Empire of Light and Cardiff cinema memories

Above: the cinema in Empire of Light

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was not the film I was expecting. I was looking forward to a moving story about a neglected seaside cinema lovingly brought back to life. (Think Cinema Paradiso, Margate-style.) Instead, it was a far starker and more complicated tale of early Eighties Britain, with racism, mental illness and misogyny centre-stage.

I’ll share my thoughts on Empire of Light later. But this post is an unashamed exercise in nostalgia. The film revived long-dormant memories of childhood trips to the cinema in 1970s Cardiff. Going to the pictures (as parents, aunts and uncles described a trip to the cinema) was a very different experience 50 years ago, and Empire of Light brilliantly captures the mood of the time.

The first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on its release in 1968 when I was five. We also saw Earthquake, a 1974 disaster movie, in Elephant & Castle when we were staying in London for a weekend. (It featured sound effects designed to simulate an earthquake.) But most of my childhood big screen outings were in my hometown, Cardiff, Wales.

One Christmas, my father Bob Skinner took me to the old Globe cinema in Roath to see A Christmas Carol, which I now realise would have been the version that came out when Dad was 12 in 1938. (Dad’s favourite film.) The photos above capture the venue exactly as I remember it, with a bush growing out of the roof, and a shabby auditorium. (The moniker ‘flea-pit’ could have been inspired by the 1970s Globe.) In those days, films were often played on a loop, which gave rise to the expression ‘this is where I came in’. Sure enough, we stayed long enough to see the film starting again! Dad tells me that the cinema was run by a Welsh rugby international, whose wife worked in the box office. It was one of the first venues to show foreign films. The Globe closed in the 1980s, not long after my friend Anthony and I watched Return of the Jedi there – the only early Star Wars film I watched in a cinema.

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Captain Boycott, Coventry and the origins of cancel culture

Captain Boycott by Spy, Vanity Fair 1881

Cancel culture is a hot topic in today’s world. It’s seen as a product of our aggressive, confrontational online society, with its culture wars.

But cancel culture is likely to have been a feature of life since early humans started living in communities. This thought only struck me when my son Owen was researching for a school talk on cancel culture. My mind went back to a class room at Cardiff High School, Wales, in 1979, and a lesson on British and Irish history with our wonderful O level teacher, Dr Davies. Back then, the name ‘Boycott’ was associated with cricket: the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was in his pomp, having completed his 100th first-class century two years before. Dr Davies told us of another Boycott, who gave his name to the English language after he was ‘boycotted’ by a community in the west of Ireland in the 1880s. In other words, he was cancelled.

Charles Boycott was the agent of Lord Erne, a hated landowner in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. After Erne refused to accept the tenants’ plea for more affordable rents, Boycott tried to evict them. The community was outraged, and pressured people working for Boycott and local shops to refuse to deal with him. Boycott wrote a letter to The Times in London, which created sensational news stories around the world. Boycott left Ireland in disgrace soon after.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

extract From charles boycott’s letter to the times, 14 october 1880

Essay in Irish history: my O level mock history paper, Cardiff High School, 1979

The treatment of Boycott gave a huge boost to the campaign for justice for Ireland’s rural tenants. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom, and prime minister William Gladstone recognised that solving the land question was critical if he was to achieve his mission of ‘pacifying Ireland’. Parliament passed an Irish land act within months, in 1881, meeting the demand for the ‘three Fs’: fixed tenure, fair rents, and free sale of leases. A long-ago example of how cancel culture can force dramatic, historic reform.

Sent to … Coventry. Photo: BBC

As I reflected on that Irish boycott, I remembered another phrase that proves cancel culture’s long history. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear of people being ‘sent to Coventry’ when they were being ostracised or given the cold shoulder. Some say that the expression dates back over 470 years to the English civil war, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, where they would be shunned by the locals.

I will know better next time someone claims cancel culture is a uniquely 21st century issue!

Note: Charles Boycott was not an army captain. It seems he was given the title of captain by the local community, who did not intend it as a compliment.

Remembering Pelé, the world’s greatest footballer

Brazil, and the world, is mourning a legend. The greatest ever footballer, Pelé, has died aged 82.

Meeting a legend: Rob and Pele, London, June 2016

I was privileged to meet Pelé in 2016. He was the star speaker at an event organised by Shell, speaking movingly about his charity work encouraging deprived young people in the favelas of Brazil’s cities.

