, playing another public figure whose reputation is just as sterling – Fred Rogers, the late host of the award-winning and immensely popular children’s TV series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Hanks’s winning performance (nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actor award) as the beloved TV host has earned rave reviews and is likely to earn him a sixth Oscar nomination and possibly his third trophy. Assessing his screen alter ego, Hanks believes that kindness was the hallmark of Rogers and his legacy.
‘He had the three secrets to happiness,’ said Hanks. ‘Be kind, be kind and be kind. I think “kindness” becomes a buzz word. It ends up being diminished by the fact of what it means. But honestly, if you give everybody a fair shake, if you understand that the person that is serving you or filling up your gas might have had just as bad a day as you had, that’s just kindness.’
The film, directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), co-stars Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as Esquire journalist Tom Junod, whose life was changed after interviewing Rogers for the magazine in 1998. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the film has charmed audiences and critics alike and is likely to rank amongst Hanks’ most memorable roles.
Rhys admitted to being somewhat intimidated acting opposite Hanks, an actor he has long revered.
‘It was terrifying,’ he remarked. ‘In a very personal, insecure way, yes, terrifying. Having grown up with Tom Hanks as a true iconic hero of mine, it takes days to kind of go, “Oh, my God, that’s Tom Hanks. What do I say next to him?” [I felt like] falling apart. And then seeing him embody Fred, not in an impersonating way, but in a true embodiment of who he was, was incredible to watch. So, it took a few weeks to relax.’
For Hanks, playing Rogers is merely one more outstanding example of the 63-year-old actor’s capacity to seamlessly morph into his characters and deliver the pathos and requisite appeal that have enchanted audiences throughout his career. Many of his previous films rank as all-time classics.
Q&A WITH TOM HANKS
Tom, what is it about Fred Rogers that endowed him with this almost mystical aura?
The thing about Fred was that he’s instantaneously, to almost every adult in America … one of two things: a saint or a fraud. I think maybe even Tom [Junod, the Esquire journalist who became Rogers’ friend – Ed] experienced that when he first met him. It’s like, you can’t be both. You have to be one or the other because that’s the way movie life works. And in order to get to that place where we never make fun of Fred, we need to slow down in order to listen to him. Even some of the physical aspects of it were always going to be deconstructing the myth of it, in order to show he’s a regular guy who went out for Chinese food. But at the same time, in scene after scene after scene, there is this mystery of ‘What’s his motivation here?’
Did anything surprise you about Rogers when you researched him?
One of the most wonderful things is that he was actually an ordained minister who never mentioned God on his show.
Did you ever watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with your children when they were little?
No, but I wish that when my son was three years old, that he and I sat down and watched half an hour of Mr Rogers a week. I would have better understood the role of a parent in saying to one’s children: ‘It’s all right if you’re sad.’
You’re known for being very nice and kind in the same way that Fred Rogers was seen. Did any of Rogers seep into your own personality?
I’m not sure...[But] when my wife and I get into it, and when we’re done with whatever subject matter got us all heated up, I’m now driving her insane because I sing: ‘It’s good to talk/ It’s good to share the things we feel/ It’s good to talk.’ [A classic lyric from the TV series]
Apparently the cast and crew of the film were stunned into silence when they first saw you walk onto the set as Fred Rogers and wearing his iconic cardigan?
It was like coming in as Elvis into Graceland. I had no sense of self. I really felt like I was having an out-of-body experience of watching this other guy be Fred Rogers.
Did you spend a lot of time watching old episodes of his show?
I watched a ton. Hours and hours. Look, the show was on when I was maybe eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. I just thought it was odd. The puppets, their mouths didn’t move. What are these odd songs he keeps trying to sing all the time? I was probably more in tune with all the imitations of him, the comedy bits about him. I didn’t realise that the show was a very specific sort of work that is not meant for us. If you have any reason for cynicism in your outlook, you cannot watch that show and not just have cynicism completely take over. The thing that no one could quite believe is that the purpose [of the show] was good – the purpose was to make little kids feel safe. [There was this suspicion] that somehow – there’s got to be something nefarious about that, there’s got to be something sleazy. Who takes that mantle upon themselves and guards it and keeps working at it?
[When Rogers was asked] why did you stop doing your show, he said: ‘Well, because we had really talked about everything.’ He’s talking about his output as a canon that can exist again and again and again for any kid who’s two to three years old. That’s profound. I don’t think people trust that. They don’t buy it.
Had you ever imagined playing someone like Rogers?
I have a story about that... I was making this movie, The Road to Perdition. It was a night shoot. We were in the back lot of Warner Bros, where they don’t actually make a lot of movies any more. They had rain and wind machines set up because we were going to be shooting a scene in a torrential downpour. All the actors were dressed in black and carrying umbrellas and I entered the shot from the end of the street with a submachine gun and I butchered twelve guys and shot Paul Newman dead.
And I thought, ‘God, I hope I get to play Mr Rogers someday.’ I’d like to think that between the executioner in The Green Mile and the Nazi killer in Saving Private Ryan, it was all leading up to playing the man who created the neighborhood of make-believe.
Do you love your job as much as ever when you get to play great real-life figures like Sully or Jim Lovell (in Apollo 13) or characters who are just as uplifting?
I’m very lucky because I feel that every film is a new adventure and a new experience. It’s great to be able to keep doing something that you love to do and have that kind of creative satisfaction. It never gets boring. For me, the true measure of success is artistic longevity. I don’t like to look back on my past work because there’s nothing I can do to change that and the only thing that really matters is what kinds of work you’re doing now and in the future. I simply try to stick to the path that’s taken me this far and I hope that keeps on working for me.
Do you have any specific things you look for in each film or role you play?
I’m very instinctive. I just start reading the script and if after the first fifteen pages I think: ‘This role has to be mine and I don’t think anyone else could do it better,’ then I’ll do it. Maybe it’s just a matter of self-centredness and competitiveness but I think most actors are like that.
It’s also easy to accept a role sometimes because you’re being offered a lot of money, you have the opportunity to work with a director you hold in high esteem, or maybe you get to work with a beautiful and talented actress. Saying no is much more difficult.
You and your wife, Rita Wilson, have raised two children together. Has it been hard to keep your status as a movie star separate from your home life?
We’re not the kind of family where we have posters of our films on the walls of the house. But having said that, my wife knew she was marrying an actor and not a dentist. And my children learned from a young age that their dad had a funny job. They always knew that I was working on a film because my haircut would be different, or I’ve had to grow a moustache. But this is the kind of a job that gives us the opportunity to spend free holidays in Budapest or Morocco. I think the best way that I’ve been able to have a good and balanced home life is to have eaten breakfast together.
Is it limiting at all to be continually identified with good guy or heroic roles?
Every character is different. I’m aware that the public will probably always have this image of me as the nice guy. I don’t think I can ever erase that impression – but then again, it’s not the worst thing that people can think about you, even though I assure you that I’m not always lovable and charming.
A Man, A Plot and a Killer of a Book
By Ali Hull
Paul Trembling writes crime novels – and has an unusual advantage in doing so: he knows what happens when a body is discovered. He is a CSI – (Crime Scene Investigator) – formerly known as SOCOs. He is the one with the camera, picking up the tiny bits of evidence, armed with gloves.
How did he get into that? Was he a police officer already?
There was a time when most SOCO’s (Scenes of Crime Officers) were ex-police officers, or ex-Forces. Often, they’d been photographers in the RAF or Navy. But I found a different route in. I was already working for the police as an Admin Assistant when they opened up a few posts to internal transfers. These were for Assistant SOCOs, with the limited remit of examining vehicles only – they didn’t have enough fully trained SOCOs to deal with all the low-level vehicle crime which was taking place then, so they created this post specifically to deal with it. I ended up staying in the job for fifteen years and eventually worked my way up to full SOCO – except by then they’d changed the job title to CSI (Crime Scene Investigator), for some management reason. It didn’t make any difference to the job, apart from having to explain nearly every working day that it was nothing like you see on TV!
What was the appeal?
It was a big improvement on Admin, that’s for sure! For a start, there was more variety – even when I was only doing cars, you never knew for sure exactly what you’d find. A lot of it was just routine, but you always got a bit of a buzz when you found a good fingerprint or recovered some DNA. It sounds a bit pretentious to say that I was working for law, order and justice, that’s something a superhero would say – but yes, when it came down to it, that was the job. It was doing something significant, something that made a difference.
How do you cope with the gory side of the job?
One of my first solo jobs as a full CSI was to attend a scene where a young woman had jumped, fallen or been pushed from the top of a block of flats. As you can imagine, it was quite gory. While I was going about my business, a young copper asked me, ‘How do you deal with this stuff?’ I told her that I was still trying to work that out. But afterwards, thinking about it, I realised that there was nothing to work out. The blood and gore didn’t bother me at all. What was foremost in my mind was doing the job right – especially as it was my first one. Had I got enough photos? Had I covered all the necessary angles? Had I got the camera settings right? Yes, at the back of my mind there was sadness for the unfortunate person. But as I gained more experience and saw more bodies – some of them in worse condition – I realised that, by the time I got there, the person who had once lived in that flesh was long gone. I felt worse for the people who remained behind, the family and friends who had to deal with the loss.
