Robert Charles Skinner, 27 November 1926 – 21 February 2023
Ten years ago, I had one of the most wonderful evenings of my life.
I was having dinner with my father, Bob Skinner, at Penarth Yacht Club in Wales. A few hours earlier my mother Rosemary had had a successful cancer operation at the age of 84, and we were celebrating. Dad spoke movingly about losing his father Frank when he was 16 in 1942, and his deep regret that he never had the chance to get to know him. For the very first time, I admitted to Dad that when I was 16 I was scared the same thing would happen. (Dad’s grandfather also died young.)
Happily, Dad remained a precious part of my life for 43 years after I passed the milestone of turning 16. But those days have now come to an end. He slipped the surly bonds of Earth on 21 February, and I will always be grateful for the time we had together. He was an inspiration to me: his zest for life, his sense of fairness and his way with words lit up my life. I followed him into public relations, and one of the proudest days of my life was when we stood on the terrace of the House of Lords after I was made a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations almost 40 years after Dad himself became a Fellow.
I’ll write again about Dad in the coming weeks. I have a lifetime of memories, together with Dad’s extensive writing about his life and work, to cherish. I couldn’t have wished for a better father. Thanks, Dad. I will always love you.
Christmas is such a precious time, even for those of us who aren’t religious. It is a time for reflection, yet we often invest such unrealistic expectations of the festival that we risk feeling disappointed. Happily I have almost universally happy memories of Christmas past.
This year is a poignant one for our family, as my father Bob Skinner is in hospital, marking his unhappiest Christmas since 1942, days after his father died. We had planned for Dad to spend Christmas with us. I have been blessed with countless happy Christmas years, so I should not feel downhearted. Instead, I have been looking back on Christmas memories – especially during my childhood years.
Christmas 1967 is the first Christmas I can remember. Unusually we were staying with my maternal grandmother, perhaps out of sympathy after she was widowed when my grandfather died suddenly just before Christmas the previous year. 15 Grove Place was a cold house, without central heating. It had fireplaces in every bedroom, although I can only remember a fire in the living room. Dad was ill with flu and spent the whole time in bed, which was the warmest place to be.
I have warm memories of my grandfather, Grampy, even though I had only just turned three when he died. I recall him shelling peas in the living room, perhaps on the day captured in the rare photo of my early childhood seen above. A decade ago my late mother told how my grandfather felt his way home along the wall that lined the back lane in an air raid. My grandmother was under the hairdryer in the hair salon in Penarth when the air raid siren wailed out over the town. The hairdressers raced to the bomb shelter and only later remembered that grandma was under the dryer, oblivious to the drama. I bet she never forgave them!
That house was a time capsule. The front room followed the Edwardian tradition of being kept for special occasions – happy or sad. My grandmother had good taste, and the furniture, presumably dating from the 1920s, was elegant and well preserved. In the middle room was a selection of books, including David Lloyd George’s two volume war memoirs, still in their delivery package. After Grandma died in 1981 I found the 1969 calendar I had made her in my first term at school.
This Christmas, we stayed with my other grandmother, Nanny, who lived with my aunt Dorothy and uncle George. It was a much more hospitable venue – I loved my Nan so much, who was the perfect grandmother. (Dorothy and George were wonderful hosts.) It was a special family Christmas, with my cousins Valerie and Wendy also still living at home. Yet my most vivid memory, lying in bed on Christmas Eve, was seeing Father Christmas late that evening, placing a stocking with presents. Spoiler alert: I presume this was Dad or Uncle George, but I will never know for sure.
This is the first Christmas I remember at home. We had moved to England when I was two, and typically went home to Wales for Christmas and other holidays. For some reason this year we stayed at home in Whitton, Middlesex, and enjoyed the first white Christmas I can remember. I remember Dad making a sledge from a baker’s tray – yet in pancake-flat Whitton the expectation was more exciting than the reality. We went to friends on Boxing Day, and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel Christmas. The following year we moved back to Wales.
I shouldn’t have such happy memories of my pre-O levels Christmas. I’d sat my mock exams just before Christmas, and was already planning my expectation management after what I knew was a disastrous performance in Chemistry. (I didn’t manage expectations very well – my 22% still came as a shock to Mum and Dad…)
Dad found my maternal grandmother (mentioned in the 1967 Christmas note above) unconscious under her bed on Christmas morning. He called his cousin, the lovely Dr Donald Dymond, whose on-call colleague paid a house visit. She declared that my grandmother was not in any danger, and would revive with no ill effects, which indeed happened on Boxing Day. This provided great excitement to me as a 16 year old, especially as it spared me the usual ritual of going round to my sister’s in-laws for the ordeal of sitting at their Christmas dinner table for five hours. I much preferred our resulting unplanned festive dinner of cheese and biscuits.