We met the day before the Wales men’s football team played in the quarter-final of Euro 2016. I commented to Pelé that the last time Wales appeared in a quarter-final he had scored the goal that knocked us out of the 1956 FIFA world cup finals. It was a magical moment: Pelé’s face transformed into a dazzling smile as he remembered the game and tournament that made his reputation.

I will never forget the moment I shared with the true gentleman who was the world’s greatest footballer.

PS: the BBC invited me to talk about my memories of Pelé on the World Service OS programme this evening. I enjoyed hearing of the experiences of the other guests, especially one taking part from India who saw Pelé play in Brazil in 1972 when his ship docked there.

Memories of Christmas past

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.

1967

Grove Place, Penarth: venue for the first Christmas I can remember

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.

Rob and his sister Beverley with their grandfather, Penarth, 1966

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.

1969

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.

1970

Christmas 1970, with Mum and sister Beverley

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.

1979

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

At home, Cardiff, 27 December 1981
Our house, January 1982

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.

2008

Mum, Dad, me and 5 month old Owen

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.

Memories of Penrhos junction, Caerphilly

Penrhos in its heyday. Photo: Briwnant, National Museum of Wales

It’s curious how certain places exert a disproportionate influence on our thoughts. More than 40 years ago I stood on a bridge and took a photo of a railway at Penrhos, near Caerphilly. I have no idea why – not a single train graced the lonely route up the big hill from Nantgarw towards Caerphilly.

My first view of Penrhos, circa 1981

Perhaps I sensed the pull of the ghosts of trains past. Penrhos was the site of a mighty battle. Three Welsh railways locked horns on that hillside. The Rhymney was the oldest, opened in 1858 to transport coal from its namesake valley to Cardiff. The later Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport hauled the black gold from the Taff and Rhondda valleys to Newport. But the star of the show was the Barry Railway, the parasite that drew trade from the incumbents to its own, new port of Barry. By 1914, Barry had overtaken Cardiff as the world’s greatest coal-exporting port.

At the start of the 20th century, the Barry Railway set off on an outrageous, audacious venture to steal traffic from its earlier rivals. It blew vast sums on a line that soared against the grain of the South Wales landscape. Its new line spanned spectacular viaducts across the Taff and Rhymney valleys to join the Brecon & Merthyr Railway opposite Llanbradach. The expensive line was closed by the Great Western Railway, which absorbed the Welsh railways exactly a century ago, and the great viaducts demolished in 1937, as my father recorded during his reporting career after the second world war. (The steel was recycled for Britain’s frantic rearmament on the eve of Hitler’s war.)

One of the Barry’s more modest bridges crossed the Rhymney and PC&N lines at Penrhos, just west of Caerphilly, seen in Briwnant’s image above. By the time I took my first photos here in the early 1980s just one double track line remained. Within a year even that route had closed.

Yet the pull of that lonely hillside still captured me. In the snows that followed Christmas 1993, Dad and I drove over Caerphilly Mountain to witness Penrhos, now bleak and rail-less. The pillars of the Barry’s overbridge provided the only evidence of a lost railway. I don’t remember mourning this monument to the loss of South Wales’s industrial might. But I feel it keenly now. Forty years ago, no one thought the loss of king coal was a victory for planet Earth. But let us cling to that consolation.

When the rails left Penrhos, the coal trains from the Rhymney valley were restricted to the later 1871 Rhymney Railway mainline through the tunnel to Llanishen and Cardiff. Lying in my bed in Lakeside, Cardiff, as night became Bible black, I took comfort in the throb of the class 37 diesels as they piloted their black gold cargoes down the embankment towards Cardiff. The diesel song occasionally joined in harmony with City Hall’s bells sounding the hour, and the foghorns of the capital’s still active docks.

The reign of king coal is over. The surviving South Wales rail lines are largely devoted to human not industrial traffic. Some of the lines closed by the malevolent Dr Beeching have reopened in the past 35 years, with more to follow. But Penrhos is unlikely to echo once more to the sound of trains. Any dreams of a resurgence will be confined to small scale models. North of the road bridge where Dad and I parked our cars the railway cutting has been filled in as a foundation for Caerphilly’s expansion.

I’ll end with an image of Penrhos in its twilight days. The photo above shows the Barry viaduct intact, but disused, as a GWR coal train steams up the hill from Taffs Well. Today, the hillsides echo to footsteps and barking dogs rather than panting trains. We can but dream of the days when Welsh steam coal fuelled the world.

Dewch ymlaen, Cymru!