What made you branch out into writing novels, and what do you think explains the huge appeal of crime fiction?
Crime fiction is a very broad church, and there are a huge range of styles and approaches, all the way from ‘Cosy Crime’ to dark psychological thrillers. So perhaps part of the appeal is that there is something in there for every taste – and part of the problem is that however you define it, someone will say ‘That’s not why I read crime fiction!’ But if you have to try and narrow it down, I think that all – or most! – crime fiction has in it a sense of mystery. There’s a question to answer, a puzzle to solve. It might be a ‘Whodunnit?’ or it might be a ‘How did they do it?’ or even a ‘Why did they do it?’ It might even be ‘Was there even a crime at all?’ (My novel Local Poet starts off with a suicide, not a murder). And of course, there might be more than one of these elements involved. But the desire to know, to understand what really happened, is quite a common one in people, and I think that crime fiction connects with that really well. And there’s also an element of justice being done. We like to think that, ultimately, wrongs will be righted, lies will be exposed and truth will out. Of course, in the real world, that doesn’t always happen – all the more important to show that it can happen. Don’t give up on the hope! That’s an integral part of my Christian faith: to combat cynicism and despair, my own included, is an important reason to write, and crime stories fit well into that.
What is your creative process? Do you start with the idea for a crime, or what?
I usually start with a person, or perhaps just a picture in my mind. I sometimes don’t even find out what the crime is until I’ve started writing the story. Local Poet began with a vague idea. ‘What if someone accidentally killed a poet – would that get them into reading poetry?’ Actually, it wasn’t even that clearly defined when I started and I was only thinking in terms of a short story. But as I got into it, other elements began to come in. Who was this person who had been killed? How did they come to be there? The back stories of the people involved began to intrude, and had to be woven into the narrative – and eventually, it turned out that it was a crime novel.
After Local Poet, I wanted to find out more about some of the minor characters, so I started with Sandra, a librarian. I also wanted a murder early on, so that shaped the first chapter and gave me the crime to start with. But with Local Legend – centred on Sandra’s husband, Graham – it took me a lot longer to come to the actual crime involved. There isn’t even a body until chapter 5, and that’s an accident. However, the mystery element is there from the beginning, and that’s important. For me, writing is a journey, a voyage of discovery if you like. Of course, there’s some element of planning involved, but I don’t know quite where it’s going until I’m on the way. I prefer it that way. It’s more exciting.
How many novels have you done so far, and how many are jostling around in your head?
I’ve had three published by Lion Hudson, and I’ve just sent them number four. I’ve also self-published two other novels, a children’s story and several short-story collections. As for how many others… how long do you have? There’s a folder on my hard drive labelled ‘The Back Burner’ which has – oh, let me see… forty-five files of story ideas, outlines, bits started, character sketches, etc. However, this is small compared with the huge Back Burner file in my head, which is constantly expanding. To be a little more specific… there’s the next one in the Local series, for which I’ve started putting together some characters and ideas for the opening chapter. Then there’s a long-term project called The Hidden Libraries which is up to nearly 91,000 words now. It’s a sequel to one of my completed books, and I really need to get it finished. I also have another short story collection that just needs putting together, and… well, you get the idea. I realised a while ago that I probably wouldn’t live long enough to finish all the story ideas I already have, never mind all the new ones I keep getting! Frustrating.
How long does it take you to write a novel, and then how much revision do you usually need to do?
Depends on the novel! The Hidden Libraries which I mentioned before has been an ongoing project for years, mostly because I’ve been focused on the Local series for Lion Hudson. When LH published Local Poet, they asked if they could have another one in a year, and that’s the plan I’ve been working to ever since – a novel a year (plus a few odd short stories here and there). It has been challenging to keep to that, but fortunately I’m only working part-time at the moment, which gives me more opportunity to write. And I have a very understanding and supportive wife: without her it wouldn’t be possible.
I do a lot of revision along the way. As the story develops, I have to go back and revise early chapters to bring in new information or adjust the order of events. But of course, when the publisher has looked at it, there are usually several more stages of revision to go through, which can take a few months. Revision is a process that starts as soon as the writing does, and continues up to the moment that I sign off on the final proofs.
How well have the novels done?
It’s hard to be sure how to measure that. Sales could be better! But most writers would say that, no matter how well they’re doing. The encouraging thing has been the reviews that I’ve had back, which have been generally very positive. Most people who’ve read them seem to have enjoyed them, and that’s brilliant.
Have you thought of branching out into any other kind of fiction?
Actually, crime wasn’t my first choice of genre – I might never have got into it if I hadn’t become a CSI. But I didn’t want all that experience and free research to go to waste. Science fiction and fantasy were where I started, and it’s still something I want to do in parallel with the crime writing. The Hidden Libraries is a fantasy novel, and a sequel to The Empress’s Lover, set in the same world. Most of my short stories are fantasy, my next collection (if I ever get around to putting it together) will be SF.
The great thing about fantasy is that you can give your imagination free rein and invent the entire thing. Which also means you don’t have to worry so much about the research. I love historical fiction, but it’s the amount of research involved that puts me off writing it! I’ve also written some children’s stories – specifically, stories for my children. One of these has been published (Trouble in Toyland), another one you can find on my website (Matt’s Dragon).
I’ve never set out to write romantic fiction, but I do find a bit of romance creeping into a lot of my writing. It’s inevitable. If you write about people, you’re writing about relationships between people, and that’s where romance comes in. There aren’t many genres that I’d rule out entirely. I probably wouldn’t do well with chick-lit – but then again, I’ve written a whole series of fantasy stories about a female dragon slayer; does that count?
How do you ensure that you don’t let real people creep into your novels, with all the resulting problems that could cause?
Oh, I want real people in my novels! Or perhaps I should say, I want the people in my novels to be as real as possible, and the way to do that is to incorporate as much as you can of real people. But that doesn’t mean copying them exactly. It’s more about noticing particular things; character traits, idiosyncrasies, ways of talking and turning a phrase. When I’m developing a character, I do it from scratch. I don’t start with a known person and adjust them to fit, I start with an outline of the sort of person that the character might be and fill in details from different sources: this little quirk, that sort of personality trait. Often, I don’t take these things deliberately from real people, they’re just things I’ve notice in general and filed away somewhere for future reference. I do try and observe people, how they look, walk, talk, act and react. It’s all potential material. But I don’t copy entire people, just bits of them. Being observant of people is probably the most important research a writer can do.
Having said that, people have said to me about some of my characters ‘Yes, I know who that is!’ I point them to the disclaimer at the front of the book – if it looks like a real person, that’s a coincidence!
And tell us something about your age, family and faith…
I was born in 1957, and I’m terrible at maths, so you work it out! (I’m not sure I want to know…) I’m a Christian, a member of the Methodist Church. My wife, Annie, is a Methodist Minister. We’re currently living in Bath where she is in charge of the Southdown Methodist Project. We’ve got three boys, all grown up now. Tom is the eldest, he got married to Charlotte earlier this year and they live up in Nottingham. Matt is the second one, he finished at Uni this year and is currently living with us and working in Bath. The youngest – and tallest! – is Andy, who’s studying Veterinary Science up in Liverpool. We shouldn’t forget Edna, our dog. She’s a lurcher, and we think she’s about a year old, but we can’t be sure because she’s a rescue. We do know she’s quite young, though, because of her puppy behaviour – she chews everything! But she’s also very affectionate and likes to give big doggy hugs and kisses.
A Personal Experience of Extinction Rebellion
By Bruce Callander
‘Are you up for this?’ I hesitated. ‘This’ was civil disobedience as part of the imminent Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in London. OK, it was non-violent civil disobedience, but it could still get me arrested, a fine and maybe a criminal record. Having spent most of my 60-plus years being a law-abiding citizen, believing in the power of rational argument rather than loud protest, this was definitely outside my comfort zone. To say ‘Yes’ would alter my identity, both in my own eyes and in the eyes of my family...
Professionally, I had always been involved with the environment in one form or another. Following my Physics degree, I had gone on to gain a PhD in Environmental Science. In 1991 I joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to help coordinate the teams of scientists who drafted the various chapters of the second IPCC report, eventually published in 1996. This was a dream job for me, matching my personal conviction that the environment is supremely important, sustaining all of life on earth. What could be better than to be actively involved in protecting it? And surely, if we presented a body of scientifically-sound evidence concerning the dangers of climate change, the world’s leaders would respond rationally and appropriately? Surely.
I was naïve. In the IPCC, I soon came across diplomats who only saw the world in terms of politics, power balance and economic growth. The revenue of a significant number of countries depended hugely on the export of fossil fuels and for them human-induced climate change was – and is – a very inconvenient truth. Aided by lawyers funded by the oil and gas industries, they took every opportunity to oppose the science, attack the reputation of individual scientists or push for watered down text that minimized the predicted consequences of a warming world. My job, to help ensure that the IPCC report faithfully reflected the underlying scientific literature, was a constant battle. Nevertheless, and in spite of the opposition, at an historic meeting in Madrid in November 1995 the world’s nations accepted without dissent the conclusion of the IPCC that humanity was changing the climate. That statement kicked off the series of meetings called the ‘Conference of the Parties’ (CoP) at which the world’s nations committed to work together to solve the problem of climate change.