My sister was 26 in 1979, 10 years older than me, and we were at our closest as I was better placed as a teenager to appreciate her adult sensibilities. On 27 December we all went into Cardiff and enjoyed a snack in the cafe in Howell’s department store, before I spent some Christmas money in my favourite shop: Lear’s booksellers. Later, we went for a family walk along disused railways near Creigiau, where the Barry Railway crossed the Taff Vale Railway. (I would love to retrace that long-ago family walk, 43 years on.) The following day, we came home from another shopping trip in Cardiff to find my grandmother sitting in our living room in the dark. We’d not realised we’d be home after dark…
Cardiff suffered severe flooding just after Christmas 1979, as the river Taff broke its banks, and we were very glad that we lived well above the city’s rivers and lakes.
1981 was not, strictly speaking, a white Christmas. The real winter began in the new year. But it was the snowiest winter of my lifetime, as I blogged here.
This was my first adult Christmas, graced by my one year old niece Siân. I was so fortunate to become an uncle at an early age as it gave me the chance to see Siân and later Ria (born 1982) develop when I was myself still growing up during my teenage and young adult years. I was also conscious that this was the last Christmas before A levels and university. A rite of passage.
My first Christmas as a father. Happily, Owen spent time with all four grandparents. My mother especially was boosted by the arrival of her bonus grandson 19 years after the birth of her previous grandchild, my sister’s son Ben. was lucky that I had changed jobs just after Owen was born. Our offices closed between Christmas and New Year and everyone had time off, which avoided any arguments about who should work between Christmas and New Year.
This has been just a small selection of my Christmas memories. Christmas remains a special time for me, offering a chance to reflect, relax and enjoy the company of family. I’m looking forward to many more festive memories in the years to come.
My grandfather died 80 years ago today. I was born 21 years after his passing, so Frank Skinner lives on in my father Bob’s precious shared memories of the father he lost when he had just turned 16.
Dad recorded his memories of that terrible day in December 1942 in a poignant, brilliantly observed blogpost two years ago: “At sixteen I had just started work as the Penarth Times reporter and was in Penarth police court when called home. My father was seriously ill. I knew before I got there that he had died. It was from a heart attack. He was 52.”
Dad went on to reflect on the sense of shock and loss: “Like this year [the coronavirus Christmas, 2020], it was an unusual [wartime] Christmas with families separated, celebrations muted. I remember very little of those few days, and have no recollection of Dad’s funeral. I did go out one evening, to join our church’s young people’s group carol singing. Mum thought it would do me good to get out of the house for an hour. Looking back, the saddest part was that I had so little time to get to know Dad.”
When I was 16, I was fearful of history repeating itself and losing my own father at an early age. (Dad’s grandfather had also died young, so I had reason to be concerned.) Ten years ago I told Dad of these fears for the first time, during a wonderful, celebratory dinner to mark Mum’s successful cancer operation in January 2013. Now, as Dad faces Christmas in hospital, I reflect on his extraordinary life, and his memories of losing a much-loved father 80 years ago.
I’m also thinking about the lovely grandfather I never knew. Here he is above in his Great War army uniform. Frank survived the catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, and before the second world war forbade Dad from joining the school cadet corps because of his horror of war – a similar emotion that inspired Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Dad told me that his father featured in the national press after Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Frank featured in photos of two barges named Italy and Abyssinia. He was on Abyssinia and was throwing stones at the boat named Italy. It would be fun to track down the images in the newspaper archives for 1935.
Frank died almost exactly half way through the second world war, not knowing what tragedies his family might endure as Bob and his elder brother Bert entered adulthood. Happily, all lived to celebrate VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. As my father has noted, they never lived together as a family again, but remained close, a precious closeness that we all share to this day.
It is heartbreaking when the NHS fails the people it’s dedicated to help.
When my father Bob Skinner was brought home by air ambulance from Spain on 2 July, I was mightily relieved. It had been a huge battle getting him home after an accident on holiday, and it wouldn’t have happened without the valiant support of Dad’s MP, Stephen Doughty and his team. Yet his ordeal was only just beginning.