Talking to Pele about 1958. London, 2016

It’s taken a lifetime. Cymru (Wales) tonight play our first game in the FIFA men’s World Cup finals since Pele knocked us out of the 1958 tournament in Sweden. Pele was 17 years old at the time. He’s now 82. But more on Brazil’s greatest legend later.

Ticket to disappointment

We’re used to heartache and disappointment. I was selling programmes at Ninian Park on the night in 1985 when Scotland denied Wales a place at the 1986 World Cup. I was standing on the touchline with my friend Anthony Beer watching the drama as Wales took the lead early in the game. We seemed to be heading for Mexico until Scotland equalised in the second half. But the drama didn’t end there. As the game ended and we left the ground we saw an ambulance arriving to take Scotland manager Jock Stein to hospital. The legendary coach had collapsed as the game ended, and sadly died that evening.

That wasn’t the first time I’d experienced heartache following Wales. In May 1976 I saw us lose narrowly to England in the old British home international tournament, grabbing the autograph of Southampton’s FA Cup giant killing manager Lawrie McMenemy as a slight consolation. Just weeks later I was back in Ninian Park for the home leg of Wales’s quarter-final against Yugoslavia in the European Nations Cup 1976. We needed to win after losing the first leg, but a draw that day in Cardiff saw us knocked out, a disappointment mixed with shame as hooligans invaded the pitch and pelted the referee with coins. (I watched the scenes with a sinking feeling.) Wales were banned from playing at home, and so the next disappointment, defeat to Scotland in the 1978 World Cup qualifier, took place in Liverpool.

C’mon Cymru!

The great Welsh footballing resurgence began with Euro 2016 in France, when we exceeded everyone’s expectations and reached the semi-finals, losing narrowly to Portugal. The highlight of that campaign was a magnificent 3-1 win over Belgium, with magical goals by Williams, Robson-Kanu and Vokes putting Cymru through to the semis. We also reached the delayed Euro 2020 finals.

All credit to the Wales FA, who have been masterful in linking the national football team with our identity as a nation. It uses the Welsh name Cymru for the team, and brilliantly adopted Dafydd Iwan’s 1980s protest song Yma O Hyd (‘Still Here’) as a second anthem to inspire the team and fans alike. The eve-of-tournament Yma O Hyd video used footage of defining moments in modern Welsh history including the destruction of Welsh village of Tryweryn for a reservoir for Liverpool, the Aberfan tragedy of 1966 and the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

Wales take on the United States in the first game of the campaign. Just think: a nation of three million taking on one with 331 million people! Wales is the second smallest country in the tournament after hosts Qatar.

The tainted tournament

This is one of the most controversial World Cup finals. Back in 2010 many were shocked that FIFA had awarded the tournament to a country with no footballing tradition. The finals are happening in November as Qatar is too hot for football during the normal summer slot. Still worse is the host’s attitude to LGBT people, and women. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, while many migrant workers have suffered injury or death in the construction bonanza the world cup unleashed. The BBC chose to highlight criticisms of Qatar rather than show the opening ceremony yesterday. Today, Wales and England, alongside five other national football associations, abandoned plans for their captains to wear OneLove armbands promoting diversity and inclusion. They caved in after FIFA threatened to book the players, continuing FIFA’s shameful surrender to Qatar’s regime.

The spirit of 1958

I’ll end as I began, with Pele. The night before Wales played Belgium in that 2016 quarter-final I was lucky enough to meet Pele at an event in London, organised by Shell. He spoke eloquently about his work with deprived young people in Brazil. I mentioned that Wales was about to play a quarter-final for the first time since that Wales v Brazil match in 1958, and that he’d scored the winning goal that ended Wales’s World Cup. His eyes lit up as he recalled the tournament that made his reputation. It was a priceless moment.

May the spirit of 1958 light up Cymru’s 2022 World Cup campaign.

PS: Cymru drew 1-1 after Gareth Bale scored an emphatic penalty to level the scores. Ry’n ni yma o hyd!

Own goal: Prince of Wales supports England

The Prince of Wales – supporting England. FA/PA Wire

No one asked the people of Wales whether they wanted an English prince William to be Prince of Wales in September. We’ve had no say in the matter since England’s Edward I named his son prince of Wales in the 14th century.

So it was no surprise that William didn’t give a moment’s thought before his crass decision to visit the England football team to say “I’m really here to point out that the rest of the country is behind you. We are all rooting for you, enjoy it.”