I left the IPCC in 1996 and for the next two decades observed it and successive climate treaties from a distance. The evidence for human-induced climate change and its associated impacts grew steadily stronger. By 2000, the sea level was rising about 50% faster than the 1996 IPCC report anticipated, extreme weather events were becoming more frequent just as predicted, and land in the Pacific and elsewhere had begun to go under the waves.
At a personal level I tried to be responsible: I switched to a renewable energy supplier, I avoided air travel, I cycled and used public transport where possible. I wrote to my MP and took part in lawful and good-natured protest marches. It might have given me a little self-righteous pride, but it certainly wasn’t making any significant difference.
Increasingly I realised that, like everyone else, I am entangled in a system of global trade and powerful vested interests that is slowly destroying the natural world and the lives of many human beings. The system has to radically change. Tinkering around the edges and hoping that our consumer lifestyle can, with a few tweaks, continue pretty much as normal will just not work. Our own government and much of industry are complicit in pretending to care for the environment while planning for business (and destruction) as usual.
The UK government, which in the 1990s aimed to be a lead nation in responding to climate change, has gone backwards. Austerity following the financial crash of 2008 starved local authorities of the resources needed to take local action such as better bus services to reduce car dependency, or flood prevention. The UK Sustainable Development Commission, set up in 2000, was closed in 2011, and the body set up by government to achieve zero carbon homes was closed in 2016 for lack of funding. To demonstrate its ambivalence towards reducing emissions, the UK government in 2016 approved a third runway for Heathrow and in 2018 gave the go-ahead for fracking.
I had been vaguely aware of the XR protests in London in April 2019. I scanned their website but wasn’t attracted by their confrontational, albeit non-violent, tactics. My instincts for quiet, non-confrontational argument ran deep. But I was impressed by their emphasis on the scientific basis for action, and by their success in challenging the UK government’s lack of commitment to the environment. Then I did some reading, including Justin Welby’s Reimagining Britain and Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough. I also went back to the Bible’s New Testament and had to admit that Jesus and His disciples were no strangers to civil disobedience. My instincts, and my existing interpretation of what being a Christian meant, began to appear a form of escape, the wrong response to a desperate situation. Like the rest of the population I was sleep-walking towards disaster, but I had less excuse than others; given my background, I knew the serious and growing threat we face but was doing little to challenge the system that locks us all into unsustainable living.
I looked again at XR and found myself in complete agreement with their demands for government to ‘Tell the Truth and Act Now’. I went along to a local XR group out of curiosity and found them planning for the imminent October 2019 ‘rebellion’. I was impressed by the diversity of those present and inspired by their commitment to striving for change. My familiarity with the topic over decades had, I had to admit, blunted my sense of urgency. These people had come much later to the issue and with fresh eyes had recognised the gravity of the threat and the urgent need for effective action. I went home and read what the legal implications might be of participating in Non-Violent Direct Action. I contrasted the minimal impact on government of well-behaved, polite protests with the societal injustices brought to the fore by the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks, the suffragettes and Gandhi. I reflected on the in-depth view that IPCC had given me of climate change, and its impacts. Given the obfuscation, complacency and direct opposition to action that I saw, was I prepared to agitate for change even if it involved personal cost?
So when asked if I was up for the coming XR protest, and after a moment’s hesitation when I said goodbye to some of my preferences and instincts, I raised my hand; ‘Yes, I am up for this.’ Five days later I joined hundreds of others, of all ages and from all walks of life, as we parked ourselves in Whitehall, outside the Cabinet Office, one of a number of London sites occupied as part of the XR October ‘rebellion’.
XR has provided a lightning rod for the pent-up energy and frustration of thousands of ordinary people who recognise that we need radical change. We are appalled and angry that our political leaders are either blind to the threats that we face, or bound by obligations to vested interests opposing change. Or perhaps they lack the moral courage to introduce the radical shift in policies needed to protect us and our families against the adverse impacts of climate change now, and to reduce the emissions that will exacerbate future change. Many people of my age were motivated by deep concern for the environmental legacy that this generation is passing on to our children and grandchildren.
A core value of XR is not to point fingers at others; we are all inevitably entangled in the way the world is currently run. But we have a choice: either shrug our shoulders and watch the world head for increasing environmental disaster, or believe in and work for systemic change, even if that involves significant changes to our own lifestyles. XR is not wedded to a particular religious or political ideology, it doesn’t mandate a particular solution to the problems we face, and it has kept its demands simple: Tell the Truth, Act Now and create a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. On the streets of London I was surrounded by thousands of people of all persuasions who had never taken to the streets before. The atmosphere was peaceful, creative, optimistic – and determined. In contrast to the characterisations by politicians and the press of the protesters as crusties, hippies or the unemployed, the ranks consisted of people from all walks of life: bankers, bricklayers, doctors, farmers, teachers, civil servants, IT specialists, parents, grandparents, architects and nurses. There were all sorts of political agendas – vegans, animal rights etc – but these were secondary to the recognition that we are joined by a common concern for the future of this beautiful planet and its inhabitants. We know deep down that something is gravely wrong in humans’ relationship with the environment.
Most XR protesters have already adapted their lifestyle to minimise their individual environmental footprint. What unites us is the recognition that this is not enough. The political, financial and industrial organisations – The System – on which the world runs are taking us on a collective path to ruin. The forces favouring the status quo are immense. But ordinary people can make a difference. Acting together, we can bring about change for the better. But it will involve personal cost because change won’t happen by shouting politely, or even loudly, from the sidelines. We have to throw a few spanners into The System and The System will, inevitably, fight back.
I was surprised at the deep emotional impact that taking part in the October rebellion had on me. I had made the decision to participate based on a weighing up of the evidence, and now I was going to stand on London streets to make my point. Straightforward, or so I thought. What I hadn’t reckoned on was being surrounded by so many committed, vulnerable and caring people, prepared to make much greater sacrifices than I had so far made, to protect our world. I was inspired by the generosity and selflessness that I saw between strangers. I drew strength from their belief that ordinary everyday people can make a difference, in the face of the combined might of the state and powerful industries. I also saw the apprehension mixed with determination on the faces of those willing to be arrested when the police decided that it was time to clear the street.
The willingness of many XR protesters to be arrested is also key to its impact. To be arrested carries the risk of fine, imprisonment and a criminal record. Why do this, especially if you have led an otherwise blameless, law-abiding life? One reason is that it demonstrates unequivocally the commitment of the protester to their cause. Further, it highlights the fact that the government is willing to spend millions of pounds and thousands of hours prosecuting people whose motivation for protest is the protection and saving of lives, while organisations who plan for and profit from the destruction of the environment are never called to account. Not only that, the government actively subsidises many of their activities. Magistrates and judges are people too. While their responsibilities may require them to reach a guilty verdict, having to deal with so many admirable and principled people before them, who tell the same consistent story of deep concern for the damage that humanity is doing to the Earth, forces them to consider their personal attitude to this crisis. Many police who attended the XR protests expressed their own deep concerns about the current environmental crisis, even as their duty required them to arrest protesters.
I know that some people’s daily lives were inconvenienced by the XR protests. I don’t enjoy that aspect but my personal preference to be polite and non-confrontational was one of the things that I had to give up for the sake of a higher good. XR rebellions set out to cause disruption, but focused on locations where government and others with power will be forced to take notice. Inevitably, members of the general public will sometimes be inconvenienced. The justification for this approach is that by its inactions or ill-advised actions, government is taking us down a path that will lead to adverse consequences of immeasurably greater scale and gravity than a delay in getting to work today. Everyone accepts that the short pain of a flu jab is a small price to pay to avoid the actual disease. For at least a quarter of a century scientists have been describing in pretty clear terms the potential worlds we are heading for given our historic and possible future greenhouse gas emissions. Serious climate change impacts are already being felt, but the worst so far are remote from Britain. But like many others who have looked at the growing evidence with an open mind, I believe that ‘We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ Apart from weather extremes and sea level rise on this island, conflicts over scarce resources of food, water and land, and mass migrations of people from areas made uninhabitable by a changing climate are likely to be on a scale never before experienced or imagined.
So, as you observe Extinction Rebellion protests on the news or on your street, I respectfully ask you not to jump immediately to condemn. The rebels are ordinary people just like you, from all walks of life, who have decided that they must make a stand to protect our planet and all the species, including humanity, who inhabit it. If you were to be asked ‘Are you up for this?’, what would you say?
Able and Willing
By Stuart Weir
Guohua Zhou of China stands at the start of her run up, composes herself, and sets off at full speed down the runway before taking off and jumping into the sand, landing nearly five metres away. Oh, there is one small detail that I forgot to mention. Zhou is totally blind. Imagine the courage it must take to launch yourself without being able to see where you’re going – talk about a leap in the dark! Someone lines her up and tells her when it is safe to go. A coach or assistant typically stands behind the sandpit shouting so that she can direct herself towards the sound. That helps. But it still requires courage to execute. It can go badly wrong. I once saw a blind long jumper lose the direction, veer to the side and literally take out the no-jump judge as he sat on his chair!
