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.)
We got a precious glimpse into attitudes to women in journalism in the 1940s this week when my father Bob Skinner gave me a handwritten article my late mother Rosemary Skinner (nee Preece) wrote over 70 years ago as part of her journalism training.
I could hear Mum’s voice as I read her talking about rude awakenings, and advising women reporters to dress quietly but with distinction. (Her point being that you may be present at an inquest and a fashionable reception on the same day.) Intriguingly, she comments that ‘the old saying “women are the unfortunate victims of sex prejudice” is rapidly dying’, given that there were more openings for women workers on a newspaper at the time. I suspect that may have been a little optimistic!
Mum’s own career in journalism was short lived. She put down her reporter’s notebook for good after my sister was born in 1953 when she was just 25. (It was common for women in the Fifties to give up their careers on starting a family, in many cases because unenlightened employers insisted on it.) Reading her article today, I can’t help thinking she could have done very well, with her determination, her way with people and her unique personality. She wrote all those years ago that ‘most women reporters soon learn to add a small amount of charm, and larger amounts of persuasiveness, even persistence’. Mum had all those qualities in abundance.
You can reads Mum’s article below: click continue reading.
In March 2020, as coronavirus took hold in Britain, my father Bob Skinner started a blog to record his day to day experiences during the pandemic. We have now published the diary as a Kindle book.
Bob has a true reporter’s eye for the events of the year that changed our lives for ever, explaining how he recovered after three weeks in hospital with coronavirus. He also recalls his first reunion with his family, shown live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Moving and often amusing, Pandemic: My Care Home Diary gives a unique account of what life was like for Britain’s care home residents during the worst pandemic for over 100 years. It was a pleasure and a privilege to edit the blog and prepare it for publication. We think Bob’s book will be a lasting tribute to the carers who risked their own lives looking after their vulnerable residents.
Here are a few extracts from the book. You can buy it at the Kindle store here.
Sunday 22 March 2020
It’s Sunday. It’s chilly but the sun is shining, a rare, welcome sight after dark weeks of wind and rain. A normal Sunday in Cardiff? No, it is unique, historic. Looking out of my window in Cyncoed Road, the city is strangely quiet. Far fewer cars, no buses, just the occasional dog walker and young jogger. Not an elderly person in sight.
Last week it was busy, with nonstop traffic, people going to work, children off to school. Last Sunday, the bells were calling people to worship. Today they are silent, and the church doors are firmly shut. Members are no doubt fervently praying at home for normal life to return soon. How many centuries ago was it, I wonder, when people were banned from leaving their home?
Friday 3 April
No trouble finding something to write about today. I made the news myself.
Yesterday, I was having an after-dinner cup of tea in our bistro when Virgil, the deputy general manager, came over with a message from Sunrise headquarters. They had seen my coronavirus diary entries and asked if I would go on ITV to talk about our carers. I agreed.
So it was a new challenge. Was I too old, too rusty? I would see. Later in the evening came instructions on how the makeshift operation had to be done in lockdown. My living room became a studio. What a difference. No camera or sound equipment, just a laptop on my coffee table.
‘Are you ready, Bob?’ ‘Yes, fine,’ I replied. I was on air. It was all over in minutes. I remembered most of my key words, did not move, and think I made the tribute to carers that they deserve. A lot of phone calls and emails today. Fame at last – and it’s only taken 93 years.
Sunday 12 July Reunion with Robert
Yesterday was a special, memorable day. My first visitor after four months – my son Robert. He spent the day, five hours of driving, to have just an hour with me.
It was more than a happy reunion after those unreal months: proof that brighter days lie ahead. It was far from normal. We old people are being carefully looked after – guarded – and that made the difference. I had been looking forward for so long to today and was standing by the window watching for him to arrive, but I had to wait.
He first had to be ‘made safe’ by being kitted out with apron, gloves and face mask by a carer. Then he was taken to the gazebo set up in front of the building. Inside were two seats, the regulation two metres apart. I was taken out to join him. No hug or handshake allowed. After a wave and a laugh we lost no time in getting down to chat, making up for lost time.
The unusual visit ended with us being filmed and briefly interviewed as part of a planned ITV Good Morning Britain broadcast on Monday morning for which my grand-daughter Ria has been invited to Sunrise.
Sunday 16 August A forgotten army
The Welsh government’s advice to vulnerable people to shield to reduce the risk of coronavirus ends today. They can resume as normal a life as possible. Good news for them and their families after a debilitating five months of loneliness and worry.