How could he be so foolish, so insensitive? Did he give no thought to how his actions and comments would be received in Wales? Did none of his advisers tell him to step back from cheerleading England?

It should have been obvious that he should have stepped down as president of the English football association the moment he was named Prince of Wales. Yet he chose to support England, a country in the same group as Wales in the FIFA men’s world cup in Qatar.

it’s time to ditch the anachronistic, imperial title of Prince of Wales. The country is not a principality, but has its own government and parliament, the Senedd. William backtracked today when challenged to the Llwydd of the Senedd: “I’m supporting both [countries] definitely.” He should have thought this through and avoided scoring this spectacular own goal.

Here’s to Cymru’s success in the world cup…

Living through a heatwave – memories of the summer of 1976

The river Taff at Blackweir, Cardiff, 1976. Photo: Mirrorpix

As Britain braced itself for its hottest day ever, a single tweet caught my eye. It asked how people coped with the heat during the fabled summer of 1976.

Few who experienced that extraordinary summer will ever forget it, especially if like me they were enjoying their best ever school holiday. I can remember only one occasion in 1976 when I felt uncomfortably hot.

My memories of that golden summer start with rain. Mum and Dad took me to a summer fete at the Edward Nicholl children home in Penylan, Cardiff, and we dodged the showers as local MP and prime minister James Callaghan opened the event. But within days the rainclouds disappeared and stayed away for two months.

Photo: Frank Barrett/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The summer of 1976 may not have seen temperatures as high as this year’s frightening record of 40.3C, but somewhere in the UK the temperature hit 32C for 15 days in a row. Just as seriously, the lack of rain along with the previous year’s very dry summer led to a serious drought. I remember a standpipe being set up near our house, and the mains water being restricted. Jim Callaghan even appointed a drought minister, the jovial Denis Howell. Mr Howell worked his magic: within days of his appointment the heavens opened and the heatwave was over. Just as in 2022, the dry conditions led to forest fires, and fire engine sirens formed part of the season’s soundtrack.

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Beating the Tories: a democratic revolution

Boris Johnson’s decrepit, dishonest government was hit by two devastating by-election defeats in different parts of England last week.

Labour retook Wakefield in Yorkshire, a seat it lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. More dramatically, the Liberal Democrats took Tiverton and Honiton, a seat that had been Tory since the dinosaurs were young. (OK, slight exaggeration.) That Lib Dem success saw the biggest ever majority overturned in a British by-election.

The Tory defeat has led to a debate about the need (or not) for anti-Tory parties to agree a pact to ensure the progressive vote isn’t split, which traditionally means the Tories win despite the opposition winning more votes. Margaret Thatcher famously enjoyed big majorities because of this.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Labour won a landslide in 1997 and 2001 under Tony Blair and the Lib Dems did well too. That was the reverse effect: anti-Tory voters teamed up to punish the Conservatives,

Could the same thing happen in 2024? Last week’s by-elections suggest it might. Tactical voting can work, especially when there isn’t a Jeremy Corbyn to deter Lib Dem voters or a Nick Clegg to deter Labour ones.

What about a repeat of the Tory tactics in 2015, saying Labour will be in the pocket of the Scottish National Party? I can’t see that having any traction in 2024. Boris Johnson is the greatest boost possible for the SNP. The SNP’s apparently unstoppable advance has been turbo-charged by the Tories and Brexit. Brexit is done, at least for now, but the return of a progressive UK government might be the union’s last hope. Especially if that government replaced the deeply undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system with some form of proportionate representation.

The progressive parties must state their case – their collective case – with confidence and brio. Take a leaf out of RMT leader Mick Lynch’s book – don’t let this battle be fought on a field chosen by the Tories. Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – must be better than this. Make the case for a fairer government that fights for all the people, especially those less well off, not just the privileged few who win every time with the Tories.

As a Welshman, I long believed that Wales was best served by being part of the UK. We are a small country that has traditionally looked east to our large neighbour England for trade and much more. Yet I have come to believe that the UK in its current form is a divisive, destructive influence. London doesn’t care (spicier epithets are available) about Wales. Or Scotland. Or Northern Ireland. Even worse, it will force any amount of destruction through that negligence, as Johnson’s poisonous rejection of his own agreement to the Northern Ireland protocol shows. The Tory embrace of Brexit has made our nations and their peoples poorer than they were before. How could Wales – or Scotland – do any worse alone than under destructive London rule?

The next five years will decide whether the UK has a future.

In praise of Stephen Doughty MP

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.