Zhou won the F12 long jump with a leap of 4.92m at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships. These took place last year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates with more than 1400 athletes from about 120 nations involved; 528 women competed, the largest number ever. Zhou can jump five metres because she trains hard and practises a lot – like any long jumper. But there is also an additional determination and courage that is not required of the sighted long jumper.
Another incredible event is the one-legged high jump. Rick Broadbent wrote in The Times: ‘We should not ask why the one-legged man decided to try the high jump; we should just be glad that he did.’ The T63/T42 high jump is arguably the most compelling event in the para athletics programme. It is for athletes with an above knee amputation or equivalent level of impairment. So you have a group of amputees and others with legs that don’t work normally doing the high jump. Some jump with a running blade. Some remove their prosthetic and hop to the bar and hurl themselves over. Those with two legs limp towards the bar and leap over it. Some go over the bar head first, effectively diving. Others use a more conventional approach.
The 2019 men’s World Champion was Sam Crewe (USA) who cleared 1.86m, with Sharad Kumar (India) second (1.83m). Crewe explained afterwards: ‘There are four or five different styles of jumping because it is so versatile and everyone has their own challenges and issues. So, everyone adapts to what they’re good at and works on what they struggle with. What attracted me was knowing that if something isn’t working, I can always change it. And I think people are just fascinated by the amputee high jump, seeing the running blades in action or people just hopping over but jumping effectively over a height as high as most people’s head. It just relates to everyone as inspiring.’
Silver medallist Kumar enthused: ‘The one-legged high jump is the best experience to do – or watch.
If you haven’t seen it, you need to catch up. For a person with one leg to be jumping nearly two metres is defying the human body.’
While Crewe, an amputee who jumps with a blade, referred to the four or five different styles of jumping, he has only used one: ‘I’ve never tried without my blade on because I wasn’t coached that way. I’ve always trained with athletes with two legs. I’m on the university track team and I am coached the same as any of those athletes. It works for me so I’ve never considered changing it but if it hadn’t worked for me, I would have chosen a different way.’ Kumar agreed: ‘When you start with one style you tend to carry on with it because that’s how you start eroding your fears. We all have certain restrictions and have to do what our body allows.’
The blind long-jump and the amputee high-jump are compelling spectacles, events which combine great skill and raw courage. They are the essence of para athletics.
Markus Rehm is one of the superstars of para athletics. The German amputee long-jumper, who lost his lower right leg in a wakeboarding accident as a 14-year-old, has a best ever jump of 8.48m – which would have given him second place in the 2019 IAAF (able-bodied) World Championship in Doha. Competing in the T64 (amputee) class in Dubai, he needed only the first of his six jumps (8.17) to accomplish a successful defence of his title.
Writing about disability sport is a challenge. You want to get the balance between doing justice to the achievements but yet not exaggerating. The slogan for the 2015 World (Disability) Athletics Championships in Doha was ‘Beyond incredible’, but that wording is in danger of making para athletics sound like a freak show. Arguably it is no more incredible for a para athlete to break a world record than for Usain Bolt to run 100 metres in 9.58. The Dubai description of the disabled as ‘people of determination’ acknowledges the hurdles that have to be overcome.
Serial wheelchair marathon winner, Jean Driscoll, once told me that a well-meaning person had said to her: ‘I think it’s just wonderful that you can do a marathon.’ Jean replied: ‘Not really. I’m sure you could do a marathon too if you trained four hours a day, six days a week, like me!’ The first point to understand when considering para athletics is that the reason that amputee, Irmgard Bensusan can run 200m in 26.93 or Lisa Adams (cerebral palsy) can throw a shot 14.80m or Omara Durand (blind) can run 400m in 52.85, attached to a guide – is that they all train really hard. They are magnificent athletes.
Colin Thackery Love Changes Everything
y Samantha Rea
Colin Thackery is the 89 year old Chelsea Pensioner who won the nation’s hearts when he sang on Britain’s Got Talent. But he wasn’t just a novelty act – Colin won the show, taking home £250,000. While this might seem an unlikely feat for a grandfather who’s survived two heart attacks, it might be said that Colin’s entire life has led to that performance.
As a member of the Royal Artillery band, Colin performed all over the world, from Malta to Malaysia and Hong Kong to Korea. He sang on the USA forces radio network and, as a support act, he shared a stage with stars such as Danny Kaye, and Dixon of Dock Green actor Jack Warner OBE, who were brought in to entertain the troops.
Since leaving the army, Colin has sung with his local opera group, and in the dementia ward at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where he’s lived since the loss of his wife Joan. His autobiography, My Story: How Love Changed Everything is dedicated to Joan, whose picture he talks to every night. Sorted caught up with him, to find out more…
In your autobiography, you said: ‘I can’t imagine how I will feel if I do perform for Her Majesty, but I’m sure I will feel humbled and honoured, as I never have before.’ How did it feel?
I performed for the Queen in the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall and it was marvellous, and a great honour to do something I’ve always wanted to do.
You wrote that you hoped going on Britain’s Got Talent would raise the profile of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and give the viewers an insight into all the good work that’s done there. What would you like people to know?
It’s a unique organisation that exists for old soldiers, for men and women who are ex-army. I always describe it as the best old folks’ home in the world. We live a good life. We’re well fed, we’ve got nice quarters, and we have uniforms to wear if we want to. There’s so many lovely things to do – we’re invited to football matches, rugby matches, dinners and events. We also do fundraising, which is great – you feel good doing it!
You hoped BGT viewers would see what Chelsea Pensioners are made of. What are you made of?
We’re made of stern stuff! The average age is about 80, and we have a centenarian, and a couple of 99 year olds. There’s an infirmary, which is marvellous if anything happens to you in later life, and the staff are extraordinary. That’s important for people of my age, especially if you get the dreaded dementia. Some people unfortunately do suffer, but they’re well looked after here.
You’ve had a lifetime of performing. What’s been the key experience in preparing you to win BGT?
The love of music – I’ve always loved music. My late wife loved it too and she was a good singer. We were in an organisation called the Norfolk Opera Players for over 25 years, and it was lots of fun. I love to sing, and now I sing at the drop of a hat.
Was the army the first time you sang?
No, I was a choir boy when I was 11. I spent part of my childhood with my grandparents – my grandmother was a staunch Catholic and I went to church with her every Sunday. Eventually that meant I joined the choir – that’s where I started singing!
How did the Chelsea Pensioners react to your win?
They were absolutely delighted, especially the guys who’d been with me on stage. We’re all chums, and people here are extremely complimentary. They’ll come up and say how much they enjoyed things. We have guides here, who show people round, and they often point me out. It’s very gratifying!
Did you choose which Chelsea Pensioners joined you on stage for backing vocals?
No, we’re all members of the Hospital singing group. There are lots of cables and lights, and steps around the stage, so they picked people from the singing group who were mobile enough to get up there.
You did your first audition by yourself, and the other Chelsea Pensioners were brought in to join you after that. What advice did you give them?
None! We have a marvellous captain of singing, called Major Philip Shannon, who was director of music for the Irish Guards and the Welsh Guards. He’s been instrumental in mentoring us, along with Lady Elaine who leads our singing group.
One of the other Chelsea Pensioners inspired you to go on the show – how did he react when you won?
He’s very pleased he inspired me to do it. Lots of people have asked who he is, and I’ve been pestering him to let me identify him, but he won’t let me! He’s quite shy about it.
Have you had an extra set of Scarlets [Royal Hospital Chelsea’s uniform] made for you, for all your performances?
We’ve got new lightweight Scarlets coming, but it’s a huge job. It’s cost £300,000 to kit the whole Hospital out in Scarlets. The money’s come from a fundraising effort called the Scarlet Appeal. We’ve all been f measured for them – I just hope they come soon, because the ones we’ve got get very hot under the lights on stage!
How do you feel about people approaching you for autographs and selfies since your BGT win?
I feel extremely humble that they should ask me. It happens outside theatres and radio stations. People shout my name and say: ‘Can you sign this? Could I have a picture?’ I never refuse anybody – who am I to deny people? One chap waited all day – he must have been frozen!
Had you ever done a selfie before BGT?
When any of us from the Hospital go out in our Scarlets, we’re stopped and asked for pictures. There’s a fixed grin you maintain because the photographs go on and on!
What’s been the biggest impact of your win?
Winning the money was a marvellous windfall that’s allowed me to help my grandchildren. My two senior granddaughters are making their first step on the property ladder, and the younger two are studying, so there’s always a need for cash. My wife would be delighted – well I know she is, because she knows everything that’s going on!
When you got back to the Hospital on the night of your win, what did you say to Joan?