Dad is still in hospital five months later. He has also been unable to eat properly for those five endless months, because the Cardiff & Vale university health board lost his dentures when transferring him between hospitals at the start of July. Shamefully, Cardiff & Vale has totally failed to take any responsibility for putting right the loss and getting Bob a replacement set of teeth. I made a formal complaint to Cardiff & Vale in September. Three months on – a quarter of a year on – we have had a string of broken promises to sort things out. I have twice asked Bob’s member of the Senedd, the economy minister Vaughan Gething, to help. Vaughan’s team contacted the ‘concerns’ team at Cardiff & Vale, but got nowhere. I feel so bad at failing to get the NHS to help Dad. But if Vaughan Gething, the Welsh government’s health minister through the worst days of the pandemic, can’t do anything, what hope do I have? Do I have to write to @PrifWeinidog (first minister) Mark Drakeford?
I say this to Suzanne Rankin, chief executive of Cardiff & Vale university health board. How would you feel if it was your father who was being neglected so badly? Can you imagine what it’s like for a 96 year old type 2 diabetic, constantly fobbed off and living off lukewarm soup and ice cream? Please, take responsibility and end the neglect. As a veteran who served in the army during the second world war, Bob deserves so much better. No one denies that the NHS is under huge strain, but Bob is just the latest example of how the service all too often lets down the most vulnerable and has to be chased repeatedly when things go wrong.
It’s heartbreaking seeing Dad in such a plight. He has an unquenchable spirit, although the past five months have tested his resolve to the limit. Back in the early days of the pandemic, he repeatedly went on national television to praise his care home workers. Our first lockdown reunion appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. And he survived Covid and a fall in his former care home – all experiences that he reported in a pandemic blog which we later turned into an e-book, which featured on BBC Wales Today.
I just hope that Dad’s Llandough ordeal will have a similar happy ending.
PS: I should point out that the medical staff at Llandough have been kind and caring, especially Hannah, Manuel, Siân and Andrea – and there will have been others whose names I do not know. And a decade ago I praised Cardiff & Vale for its amazing work getting staff to its hospitals in a blizzard, enabling my late mother’s cancer operation to go ahead.
PPS: I was grateful to receive a call this morning from a director responsible for dentistry at the Cardiff & Vale university health board. My father’s case now appears to be a priority, which is good news. Thank you, Bev.
It’s only fair to update this post with praise for Cardiff & Vale university health board’s response to my cry for action. Roz and Bev sprang into action and Bob got his replacement teeth soon after the new year. On a video call just before Christmas, the team explained how they intended to apply the lessons from Bob’s experience, in particular to check that a patient does not leave hospital without their dentures.
Bob has made amazing progress in January, and is now blogging again! You can follow his progress here.
Sadly, Bob died on Tuesday 21 February in Llandough hospital. As mentioned above, January was a far happier month for him, as he was able to eat properly for the first time since early July. He was due to return home the day after he died, and we were full of admiration for the care and kindness of Cardiff & Vale university health board staff making the necessary in-home care arrangements, especially Tendai and Therese.
I didn’t plan to go to Vigo, Spain, this month. I’d not given the place a moment’s thought since reading Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for my school O level exams in 1980. The Gloucestershire writer began his walk through Spain at Vigo in 1935.
But fate brought me to this friendly city in Galicia. Fate and my father. Bob Skinner had been so looking forward to his first holiday for three years. He and my late mother loved taking cruises, and Bob was thrilled to book a week’s voyage to Spain and Portugal on P&O Cruises’s MV Ventura.
My cousin Brenda and her husband Ivor helped him get the compulsory Covid test and he was ready to set sail. But disaster struck within an hour of the liner leaving Southampton Water. Dad fell as he was getting out of a lift and he broke his right hip. The ship’s doctor called me the following day and explained that Bob would be taken to hospital at the first port of call, Vigo. I would soon me on my way to a city I’d not thought about for 42 years.
it has become fashionable to criticise members of parliament, and politicians generally.
”They’re all the same.” How often do we hear that? Yet so many polls show that we hold a higher opinion of our own MP than of politicians generally.
Years ago, many MPs visited their constituency once or twice a year. They regarded councillors as the people to sort out problems experienced by constituents. But now MPs (and members of the Senedd in Wales and of the Scottish parliament) take very seriously their responsibility to help constituents with all manner of problems.
