Monthly Archives: June 2017

From Ceilidh to Calm

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“What’s a Ceilidh?“ I asked, having just accepted an invitation to stay with friends in Catbrook, Monmouthshire, and having been told that the weekend would include such an occasion at the local village hall.

“Look it up on YouTube!”, came the response, and when I checked I realised we had let ourselves in for a specific kind of dance event; having two left feet and little sense of rhythm, I was not thrilled by the prospect.  However, as it turned out, it was one of the most enjoyable evenings Shaun and I have had for a long time.

I can’t think of another scenario where a bunch of 50 or so people, mainly strangers, immediately begin  holding hands, linking arms and learning dance moves together with such an uninhibited sense of fun and pleasure, right from the first tune.  The Ceilidh band, called ‘Cat’s Claw’ are excellent musicians – they describe themselves as “fundamentally an all-acoustic band that gets your feet moving and the tunes are those that the band enjoys playing together, whether Welsh, Irish, Scottish, European or American – it’s all lined up and waiting for the Cat’s Claw treatment!”  Their evident joy in and passion for the music comes across immediately.  It is a distinctive sound, at once ancient and modern with a lively beat that gets your toes tapping and your body wanting to dance straight away.

I guess a Ceilidh also relies heavily on the success of the caller who instructs in the moves and we had a couple of expert dancers among us who led the more inept.  Each energetic dance was a fantastic antidote to the rainy evening outside, as well as being good exercise.  Shaun and I enjoyed a brief sense of satisfaction when we got a sequence of moves right, and collapsed in giggles when we couldn’t coordinate our clapping.  It was hot, spirited, thirst-inducing, tiring, unadulterated, fun!

In direct opposition to the frantic evening, the following day we enjoyed walking with Janet and Steve  in the area.  One walk took us high above the river Wye and we drank in the clear air, enjoying the full richness of the panoply of green around us, listening to the birdsong and relaxing in the warmth of the sun.  Another walk led us along the valley floor close to the river and here we walked through what could pass for an Alpine meadow; all that was missing were cows with bells round their necks.  Horses grazed peacefully in the distance and the buttercups fought for space with the grass.  It was a joy to all the senses.

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Our final walk took us to the fields and ancient woodland of Catbrook and Ninewells Wood that is close to Janet and Steve’s home.  There is always something new and interesting to discover; this time Steve said, “Let’s go and see the fox”.                             Janet replied, “Yes, we haven’t seen the fox for ages”.

We didn’t know quite what to expect but we were led across a field to an old, solid, stile, the centre of which was a large slab of stone. It wasn’t the easiest stile to climb over, I think I need to work on that particular skill!

However, it was worth the effort.  Once we were over the other side and looked back, we could clearly see the face of a fox that was carved into the stone, apparently by a prisoner of war when the wall was built during Napoleonic times.   (I must credit the local resident blogger with the image, which comes from the WordPress blog called “Woodland Wildflowers of the Wye Valley and Monmouthshire”).


Those who read my blog regularly will recognise that this post is unusual; in that it is a long way from talking of my regular topics dealing with grief and loss.  But in actual fact, it represents very well indeed the importance and efficacy of distractors when you are living day to day with stress, anxiety, bereavement or loss.  We all need our endorphins boosted from time to time, whatever our circumstances.  Finding new ways to do this is a joy in itself.

The sheer fun and laughter in the dancing and the joy of the music at the Ceilidh was a form of upliftment I have never before experienced.  I am reminded of the inspirational book ‘The invitation’ in which poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes, “I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human”.                                                                                                                                                           Setting aside all our day to day cares and worries though the simple expedient of the Ceilidh is a great example of how we can free ourselves from whatever is binding us down.  Highly recommended.

The scenic walks we enjoyed in the beautiful surroundings of the Wye Valley in the easy company of friends provided a quieter, shared enjoyment that was balm to the mind, body and spirit. Also highly recommended.

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Respect the Water 2017


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This year’s RNLI Respect the Water campaign runs from May to September, and many will have seen media coverage by Ross Macleod, Coastal Safety Manager, and the ever increasing team who contribute and pull together to produce an innovative and effective campaign across the UK and Ireland.

Back in 2006 when we were involved with Kingston Council developing safety measures at the riverside where James lost his life, a friend sent to me the ‘Starfish Story’ (replicated at the end of this post).  The message in this simple story tells how individuals can make a difference for the future, in ways they may never have envisaged.  The story seemed particularly apposite to what we were proposing, and achieved, in Kingston. From the end of our campaign in 2009 to date, it is impossible to measure the effects of the increased safety of the area, but there is no doubt that, like the man throwing the starfish into the ocean, we made a difference.

Somehow, the starfish story has become synonymous with my involvement with the RNLI, which began in 2014 when my book Into the Mourning Light was published.  In Chapter 10 of the book I reproduce the starfish story in correlation with our campaign and the work with Kingston.                                                                                                                The next time the story cropped up was when The RNLI filmed me for a video as part of the awards ceremony for Respect the Water in 2015.

A few months ago I was approached by the RNLI in relation to this year’s collaborative initiative along the Thames.  Pub chain Nicholson’s has joined forces with the RNLI to promote water safety messages to customers across its entire network of 78 locations, via special promotions of their fish dishes, empowering staff with water safety advice to share with customers, and running additional fundraising and awareness activities.

In addition the RNLI are supplying potentially lifesaving throw bags to pubs at key locations along the River Thames in London.  RNLI personnel will then deliver training to staff on how to use them to rescue someone from the water in an emergency.  The message is clearly prevention rather than cure.

On a personal level, I was particularly touched to learn that the RNLI had decided to honour James’s memory by dedicating the community throw bag training manual to him.

I was asked to write the dedication, incorporating the starfish story.

On Wednesday 31 May Shaun and I travelled to the Horniman at Hays, the Nicholson’s pub on the south bank near London Bridge which is launching the initiative.   It was truly inspiring to be part of this event, and we met other members of the RNLI who have been involved, over a period of years, in the development of the throw bag initiative. I was particularly pleased to meet Tim James, another helmsman from Teddington who is a colleague of Andy Butterfield and John Soones, two passionately committed individuals who each form part of the wonderfully cohesive jigsaw of the community safety arm of the organisation.  It was a pleasure too to meet event organisers Bridie and Rachel who, doubtless with other staff in the wings, helped the event to come together.  The pub was very busy and many people passing along the walkway in this tourist-rich part of London will doubtless have taken away with them a new understanding of how to Respect the Water.

They will have seen this year’s Respect the Water video which encourages anyone falling into the water to try to float, rather than instinctively trying to swim hard.

They may have seen the demonstrations of how to deploy the throw bag by Guy and the team and realise its effectiveness.

This initiative and its new collaboration with licensed premises demonstrate an evolution into a valuable community based approach to education, training and safety around these important water-based issues.  As always, the RNLI demonstrate a wholehearted desire to effect positive change through the commitment, drive, passion and enthusiasm of its members.

When I first spoke to Andy Butterfield, Guy Addington and Ross Macleod  back in 2014 I never imagined the association would develop into what represents, for me, an ongoing tribute to my son’s memory.  The remarkable prevention and rescue organisation that is the RNLI facilitates opportunities for an ordinary individual like me to truly make a difference for the future in drowning prevention. I am very proud to be involved.

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The Starfish Story

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”  asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”