I told her all about it – the four yeses, the standing ovation, people cheering – it was extraordinary, and I got a sneaky feeling she already knew! I didn’t actually realise I’d won – I was confused, because I’m slightly deaf and I have hearing aids, but they just amplify sound, and there was that much sound in the theatre, with people shouting, stamping and calling my name, I couldn’t hear a thing – it was Ant and Dec who told me I’d won.
You were with Joan for 66 years: what’s the secret to a happy marriage?
Tolerance – that’s always in the back of my mind. Tolerance that you’re married to a lady who’s completely different from you. She thinks, acts and dresses differently. I say, vive la difference! I treated my wife as a lady. She was great – she always looked good and acted well. She was the wind beneath my wings.
How did you choose the songs you sang on BGT?
The first one was ̒Wind Beneath My Wings̕ – that was easy because it was Joan’s favourite. Joan always joked that Bette Midler was a naughty lady, but she loved her, and she loved her rendering of that song. ‘Love Changes Everything’ was a favourite of mine – I’ve admired Michael Ball for many years. ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was chosen for me – I’d been singing it for years because it’s a song people know and they join in. It was meaningful to guys leaving their families, and it was significant because a week later it was the 75th anniversary of D Day.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow their dreams, like you did, but they’re struggling with confidence?
You’ve got to overcome that first little problem of pushing yourself forward. There are people who retire and do nothing. They say, ‘I can’t!’ but nothing’s impossible. You’ve just got to overcome that fear. Go to somebody who can help – somebody who has the same interest, or join clubs. Drum up that first bit of courage, then it becomes surprisingly easy.
The army gave you great opportunities to perform – and wasn’t it your military experience that first led you to performing outside the army?
Yes, I was sitting next to a chap at a regimental association dinner, talking about how I enjoyed music. He turned out to be the treasurer of the Norfolk Opera Players and he said they were doing Carmen, at the Theatre Royal in Norwich. They needed somebody to teach these guys how to march and use swords. He asked if I’d be interested, and I said: ‘Yes I would!’
What are you most looking forward to in the future?
It’s all exciting! The book is out already – it was lovely to see the display and do the signings. Then there’s the album, which includes the songs I got through BGT with. There are 14 songs on the album, including one by Ed Sheeran, which is beautiful. It’s called ̒Supermarket Flowers̕ and it meant something to me, because he’d written it for his grandmother who’d just died. The sentiment resonated with me and I really enjoyed singing it. So there’s ancient and modern, and a couple of war time songs as well.
You seem so much younger than 89 – what are your secrets?
I’m in fairly good nick for an 89 year old. One doesn’t know how long one’s got at my age, but I try not to walk around like an old man. You can succumb to being elderly, or not – that’s my view. Don’t let it get you down!
You actually sound a lot younger, and in the book you said that if you don’t use your voice, you lose it. Is that why you keep singing?
Yes, and that’s how I came to be challenged by this chap to go on BGT. We were at the monthly curry supper at the Hospital, and I said I was worried, because I hadn’t sung for some time. He said: ‘Do something about it then!’ He told me BGT were looking for people. I said: ‘Don’t be silly, what would they want an old man like me for?’ He said: ’Go on, I dare you!’ The rest is history!
How can we all stay young as we’re getting older?
Think positively and keep the brain active. Your body wears down, but your brain doesn’t have to – that can stay sharp. Crossword puzzles are good, and Scrabble! I play that online. I have no idea who I’m playing against, but they sometimes play me in the middle of the night! I used to love listening to audiobooks when I was driving, but I don’t drive much these days, so I read on my Kindle. My sight’s not brilliant, but I can enhance the font size – I’ve got all sorts of books on it! And I love sport – rugby’s my game. I don’t support a particular team, except England, of course!
Dave Jones Benevolent Butcher
By Samantha Rea
Dave Jones is a butcher from Barnsley whose community spirit is inspiring the nation. He offers help to those experiencing financial hardship, whether they need cooking equipment, food parcels, or a suit to wear to an interview. The assistance Dave can give personally is limited to his Yorkshire village – but his social media posts are retweeted thousands of times, motivating people across the UK to do good deeds in their local community.
Shying away from the limelight, Dave didn’t want to be pictured, but he did give us an insight into how we can all #BeMoreDave. Meet the man behind the tweets...
A few weeks ago, you posted a tweet offering to buy a microwave, a toaster, a kettle and a month’s electricity for a family who needed help. What was the outcome?
We helped three families. One had been moved to a safe house following a marriage breakdown: they were starting out from nothing. One woman had been evicted after her husband passed away, and the other one had hit rock bottom. It was really nice to help them get back on their feet.
That post was retweeted over 2,000 times: did anyone else get in touch?
We got a large response, but unfortunately, you sometimes have to say, ‘I’ve done what I can do now. I can’t do anything else at this moment in time.’ You’ve got to use your life skills, and your past experience to know who really needs help, and you get a feel of whether something’s right. These were genuine people.
At half term you offered free food parcels to families struggling to feed their children over the holidays, but you can’t help anyone if you go out of business. Is your partner fully supportive, or does she ever worry that you’re giving too much away?
The business is well supported by the local community, so when I’m in a position to help, I do. I can’t help absolutely everybody, but it’s important that we give back. My partner is fully supportive, but I don’t do anything without discussing it with her. She’s in the same mould as I am, probably kinder in a lot of ways, certainly regarding her people skills. Sometimes she might say, ‘Leave that at the moment, but do it another time.’ It’s brilliant that she supports me, I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise, and I don’t think we’d be together if we weren’t both that way. We want to be helpful and kind to people.
On Facebook, you offered to help local families at Christmas, and someone replied to your post offering to donate decorations. Do you think that what you do inspires other people to get involved?
I think it does. One of the reasons we do it is because it inspires other people to contribute to their community. Sometimes they just need an outlet, and the knowledge that, ‘I can drop this food parcel off here and I know it’ll be passed on to people in need.’ We do regular appeals for the local foodbank, and it’s immense what the customers bring in. When I asked if people would bring us a tin of potatoes instead of buying us a Christmas card, we ended up with 400 tins, which we gave to the foodbank, so it does inspire people. I ask the foodbank what they’re short of, and in summer it was UHT milk; today, it was tinned rice pudding. There are children waking up in severe poverty. Some of them haven’t even got carpets or curtains. So, if we can do our bit, in our area, and if that inspires other businesses, and other people, that’s a fantastic result.
Would you like us, as a society, to be in a position where you didn’t need to help in the way you do?
Absolutely. We shouldn’t have to support foodbanks to make sure people have food on the table. We’re a rich nation: we’ve got a huge amount of money. Unfortunately, it’s not channelled into helping vulnerable people. Any civilised country should look after its sick, its elderly, its disabled, and its less fortunate people. Our government chooses not to do that. They’d rather give tax breaks to corporations and billionaires than help people who’ve hit hard times.
You’re very tuned in to what people need; for instance, there was another post where you invited people to use your wifi to access Universal Credit and job applications. I read a news story about a woman ending up penniless due to missing a Universal Credit appointment that she had no knowledge of, because she’d become homeless and didn’t have internet access. What gives you your insight?
I think it’s your upbringing and your connection with people, and an awareness of what’s going on in the country; staying away from the tabloids, and listening to people who are on Universal Credit, and realising how things affect people. It’s being grounded, and aware of the pressures people are under.
I saw that you retweeted a guy who runs a charity shop, who was inviting people to come in and use the wifi. He’d clearly been inspired by your tweet. Is it nice to see the domino effect of your actions?
Yes, and other people have messaged me to say, ‘We’re offering the same – we’ve put a sign up in our window!’ It’s great, because these aren’t willy nilly tweets off the top of my head. I’ve thought about them, and aimed them at the people I think we can help the most.
Do you think there are people who need help, but who struggle to accept it, through a sense of pride?
I think there is a pride issue. Not everybody wants to ask for help. Normally, in cases like that, a family member or friend will message me about them. Often, they’ve tried to help, but they can’t do everything, so I’ll see if I can take a bit of pressure off for mealtimes.
There’s one lady I’ve just helped who was recommended to me. She’d landed her dream job, and she was waiting for her first month’s wage, and in between time, she’d been waiting for Universal Credit, which takes ages. She’s got three children, so I took her a food parcel because it must be scary to wonder whether you can feed your kids. She was delighted, and she messaged afterwards to say I’d inspired her children, which is so nice. If those girls grow up and remember that kindness, and take it out there, that’s great.
Were these values you were brought up with yourself?
Yes, my grandad was a Yorkshire miner, and my grandmother was an old-fashioned Yorkshire miner’s housewife. They were members of the Labour party, and in those days money was scarce, but families helped each other. I remember there was a lad whose mum and dad had absolutely nothing, and I used to go to my grandma on my way to school, and say, ‘All the kids are taking a slice of buttered toast to school, grandma, can I have one?’ She wrapped it up in foil and about three weeks later, she started doing two slices of toast. I said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll eat two.’ She said, ‘I’m sure your friend will.’ She’d actually seen me give it to him, because he was only having one meal a day. Back in the early 70s, that was a regular occurrence. I think it’s the values you’re brought up with, and the area you’ve lived in. I was born and bred in Barnsley. You’re never going to be rich when you’re the son or grandson of a Yorkshire miner, but there was a great sense of community then.