My family has reason to be very grateful for this trend. Years ago, former Welsh first minister Alun Michael helped my parents secure their right to attendance allowances, as we had failed to do so through the normal byzantine process, despite Mum’s near-blindness and Dad’s immobility.
A decade or more later, Alun’s successor as MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Stephen Doughty, has been magnificent during an even greater crisis.
I wrote a week ago that Dad, Bob Skinner, was embarking on a long-awaited cruise. Sadly, unknown to me, by the time I wrote that post Dad was in the medical bay of P&O Cruises ship MV Ventura. He had fallen getting out of the lift and fractured his hip.
He was looked after magnificently by the P&O Cruises team (note: there is no connection between P&O Cruises and the venal P&O Ferries who sacked its crews a few months ago).
Dad was taken to hospital in the first port it came to, Vigo in northern Spain. He has been looked after wonderfully by Vithas Hospital in Vigo, and I flew out to be with him and support him.
But we had a problem. His travel insurers were not communicating and the hospital was, understandably, concerned whether they would be paid. I then found, to my horror, that Dad had bought travel cover from a company not authorised to sell insurance in the UK. At that point, I thought we were totally alone.
I tweeted Stephen Doughty, Dad’s MP, last night and he phoned me this morning, and promised to help. Within an hour or so, on a Saturday morning, he’d phoned the insurers and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Soon after I had a call from the hospital to say they had just received a guarantee that they would be paid by the insurers. (We’d been about to send £10,000 to the hospital to pay Dad’s bills.) I have rarely been so relieved in my life. Stephen’s intervention was crucial. Just now, the insurers have been in touch about repatriation arrangements. Having been in the depths of despair this morning, I am now feeling confident that we will get Dad home.
Stephen didn’t have to do this. He could have spent a leisurely Saturday morning after a no doubt busy week as an MP and shadow Europe minister. But Stephen cared. He acted. All our family are so grateful.
This isn’t a party political point. MPs of all political colours take their responsibility to constituents very seriously. Friends have spoken of the wonderful support provided by the Lib Dem MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green. Tragically Jo Cox and David Amess gave their lives in fulfilling that duty. I have met Stephen Timms and Nigel Jones, who were both attacked at their MPs surgeries; sadly Andy Pennington was murdered defending Nigel. I am profoundly grateful for their selfless commitment. So is my father, Bob Skinner.
I’ll end on a family tale. I told Stephen that my mother took Dad’s job as reporter on the Penarth Times in 1944 when Bob joined the army aged 18. The following year, 1945, Mum was very unimpressed when James Callaghan made disparaging comments about the paper during the election campaign that elected him and swept Labour to power. Forty years later, I accompanied Dad to a meeting with by then former prime minister Callaghan (whom I greatly admired) to secure work permits for Hong Kong musicians performing at the Cardiff Festival of Music.
I had just graduated and Sunny Jim asked me what I wanted to do for a living. ”I’d like to go into PR or journalism,” I replied. Ignoring me, he turned to Dad and commented ”They all want to do that now, don’t they!” He wrote a note to then Tory employment minister Alan Clark, got it couriered over and soon after we returned to Cardiff with the crucial work permits, allowing the concert to go ahead at St David’s Hall. An early lesson in the influence of an MP – especially one of very few people to have been chancellor, home secretary, foreign secretary and PM.
Millions of words have been written about Boris Johnson’s illegal lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street. A nation has expressed its outrage, which will not be assuaged until Johnson resigns as prime minister.
The stories about the May 2020 party, to which over 100 people were invited to bring booze and enjoy the lovely weather, have brought back vivid memories of that extraordinary lockdown spring.
Like almost everyone in Britain, but unlike Johnson and his team, we obeyed the rules. We knew how important this was to keep safe, minimise the spread of the virus and protect the NHS. On my daily exercise, I kept local and was more careful than normal when cycling down steep hills – the last thing I wanted was to put pressure on A&A by crashing.
It was the ultimate sacrifice. Forty years ago today, the eight man crew of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat in Cornwall died trying to save the lives of the crew and passengers on a stricken cargo ship.
December 1981 was bitterly cold and the night of 19 December brought high seas and hurricane force winds. It took the crew of the lifeboat 30 minutes to come alongside the MV Union Star. They valiantly succeeded in getting four of the eight people on the ship onto the lifeboat. The coastguard assumed the Solomon Brownewould then head for shore, but the crew were determined to save everyone. Tragically, the lifeboat foundered in the attempt.