But there is another, larger section of the community that is waiting for signs of release from lockdown – we care home residents. I am beginning to think that, like the men who fought in Burma, we are the forgotten army. Reacting, reasonably, but belatedly, the government clamped down on us. And we are still in a vice-like grip.
While the rest of the country starts to experience the pleasures of normal life, our freedom is still very limited, and, worse, there seems little prospect of change.
And who is thinking of us, speaking up for us?
Saturday 26 September
I have coronavirus
This is one diary entry I did not expect to make but the Sunrise luck has run out. I was at the art class this morning when a few of us were asked to return to our rooms. That sounded ominous, and it was.
I was told that five residents had been tested positive. I had expected to find that I was one of them as I have not been feeling too well for a few days; a bad cold and a cough. A few hours later I was told that I had indeed tested positive for coronavirus.
So it’s all change. We are all confined to our rooms with a carer looking after us.
Sunrise has almost shut down, the restaurant closed, activities suspended. What a shame. I feel sad after all the effort they have put in over the months, but there it is. We have to put up with it. I am feeling pretty good which I hope will continue and I will make the best of the temporary new life style.
Being alone most of the time does not worry me as I still have plenty to keep me occupied. And it is no use worrying. Everything has been so uncertain for so long that a little more uncertainty will do no harm.
Monday 26 October
Recovering in hospital
Seven months ago, coronavirus cast a cloud of uncertainty and fear over the world, affecting the lives of billions of people. Despite all the efforts the cloud still hangs over us.
My life changed again when I was one of eight Sunrise residents tested positive and I obviously wondered what form it would take.
For the first week or so, it wasn’t so serious. It was like having a bad cold. But then I started feeling much worse, with nausea, swings from being too cold and too hot, sleeplessness and even delusions. A fall in the bathroom early one morning proved disastrous. I was rescued by two carers who got me back into bed via a hoist. My condition worsened and I was taken to hospital with a broken ankle as well as coronavirus.
After three weeks in hospital and some very difficult days the nursing and treatment is now working. Progress was slow until a few days ago when I was given some new tablets to stop the pain and enable me to sleep. There was an immediate effect. I asked for an increase and there was a remarkable effect. The pain is less than for months, I can get out of bed and am starting to walk again and manage to look after myself. What a difference from being helpless and reliant upon others.
Thursday 12 November
Watch out Lewis Hamilton
After giving up driving a car after more than 70 years, I thought I would miss being behind the wheel. But I have found the answer – my shiny blue and silver electric scooter. With its headlights, direction indicators and even a horn, it is ready for the road, top speed 8mph, or 4mph on the pavement.
This week it became my lifeline. With my heavily strapped broken ankle making movement painful and difficult, the scooter came to the rescue. Now I am driving again all day, indoors. It’s my mini Monte Carlo circuit. Top speed indoors is about 1mph across the 30 foot living room with detours into my bathroom and bedroom – watch that chair!
Tired after a day ‘on the road’, it’s time for bed. My last journey. Into the dark bedroom, driving straight for the bed. Headlights blazing, I tumble in. Hard work driving, but exciting.
Watch out, Mr Hamilton.
Monday 21 December
The shortest, saddest day
Today is the shortest day of the year, the darkest of the winter. This day, 21 December, in 1942 was one of the saddest days of my life. It was wartime and we were facing a stark Christmas. The war news was grim, there was rationing and shortages. It was the day my father, Frank died.
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.
Like this year, it was an unusual 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. Two days before war was declared our family separated, never to be all together again.
Christmas Day 2020
A Christmas like no other
Christmas Day. A day so different this year from any other. A strange day, with most of us missing the usual family gathering, and millions with no family, unable even to give their elderly parents a hug. A day to remember, and to forget.
My day started with Christmas greetings by Zoom from Robert, Karen and Owen (plus dog Rufus), all three resplendent in Christmas jumpers, Owen’s a spectacular Welsh one. Nadolig Llawen!
I was sporting my first ever Christmas bow tie. After trying to tie it for nearly an hour last night one of the carers managed it in a minute this morning. Then it was downstairs for the get together and to receive our gifts from Sunrise. I was patient, opening my presents under my Christmas tree mid-morning.
The festively dressed carers and Sunrise team were as cheerful as ever, making it another happy day although I would love to see those masks and visors removed.