The village primary school presented you with a Local Hero Award – how did you feel about that?
Oh, how proud was I? My knees were knocking. I’ve never been so nervous in all my life. To get an award like that from the children at the school, I was amazed. The headmistress came to the shop with two children, with a letter for me. I opened it, and the more I read, the bigger the lump in my throat was getting. I held it together because I didn’t want two small children seeing a 53 year-old man blubbering. I thought it was amazing that they took the time and effort to do that, because I don’t see what I’m doing as anything to be rewarded: I do it because I want to. They gave me a lovely plaque and a trophy, and I read out a poem about being kind and helpful. If it inspires just one or two of them, that’s great.
Social media is useful for getting messages out there, but you’ve been helping people for a long time. How did you reach people before Facebook and Twitter?
Before social media I mainly responded to requests for donations for school fetes and the foodbank. It’s so much easier now, because one of my Facebook posts can reach 50,000 people if I put a boost on it. Social media’s brilliant because it exposes everything that’s wrong, as well as allowing us to post videos and photos of what we’re doing.
Is anyone ever suspicious of your motives, perhaps feeling like it’s too good to be true?
Not really, not when people know me, and understand what I’m about. One or two might wonder if I’m posting on Facebook to promote the business, but I don’t gain customers from it. No one’s going to travel far to see us, and I don’t need to promote the business, because we’re already a well-supported shop.
It’s clear that you were raised to be kind and community spirited. Does this stem from Christian values?
My brother’s a vicar, but for me, this is to do with socialism, which means making sure nobody’s poor. It’s about making sure that those who are doing well are contributing to society through paying fair taxes, so that those who are less fortunate can receive the help they need.
If somebody feels inspired by you and wants to help, what advice would you give them?
When you pass a homeless person, say good morning. You don’t have to get them anything. Normally, my chat results in: ‘Good morning, how are you doing? Are you having a coffee?’ Nine times out of ten, they’re not, but if they are, I get them one and say, ‘How’s things? Have you got anybody looking after you? Is there anybody you want me to get in touch with for you?’ Nine times out of ten, the answer’s no. But that ‘good morning’ might keep them going for an hour or two, thinking: ‘Somebody spoke to me!’
Look into volunteering in foodbanks, or charity shops, or a street kitchen. There are some great street kitchens out there that help vulnerable people who’ve fallen on hard times. They’re in every major town, serving hot food, cold food, tea and coffee, and they’ll often have clothes, toiletries, and sanitary products. That’s a great way to help.
Sorted Issue 74
In the new exciting edition we chat to Hollywood A-Listers, Sporting Superstars, Action-man Bear Grylls plus the greatest team of columnists ever assembled
Are you Sorted yet?
The Big Five-O
The Big Five-O
By Peter Wallace
For 50 years, David Suchet has been a staple of stage and screen, not least in his role as Agatha Christie’s most celebrated detective, Hercule Poirot. Now, he looks back on his half-century as a professional actor, and invites fans to take a glimpse at the man behind the characters…
When David Suchet – Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus and classically trained stage actor – was approached for the role of Agatha Christie’s pedantic detective, his first call for advice was to his author and newsreader brother, John.
‘He famously said to me,’ laughs the younger Suchet, in a voice honey-steeped in the finest elocutionary traditions of the stage, ‘“You’ve been asked to play Poirot?” And I said, “Yes, what do you think?”, and he said “Don’t touch it with a barge-pole...”’
Had Suchet gone on to heed his brother’s advice, it’s nearly impossible to speculate on how his acting career might have panned out, such is the impact that the role of Poirot has had on him over the 25 years since he first wore the famous waxed moustache. ‘The moral of the story,’ he adds, ‘is: “Don’t listen to your siblings!”’
Suchet’s quarter-century as the fictional Belgian sleuth is an impressive feat, making up half of his professional acting life. The London-born thespian had of course appeared in Shakespeare and various other plays, and both the small and silver screen, before he alighted on ITV’s long-running adaptation of Christie’s crime stories. But it is the role of Poirot, unsurprisingly, that still stands tallest in his memories – especially his final farewell in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, which aired in 2013.
‘It was a very emotional time,’ he muses. ‘I had to play his death, which was the most difficult day’s filming of my whole career. I was saying goodbye to a very dear friend; you can’t play someone for 25 years and not feel attached to them in some way. He had been so instrumental in so many aspects of my life. He gave me a profile and people would then come to see me in the theatre; he gave me the profile so that people would want to make films with me, radio programmes, more theatre etcetera, so saying goodbye to him was very, very painful, and in fact I still miss him to this day.’
Unlike some actors, however, who may have seen other tempting roles pass by, in the time Suchet spent as Poirot, he never once had his head turned. As he says, ‘I’ve never been that sort of actor. I’ve always been an actor for hire, and just seen what has been on the table at the time.’
There is, however, one historical figure in particular f that Suchet has long found the thought of portraying incredibly compelling.
‘I’m drawn to complexity. And the more I read about Napoleon, the more I think he must have been a very complex personality. He had a great side of weakness, he had to have a tall horse because he was a short man, who I think suffered from an inferiority complex, and he was one of the greatest tacticians and infantrymen of history. I know of course that he was the enemy, but he built an empire. And I think he was a great personality, especially when you think he was not French – everyone thinks of the French when you talk about Napoleon! But he was from Corsica, so he would not even have sounded like a Frenchman. I’ve always been fascinated by playing him, and there is a George Bernard Shaw play about Napoleon, but that’s not the Napoleon I want – I want the more complex, deeper, personality. I think he is a really fascinating man, one that I would have loved to have explored.’
For many, his career is inextricably linked with his on-screen life as Poirot, and he was recently voted the nation’s favourite incumbent of the role, despite his rivals including both Albert Finney and Sir Kenneth Branagh.
It would be unfair, however, to see Suchet as nothing more than his most famous theatrical alter-ego, not least because of his chameleonic acting ability. Indeed, Suchet himself hopes that he does not share all the traits of Christie’s famously finicky private eye.
‘Inevitably there is a symbiosis that has occurred,’ he smiles. ‘But I hope I’m not as OCD as he was, because if you are that particular and will only eat two boiled eggs if they are the exact same size, you’ve got a problem!’
Behind the adopted European accent, the iconic moustache, and the veritable treasure trove of affectations that made his Poirot portrayal so enduring, and endearing, Suchet is rich in personal qualities. The descendent of Lithuanian Jews, who spent his formative years in England’s public-school system, Suchet admits that his childhood feelings of being an ‘outsider’ may well have contributed to his later, detail-orientated portrayals of figures like Poirot. Indeed, it was many years before he felt whole himself. For many years, he was in his own estimation subconsciously struggling with a ‘very materialistic’ worldview – but that changed in 1986 when he went through ‘the beginnings of a conversion’.
‘I didn’t have a Damascene experience like St Paul!’ he clarifies. ‘But I was filming in Seattle, and I was thinking about the man who was the greatest influence on my life, my late grandfather, and how I regarded him as a kind of spiritual guide. I’ve always chatted to him and wondered what he thought. But the other side of me was a complete agnostic; I didn’t really believe in the afterlife. So, lying in the bath one day, in the hotel room, I suddenly thought, “Why are you thinking about your late grandfather as your spiritual guide when you don’t believe in an afterlife?” That sort of dichotomy, or that sort of paradox if you like, led me to wanting to read more about the afterlife. And I remembered at school reading about Jesus and His resurrection, but I didn’t really believe it. But I did know that Paul in the New Testament wrote letters about all this, and I decided, because I love Rome, to pick up a Gideon’s Bible the next day and I read St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.’
The figure of St Paul would go on to become a central part of both Suchet’s personal and professional life, and he made a documentary on him in 2012, entitled In the Footsteps of St Paul.
‘I read it in a very particular way,’ he says of the impact the biblical book of Romans had on his life. ‘I read it in a way that I would read any classical play, where I was taught to as a Shakespearean actor, to read plays as if they were new plays and written for me. So, when I read St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in my head I was reading St Paul’s letter to me, and I made it very personal. By the time I came to the end of that letter, I had found a way of life for which I had been looking for many, many years, and that worldview really attracted me, and that then led to further investigations and I ended up... did I choose or not? I don’t know. But it ended up with me becoming Christian, and there was huge, huge strength given to me by me having, for the first time in my life, a worldview.’
Suchet’s faith has inspired several projects over the years besides his documentary on St Paul. There was the follow-up a year later, In the Footsteps of St Peter, as well as his 2014 recording of the complete NIV Bible on audiobook – a long-held ambition and ‘labour of love’ completed after his time as Poirot had come to an end. Nowadays he is Vice President of the British Bible Society, and behind the scenes, his idea of the benefit of personal faith, or a similar anchor, remains crucial to what he sees as a current failing in modern society.
