Does the name Stephen Gough mean anything to you? His other perhaps more well-known sobriquet is The Naked Rambler, who first came to prominence in 2003 when he walked naked, apart from a backpack, hiking boots, socks and sometimes a hat, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. The authorities, most notably in Scotland, took a dim view of his public nudity and he has spent a large slice of time since then locked up in jail.
Last week, as reported in The Telegraph, he was released from Perth prison, only to be immediately re-arrested outside as he continued to refuse to wear clothing.
Now, apart from questioning the sanity of anyone who doesn’t want to put on at least three layers given the recent arctic-like weather conditions, I can’t help but despair that the only approach to this issue the authorities can find is sticking the man behind bars.
He is undoubtedly eccentric and perhaps obsessive. But is he a danger to himself or society? His biggest crime seems to be simply that he refuses to do what he’s told, with the result that the punishments are becoming ever more draconian.
Most comments around the internet that I’ve seen follow the general line that in this case the law is being an ass. Though a few people ask what are you supposed to do with someone who persistently re-offends and one commentator condemned him with that old rhetorical chestnut “would you want to live next to him?” Personally, I have no trouble thinking of a whole bunch of people I’d prefer not to live next to and Stephen Gough doesn’t even make the reserve list.
Seven years into this saga and the best that the latest judge can do is send him back to jail and ask for psychological and psychiatric reports. Don’t tell me no-one thought to ask for those before now. Surely it’s time he was getting care in community. Or better still, just left to his own choice of winter clothing.
Tomorrow I am going to a funeral, not of a friend but of a colleague / team-mate, whichever of the two words best fit. I won’t use the person’s real name out of respect. He was 52 and played for the same chess club as me, but he was at a much stronger level so our paths barely crossed. I played once with him and enjoyed his company immensely. But throughout the long game (each of us lost games that lasted four to five hours) he was drinking heavily. It was clear he had a problem. A few weeks later he was hospitalised with severe problems with his liver. A few members of the club went to visit and it was clear that he was very ill. His gaunt figure and depressed face were icons of a body unable or unwilling to walk and eat properly. His situation was desperate.
After six weeks in hospital he was discharged back to his flat with empty bottles of Scotch where a week later he died. With few or no friends to talk of, the bottles were always there to reassure him life was worth living. Tomorrow, a few colleagues from the chess club will stand at his grave with his only remaining relative, a sister who lives far away.
On the day we played in that match together he told me about his great prowess as a chess junior, about how he once beat a now famous grandmaster, about his interesting work in computer programming for a blue-chip company. And you might think that a man with such a mind and talent could find his way in a great city like London with its myriad of opportunities for work and play. But no, here was a person who was out of the social services radar and did not have the ability to ask for help. I wonder how many more like him are out there.
What price do we pay for enabling people with mental health problems to live in the community?
The case of the convicted killer and paranoid schizophrenic being allowed to study “the knowledge” to become a black cab driver was all over the media last week. But I ask the question from a selfish perspective as our small, quiet street with beautiful Victorian houses undergoes a demographic change. First, a housing association has placed a woman with a violent criminal record in a property it owns in the street. Over the weekend outside the property there was an ugly stabbing (not fatal) which left neighbours extremely worried. And earlier this year a private company that provides residential care for people with mental health problems got planning use for the terrace adjoining us as a residential facility for up to five people.
And before mental health providers and charities get precious about me not having the needs of their service users at heart, they need to understand that already in our area, three similar terraces have been bought for the same purpose with some worrying incidents of service users walking the streets having not taken their medicine and one instance where a woman was approached in an inappropriate fashion by a resident of one of the homes.
Care in the Community is the mantra of policymakers who would think twice if the same kind of service they espouse was the terrace next to them (how many architects of comprehensive schools sent their kids to the one they designed?)
I understand that people with mental health problems are as entitled to enjoy the benefits of living in the community as I do; but you know what, I am entitled to as much as they do and if it means my lifestyle is curtailed because of problems then what has been achieved? All I can say is that I hope myself and my family do not incur mental health problems as a result of the experience. What was the line from the song by Madness in the 80s? “Our house, in the middle of the street…”
We don’t have any images of Susan Boyle in our library, but after what has happened to the lady with the fabulous voice over the past few weeks we could approach her to model for us under the category ‘victim of the media’. Susan’s story tells us more about our society than it does about her remarkable talent for singing. The Britain’s Got Talent formula is the 21st century equivalent of the fairground knuckle fighters, elephant men and Houdinis; all that is missing is for the contestants to be churned out to the lions. No problem, the gutter press have an abundance of talent filling that role.
Susan’s fortune is her obvious talent, her misfortune is that in order to realise it she has to combat the icons of celebrity lifestyle; front page of the Mirror, Star, Sun followed by a few nights at The Priory and rounded off with a hefty contract a large percentage of which is bound to make her agent enough dosh to keep him off the front pages of the tabloids.
I would wager that had Susan not made the semi-finals she would never have been admitted to a clinic. And the lame excuse put forward by the producers that auditioning for the show is voluntary is no different to our MPs telling us that the money they took was ‘within the rules’. The show makes millions of pounds for the producers; with those riches comes a responsibility to protect the people who are making the money for them. Don’t tell me the PR behemoths that open all the doors in the press for these money printing enterprises cannot tell the same press to go easy on vulnerable people who are dreaming of whiter Christmases. Ah, I get it, having Susan Boyle splashed across the front page of the Sun is an integral part of the PR campaign. How silly of me.
There are two things the UK media are obsessed with; s-e-x, and having a go at the care sector. Hence, no surprise that this ‘usual suspect’ appeared today in the Daily Mail:
‘Will anyone sleep with my Down’s syndrome son?’
The ubiquitous Daily Mail is clearly not a newspaper that lets the truth get in the way of a good story (the article describes Mencap as a ‘mental health’ charity which it is not – it is a charity that supports people with learning disabilities). And to pump up the volume of sales, this shabby piece of journalism is riddled with sensationalist references to s-e-x: “‘I’m on a mission to find a girlfriend/ My reason is I want to have sex/ There was Jackie – she was a sexy bird, she was gorgeous.”
Underneath these layers of the Daily Mail’s pulp fiction lies an issue that requires an educated debate; do people with learning disabilities have adequate opportunity to fulfill themselves emotionally and physically? Lucy Baxter’s approach to helping her adopted son Otto come to terms with these issues may be contentious but I admire the way she is using an icon of the 21st century (Bebo) to come to terms with a problem whose solution many people believe lies in the 19th century (asylums).
Of course, there is no reason why people with a learning disability should not be able to find a fulfilling relationship. But the Daily Mail’s knee-jerk approach to enlightening middle England is not the way to go about reporting or discussing it. There was a different way to deal with this ‘story’ and would you believe, that way involved not writing about it at all. Would there be a ‘story’ if a Daily Mail journalist had put an ad on an online dating agency looking for a partner? Would there be a ‘story’ if a group of Daily Male (sic) journalists went on a stag weekend of booze and prostitutes (yes, reader, that kind of behaviour has been associated with newsrooms)? Maybe the whole piece was part of a PR stunt by the BBC to get people to watch a programme which is being shown on Thursday about Lucy and Otto.
The answer of course is blowing in the wind of ‘for the public good’ of which the Daily Mail is the self-appointed leader of the pack. Mum Lucy and son Otto are getting on with their lives; we really don’t need to know if they, or the editor of the Daily Mail, choose to use Bebo for the intimate parts.