But thank you, everyone, you made it a special day, again.
Friday 22 January 2021
It’s vaccination day at Sunrise. A day of relief, and celebration. Mass vaccination.
As usual, the care home got it right. Organised to the minute. Calm and relaxed, just right for us old people. And, a happy touch, flags and balloons to cheer us – a bright idea. Having a jab is never fun but today it was relished, welcomed with open arms.
The troops were on parade, with our sticks, walking aids, wheelchairs, ready and willing. The long wait was over. When the call came we went into the temporary surgery, rolled up our sleeves. It was over in a flash. I did not feel a thing. Then into a lounge for a rest and a glass of orange juice. To mark the historic day we had our pictures taken and then it was time for lunch, happy that a milestone in the long, arduous pandemic road pointed the pathway to safety.
Well done, Sunrise, and the NHS!
Wednesday 10 March
Freedom in sight
Sitting looking out of my window onto the sunlit street below, the world looks inviting. Normal. Not exciting. People driving cars and vans, riding bicycles, pushing prams, jogging, walking. Across the road a man is working in his garden. Beyond, I see the lighting towers of the university training ground.
A typical suburban scene on a typical afternoon, but it is deceptive. Almost a mirage. I cannot go out to join it. Like countless millions throughout the world, I am a prisoner in my own home. Trapped. For a year, because of the plague stalking our planet, creating a living horror story.
The world has seen many fanatical leaders, dictators and despots who have held their subjects in thrall, but this is Britain in the 21st century, beacon of democracy. Over 60 million of us can no longer call our lives our own. Leaders have changed the rules and laws. Unlike heroes of the past, we have not rebelled, risen up in anger to break the chains. We have agreed with our leaders, followed their dictats and changed our whole way of life – voluntarily.
But freedom is nigh. Human ingenuity, courage and patience are winning the battle. Apprehension and danger receding, we hope we face only a few more months of isolation before we will be free to resume normal lives.
And I will happily ride my scooter out onto Cyncoed Road and rejoin the real world out there.
Fifty years ago today, Britain and Ireland said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence and welcomed decimal money. From 15 February 1971, there would be 100 pence in a pound, rather than 12 shillings. That changeover decimal day in Britain was billed as D Day, no doubt a deliberate echo of the the D Day landings during the war, less than 27 years before.
I’m sure the decimal revolution was a wrench for my grandmothers, who grew up with Queen Victoria’s head on the nation’s coins. For me, it was a relief: as a seven year old, it meant an end to painful school maths lessons adding up in old money. But I still feel nostalgic for that lost world.
I grew up on old money, but was aware that change was on the way. Not long before decimalisation, my great aunt Megan offered my a choice: I could have my pocket money as a 10 shilling note or a 50p piece. I had never seen a 50p piece so went for that. Looking back, it was very generous regardless of the option I went for.
Christmas night 2020. This has been the hardest Christmas since the war, overtaking 1973, when Britain was facing a three day week during the miners’ strike. This time the cause is COVID-19, the virus that swept the world in 2020, killing 70,000 in Britain alone so far.
Last Saturday, the UK’s governments made dramatic u-turns, ending arrangements in many areas for families to meet over Christmas. We were due to visit Dad, 94, in his Cardiff residential home just before Christmas. We postponed the trip for a week as South East England went into near-lockdown, and then cancelled it as the UK and Welsh governments introduced even tougher restrictions six days before Christmas.
Yet Christmas wasn’t cancelled. We enjoyed the planned quiet family Christmas Day (the three of us plus dog and hamster) and had a Zoom call with Dad, Bob Skinner, during the morning.
Dad has written movingly this week about his saddest Christmas memory, in 1942. His father died on 21 December that year, leaving 16 year old Bob Skinner mourning a lovely, loving father he barely knew. Dad recalls those muted wartime Christmases, with families apart, food rationed and deadly dangers facing those at home as well as those on the front lines.
Happily, today’s dangers, while real, are modest compared with Britain’s fight for survival 80 years ago. Dad hopes to receive his first COVID-19 vaccination dose in the coming week or so. Let us hope that 2021 will bring the start of better times, not least for the countless people and businesses whose livelihoods are threatened by this deadly virus. Christmas 2021 should be a time when we can hug again.
I will end with the image of my indomitable father, dressed to celebrate Christmas at Sunrise of Cardiff. Thank you to all the carers, NHS staff and and everyone else who has made us smile this unique Christmas and through the year.