‘I believe very, very strongly in something that I call “The three-legged stool”, which is how we are made up. It is about mind, body, and spirit. One of our legs of the stool is the mind which we make strong through education, and reading and learning, and then we have the other leg, our body, which is made strong by going to the gym and having a good diet, and knowing how to be healthy if you take the trouble. But that third leg, which I call the soul or the spiritual part, which includes faith, religion, the arts, the performing arts, the creative side of our life, is the weak leg in our society. That side of our life seems to always take second place to jobs and other things in our life, other than our creativity, and therefore I think we have a three-legged stool with two strong legs and one weaker leg. I would like people leaving school to have three strong legs. The discovery of my faith was filling up this third leg, filling it up with something that wasn’t there before, and making it stronger. Then filling it up with all the other things that make up that leg, which is more theatre, more music, more art, more performing arts, and just enjoying that side of life.’
And even though Suchet is best known for his immense talents as a character actor, his half-century celebration brings to the forefront another of his creative passions: photography.
‘I don’t consider myself a good photographer,’ he says with typical humility. ‘My photographs have to be judged by other people: it’s more like my acting. If you judge yourself, you will come a cropper. It’s the same with my photographs. If people judge them as worthy, and they want to remember me for that, then God bless them, but it’s not for me to say... What I do is try to use my camera as a paintbrush; I don’t just take a picture of what I see, I try to take photos of how I see things. For example, I was in an orchard in Kent recently, and I went in with my camera, and all of a sudden looking at these gnarled branches I saw these strange faces of all these weird animals. So, I would photograph that Bramley apple tree, not as a tree, but almost an animal. So, it’s how I react to things that I try to photograph, rather than just what I am looking at.’
Fans of his acting work, therefore, will no doubt be encouraged to hear that Suchet has recently released a photo-memoir, Behind the Lens, that charts the course of his impressive career through a collection of his photos.
‘It’s not an autobiography in the sense that I did this, then I did that; I was asked for many, many years to do my autobiography by many publishers, but the timing of this was quite nice because it is my 50th year as an actor. It’s about things that actually I think about or care about and react to in my life, as well as photographs that represent how I see the world, not just what I see. So, the book is an expression of who I am – the man behind the myriad of characters that I have played. You have never seen me – this is me. Get to know me by getting this book.’
As well as being an in-depth look at Suchet’s life behind the camera, Behind the Lens* will be supporting a cause close to its author’s heart: the Tuberous Sclerosis Association.
‘My grandson has it, and it’s a very little-known, inherited gene. In actual fact, it was completely in chance as neither my son or my daughter-in-law has this complex gene, and it is a complete freak of nature, but he has it very badly. It’s a very small charity, very few people have this tuberous sclerosis complex. And this book is in total support of this charity, it’s supporting that charity and it will not support me.’
It’s just another reminder that David Suchet is no less than a national treasure. His 25 years as Poirot will stand not only as a benchmark for any character actor, but also as a comforting reminder of a dedicated professional in an entertainment industry that all too often seems constantly in motion. And when it comes to Suchet’s own self-appraisal, it’s no less humble than expected.
‘I would like to be remembered as a person who would serve my writer first and foremost, who would always be regarded as truthful as possible in my representations, and as someone who would leave my ego at the door. Forget about stardom, forget about money. If you want to be in the arts – if you want to be in the performing arts, if you want to be an actor – do it because you want to serve your writer, not yourself.’
By Steve Chalke
Why men’s mental health is an issue for all men and whole communities.
‘Man up. Shape up. Step up. Keep up.’ That’s the message to men.
But what happens when, well… we just can’t?
Anxiety, depression and despair amongst men are at an all-time high. The latest UK statistics are frightening:
At any one time, it’s believed that one in eight men (that 12.5 per cent of us) are trying to cope with diagnosed mental health issues – and that’s just the disclosed cases. Many more are invisible.
78 per cent of suicides (almost four in every five) are by men.
For men under the age of 45 suicide is the biggest single cause of death. In other words, the thing that is most likely to kill a young man is himself!
In the last five years the suicide rate in males aged 45-59 has also increased significantly.
Thirteen men take their own lives every day.
We also know that 25 per cent of those men have visited their GP during the previous seven days. It was just too little, and too late.
It is a bleak picture. When it comes to male mental health and emotional well-being, we have a crisis.
The highly complex interwoven issues that sit behind these alarming statistics are ones that doctors and public health specialists continue to research and battle with. But – just like many of the other multifaceted challenges our society faces – my experience has taught me that this doesn’t mean we can’t take action to make a difference right now.
A friend of mine grew up as part of a religious community that taught homosexuality was sinful. His father was one of its leaders. But as he reached puberty, he slowly came to what for him at the time was, as he describes it, ‘the very painful recognition’ that he was gay. Silently and secretly, he prayed every day for forgiveness for being who he was. He vowed to God as well as to himself that he would always resist temptation; that he would never give in to his desire, that he would live a celibate life. For most of the time – through sheer determination – this strategy worked. But every now and then, having to live in denial of who he was became so overwhelming that, after huge internal battles, he would cave into the desire to watch porn on his laptop, or to a sordid and secret one-night stand. He hated himself for this, but felt powerless to prevent it.
Like us all, he knew that good mental health and well-being is dependent on being able to open up about who we are and how we feel to those closest to us. But how could he do this, when he knew for certain that it would lead to his rejection, not only by his community but by his family. He was lonely, vulnerable and isolated; trapped in a world of ongoing deceit.
So, finding a new job and using it as an excuse, he moved away from home. Still – in spite of his fight to deny who he was – his sexuality pulled at him irresistibly. And, as he dived deeper into the inevitable depression caused by this, he began to turn to drugs, simply in an attempt to blot out his feelings of guilt and shame.
By now, he hated himself. He told me that every day he would get up, walk to the bathroom of the flat he was renting, look at himself in the mirror and think,
‘I hope that this is the last day of your miserable life.’
Eventually – now dependent on the drugs that he also despised himself for taking – he decided to end his life. Very late, one cold winter’s night he stood on a lonely bridge across a river and prepared to throw himself into the dark, murky, freezing water. But, at that very moment, his phone rang in his pocket. A friend, who had never called him before, was checking to see how he was. They talked. The moment of absolute desperation passed. My friend’s mood lifted a little. He walked off the bridge and headed home.
If the macho message is ‘Man up’ and ‘Get over it’, a softer, more sensitive approach tells us to ‘Open up’ rather than ‘Close down’. This, we’re told, is a far more honest and healthy way to deal with life’s struggles. Emotional openness and vulnerability are not signs of personal weakness, but instead are probably the most accurate indicators of our inner sense of courage.
However, what happens when you just can’t find that courage?
Way back in the 1980s, one of the first-ever projects launched by Oasis, the charity I founded, was a safe house for vulnerable and homeless young adults. Our goal was to equip and empower them on their journey towards living independently. Before we opened, my wife and I kitted the whole building out with a great deal of care. We bought artwork for the bedrooms and hallways and we chose the furniture in order to create a relaxed and welcoming environment. For the shared lounge, we bought a huge TV.
We were so excited to open. I still remember the day. But there was a shock to come. I was expecting our residents to enjoy their new home, to be cheerful. To smile. To share. To readily express their thanks and appreciation. Instead they were silent. With some, it even proved impossible to make any eye contact. And within weeks of our first residents’ arrival, most of the artwork we had bought had been stolen and sold. The walls were bare. The unit on which the TV had been placed stood empty. The house had been stripped and I was frustrated and angry.
But slowly – all too slowly – I came to see that the problem was really mine. I am ashamed to admit it, but because the wounds these young people had suffered were psychological rather than physical, it was too easy to misread their responses and, as a result, to react rather than respond to them, and so to judge them negatively. If theirs had been a physical rather than an emotional disability, I would have been ready to compensate for them far more easily.
Thinking about the same thing in a different context, why is it OK to take time off work with a broken arm but somehow ‘emasculating’ to admit to depression? Why is an asthma attack viewed as just one of those things, but a panic attack seen as a sign of weakness?
When a person has been abused – physically, sexually or psychologically – or neglected (realities that are tragically all too common in our society) they are prone to suffer enduring negative and debilitating impacts. The anger, shame and despair they experience may be directed inwards to spawn symptoms such as withdrawal, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and thoughts of suicide, or be channelled outwards through behaviour such as aggression, impulsiveness, delinquency, hyperactivity and substance abuse. It’s just that when we can’t see the wounds, it is far harder to understand the behaviour.
My friend Joe is a highly talented and professionally extremely successful individual. But he is a man haunted by childhood rejection which, 30 years later, still leaves him with a lack of confidence, crippling introversion and an inability to form close, trusting friendships. He lives alone as a semi-recluse, having never been able to form an intimate relationship, battling with an eating disorder that has destroyed his physical well-being and from time to time threatens his life.
I have learned from my own personal experience that the more anxious I become, the more short-sighted, restricted and hampered my view of things also becomes. But I’ve also learned that although the scars I carry tell the story of where I’ve been, they do not dictate either who I am or where I am headed.
So how do we break the stigma that surrounds the issue of poor male mental health? How do we defeat the narrative that asserts that masculinity is all about being tough?