I remember the shock of the news. As Joanne Payne, the daughter of crewman Charles Greenhaugh told the BBC, the village couldn’t believe the news. She recalled that everyone thought: “It’s not true, it can’t be true. The lifeboat always comes home.”
The Penlee tragedy was the last time the RNLI lost an entire crew. Today’s lifeboats are far better designed for the dangers of the sea: they will right themselves if capsized in heavy seas.
Father and son Nigel and Neil Brockman were both members of the Penlee lifeboat crew, but Coxswain Trevelyan Richards chose father Nigel over his 17 year old son because of his greater experience. As Lamorna Ash recounts in her book Dark, Salt, Clear about life in nearby Newlyn, the coxswain had a policy of not allowing two members of the same family on the same dangerous rescue mission. An echo of Saving Private Ryan. Neil later became coxswain of the replacement lifeboat. We should also remember the other eight victims of the tragedy: those on board the Union Star cargo ship.
Christmas 1981 was the saddest imaginable for the grieving village of Mousehole. Lamorna Ash says that even today its people resent the way the media descended on them over that tragic Christmas, not allowing them to mourn in private.
It is striking how many tragedies happen on the eve of Christmas: Penlee; Lockerbie; the Clapham Junction rail disaster. Or is it just that we are more conscious of tragedy at what it meant to be a happy time of year? Closer to home, both my grandfathers died just before Christmas, in 1942 and 1966.
Supporting the RNLI: a family tradition
My family has supported the RNLI for many years. My late mother, Rosemary Skinner, volunteered at the RNLI shop in her hometown of Penarth, Wales until her failing eyesight made this impossible. The photo above shows Owen, aged 5, at an open day there during the Penarth festival in 2013.
We saw a further side of the RNLI’s vital work during holidays in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall. The beach has a reputation for dangerous rip currents (three surfers were killed there in 2014) so during the summer season RNLI lifeguards patrol the beach. We have heard the guards regularly calling to surfers and paddleboarders to move away from areas of danger through loud-hailers. On our first visit in 2011 I signed up on the beach to make monthly donations, which continue to this day.
It is not be as heroic as crewing a lifeboat in dangerous seas, but our donations do help the RNLI and its brave volunteers. Few were as valiant as the eight men who departed the Cornish shore on 19 December 1981, never to return.
My father is amazing. After two wonderful years at his Sunrise, Cardiff, care home, he left today after buying a flat in Penarth, near Cardiff.
Everyone at Sunrise has been so kind to Dad since he moved in just over two years ago: former general manager Sara, new boss Virgil, Francesca, Diane and so many others. They guided him through the pandemic, and we will always be so grateful. His book, Pandemic: my Care Home Diary, is his tribute. His time at Sunrise rebuilt his health, and has let him spread his wings once again.
Dad is very happy with his own company (he enjoys blogging and writing) but also loves the companionship of others. As I carried more stuff up to his new flat, I came across a group of women enjoying a bottle or two of wine. I explained Dad’s Penarth heritage dating back to his joining the Penarth Times as a reporter in 1942 – an astonishing 79 years ago! – and said he’d be happy to join them, and the men, for a glass of wine or a coffee.
Karen and I are in a unique time of life. We have a very special 13 year old son who is finding his wings as a teenager. And we have a father/father-in-law who is also retrieving his own wings, setting up home once again, some 70 years after creating his first home with Mum in Caerphilly. It’s like keeping an eye over 13 year old and 95 year old teenagers! Long may they flourish. We love them both so much.
For 10 years, I’ve looked admiringly at the surfers cresting the Atlantic waves at Mawgan Porth on our regular Cornish holidays. Watching the groups led by KingSurf surf school heading down the beach, I though I’d love to do that, but feared that at my age I’d only embarrass myself by trying.
Last week, I put my doubts aside and gave it a go. 13 year old Owen and I had two lessons with KingSurf and loved it. We did better on the first lesson, as there were more waves and we had more practice. On the second lesson, we had the benefit of a particularly good instructor, seen in the yellow top below. He noticed that I was instinctively putting my wrong leg forward – something I hadn’t even noticed. Had we had better surf, I think I’d have made more progress. (During the first lesson, I stood up several times – something I never thought I’d manage.)