I believe that it’s society’s misguided focus on the individual that does much of the damage:
Why do we see men’s mental health as something to be addressed at an individual level?
By placing the focus on the individual, are we just placing more pressure on men who are already struggling?
If a man is to open up and talk about his feelings, who is he going to talk to?
It is good to encourage men to talk more, but should we also be teaching them to listen to each other more?
Although often portrayed as ‘a man’s issue’, men’s mental health is instead a ‘men’s’ issue. Indeed, it is an issue that the whole community needs to address: men, women, everybody.
Much of the advice out there for men provides them with ‘top tips’ for better mental health but mistakenly targets the individual. I want to address what we can do collectively, in our communities, as small groups; from joining a football team to volunteering at a youth club; from mentoring a young man at a local school to organising a regular ‘mates evening’ down at the pub.
After more than three decades of experience working within local communities across the UK and beyond, one thing I am convinced of is that small communities and strong relationships are the most powerful drivers of good mental and emotional health for all. Thriving local neighbourhoods create the strongest and best support networks. None of this is to downplay the critical role that the professionals working in mental health and the social services play. But prevention is far better than cure. It is only within our communities that we will discover the real solutions which will help avert crises, build resilience, and prevent those who are stressed and isolated from sliding further into mental ill health.
The research also tells us that in every class of thirty teenage boys, at least three will already be in trouble emotionally. Yet the children’s and adolescents’ mental health service (CAMHS) is saturated beyond the ability to cope.
I regularly hear from young men in schools who find it difficult to talk honestly and openly about themselves, for fear of how they will be perceived by their peers. One fourteen-year-old student, whose mum and dad had just split up, recently told me that he envied the girls in his school because they seemed to have the kind of friendships where they had someone they could tell everything to. ‘Boys don’t’, he added. Instead, he explained that he felt that he had to hide who he was and to try to keep a lid on his feelings. The problem was that meant they just festered. In fact, he told me that he had started skipping lessons and getting into fights. He said that it was just a way of coping.
But ironically, for him, he had found hope – simply because he had found a way at last of talking.
The key to good men’s mental and emotional health is to create natural opportunities for men – young and old – to talk together, which means:
Reducing the pressure on those who want to talk by establishing conversations they can easily join, rather than leaving them to initiate a conversation themselves
Placing as strong an emphasis on listening as on talking. As I discover time and time again, merely being present can be hugely beneficial to those struggling with mental health challenges.
As Henri Nouwen, the great pastoral writer, once put it: ‘The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.’
Find out more about Oasis at www.oasisuk.org
Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces
By Ali Hull
John Sutherland joined the Met in 1992, and rose quickly, through the ranks, to become a senior police officer. But in 2013, he suffered a major mental breakdown, and his career was effectively over. Since then, he has written a book on his experiences, Blue: Keeping the peace and falling to pieces, which became a Sunday Times bestseller and was reviewed in the last issue of Sorted. His second book, Crossing The Line will be out in May 2020.
Why did you decide to become a policeman?
I was about 16 when I decided that I wanted to become a police officer. Looking back now, I suppose that I was looking for adventure – wanting to be part of something that matters. If you were to ask most police officers why they joined, they would tell you, simply, they wanted to make a difference. That sounds about right to me.
You were a successful police officer. What made you successful, and why do others struggle?
It would be for others to say whether I was successful, but I certainly loved it. Almost every single passing minute. Based on my 25+ years in policing, I would say that there are probably four qualities that every good police officer shares:
The ability to communicate
(And you should probably add a good sense of humour to that list.)
To what extent do you think the success contributed to your breakdown? Reading the book, it seems there could be many factors: your father had had mental health problems, so there is the question of inheritance; you had had a traumatic time because of your father’s illness, and then there were the pressures of the job, the fact that nothing was done to look at those pressures, and the prevailing culture that said it was weak to do so.
Though I never appreciated it at the time, I have come to understand that it would be impossible to do the job of a police officer for any length of time and to remain completely unaffected – untouched – by the things that you see and the things that you do. Policing is the best job in the world – but it’s a heck of a job. And, in the past, I’m not sure any of us ever paused to think about the consequences for police officers of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma. So, my breakdown undoubtedly had much to do with my job. But there are always circumstances beyond work – some nature, some nurture – that play a part. In my case, it was probably a collision of all those things that conspired to break me.
Most people know about policing – or think they know – because of TV, and police dramas are everywhere. Do you or have you ever watched them, and if so, which ones are anywhere near the truth?
I have never watched a great deal of police TV. Whilst I was still serving, it was important to get away from work and spend time doing other things. These days, I choose not to watch. One of the long-term consequences of my illness is that I find it very difficult to cope with trauma – and that extends to the things I read and the things I watch. I’ve seen enough of the reality to last me a lifetime.
The police have also had their share of scandals – Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence, etc. Do these add to the pressures on the good policemen to act differently?
I’m no blind apologist for the job I used to do. Sometimes policing – both individually and collectively – gets things terribly wrong. So, we should never shy away from holding it up to the light. And no good police officer would ever suggest otherwise. Society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than of anyone else. That is for four reasons:
The promises we have made (every officer takes an oath on joining)
The powers we are given (to stop, to search, to arrest, to use reasonable force where necessary)
The fact that we are paid professionals
The position that policing occupies in society.
Because, if you can’t trust a police officer, then who can you trust?
What do you think are the key measures that should be taken by the police (and other organisations) to counteract the macho atmosphere that makes it hard to admit to struggling, particularly mentally?
Times have already changed very significantly. The culture is far less macho than it used to be. Two of the three most senior positions in British policing are occupied by women: Cressida Dick is Commissioner of the Met, and Lynne Owens is Director General of the National Crime Agency; both are heroes of mine.
In the past, the macho culture placed a level of expectation that everyone, male and female alike, would be ‘one of the lads’. This had all sorts of implications, not least of which was that officers would tend to keep feelings and emotions bottled up. You didn’t talk about things: you just got on with the job. We didn’t understand back then the inevitable impact of all that you see and do in a policing life. It meant, for example, that officers would frequently self-medicate with alcohol, with all the inevitable consequences that brings.
Those possibilities remain, of course, but policing has changed very significantly in recent years. I genuinely think that the macho culture is a thing of the past.
One other observation about culture here: I often find that whenever police culture gets mentioned – ‘canteen culture’ in particular – it is with a presumption of the negative. Police culture is seen as a bad thing – the thing that encourages sexism and racism and corruption etc. But so much of my experience of police culture, the vast majority in fact, is of completely the opposite. In most cases, police culture is an extraordinary thing. It’s the thing the persuades officers to enter tube tunnels on 7/7. It’s the thing the persuades officers to run on to London Bridge when terrorists are attacking. It’s the thing that persuades officers to step into harm’s way in defence of complete strangers. And that is a beautiful thing to me.
Even though mental health generally, and male mental health in particular, is getting more exposure, do you think the situation is improving?
Without a doubt. There is still a long way to go, but every sign I see is a positive and encouraging one. Prior to my breakdown six years ago, I had never heard anyone talking about mental health in policing. Now there is an open and compassionate conversation taking place, and a genuine recognition of the inevitable demands of a life in blue.
You say, in the book, that in every case of young people getting involved in knife crime, there was domestic violence in their background... so presumably they had been exposed to violence from an early age, and it was, for them, somehow normal?
It was, at the time, the most startling discovery of my policing career. It remains one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learned. Not every child who grows up in a violent home becomes violent themselves; the reality is much more hopeful than that. But if you look at the situation in reverse – starting with young men suspected or convicted of involvement in serious violence – the picture is a stark one. During my career, most of the violent young men I encountered had themselves grown up in violent homes. We must never underestimate the impact and significance of what the professionals call ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’.
Do you think therefore that more children should be removed from such families, or is it the case that children are not removed from situations in which they witness violence, but only – hopefully – from situations where they are the victims of violence? That witnessing such violence is not seen as dangerous to them, so nothing is done?
I am clear in my belief that domestic violence is the single greatest cause of harm in society. And we need a twenty-year plan to deal with it. One of the measures of a society is the regard that it has for its most vulnerable members. And children should be our first consideration. We have an absolute moral responsibility to protect them, not just from violence, but from abuse and neglect of every imaginable kind.
You were a policeman for a long time. How did policing change, depending on who was in power and what their policies were?
In many respects, policing has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years:
the advance of technology
the mass movement of population
the advent of international terrorism.
But, in all the ways that matter most of all, the heart of policing hasn’t changed in the last 125 years. The job is still:
to save lives
to find the lost
to bind up the broken-boned and broken-hearted
to protect the vulnerable
to defend the weak
to confront the dangerous
sometimes, as in the recent, heart-breaking case of PC Andrew Harper, to risk it all.
Policing remains, for me, the finest thing that anyone could ever choose to do with their working lives.
I would add, having written a lot about politics and policing recently, that the government of the last nine years has done more damage to policing than any other in my lifetime.
Are you going to be writing more books? If so, what on?
My next book is due to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in May 2020. Whilst Blue was very much my story, the new one (Crossing The Line) is a much wider story about policing and what it has to tell us about the world we live in.
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