His Final Breakdown

Mam loved to watch soaps. From radio to television, she listened to and watched them all. Her favourite was Coronation Street. Whenever it was broadcast, the cry in the house would be “Coros on” and everything would stop. After she died I continued to watch them until I became bored with the repetitive nature of their plots. I now only watch Holby, which has recently been running a storyline on mental health. This week it reached a climax with one of the main characters having a full breakdown. I watched with tears in my eyes as it revived a memory that I have suppressed for many years.

It happened in the early 1980s, around Dad’s 60th Birthday. We had been for a meal at a restaurant run by an ex-boxer. Dad was in a good mood as he ate and drank and shared boxing stories with the owner and chef. When we had finished our meal we returned to my house in Coventry. His mood began to change. Something had upset him. It didn’t take much. Slowly a darkness descended. Mam tried to calm him but he wouldn’t listen. He became agitated and angry. He stormed out of the house shouting and swearing at us all. He had his car keys and was going to drive home to Leicester. He was in no state to drive so my brother and I tried to restrain him. Even at 60 he was too strong for us. He got into the car and attempted to drive away. I stood in front to stop him. I hoped he would realise who I was. He saw me through the windscreen and hesitated. My brother tried to break the windows with his fists. We were all crying for him to stop.

He eventually got out of the car and walked off into the dark cold night. My wife went after him. We followed behind in a car. She managed to calm him and persuaded him to return to our house. He left with Mam early the next morning. When they got home, she called the doctor who diagnosed a complete mental breakdown and prescribed for him some strong sedatives. He said that they turned him into a zombie and after a few days he threw them away. He tried to deal with it in the only way he knew how. To tough it out. I now know we should have persuaded him to seek further help.

When I think back we should have recognised the symptoms. He had talked about problems at work. The stress had become too much for him culminating in the events of that night. In the following weeks he applied for early retirement on medical grounds and never worked again. I now mark his slow physical and mental decline from that night. Except for the occasional glimpse, the Dad I knew had gone forever, never to return.

He had a number of what were then called “nervous breakdowns” in his life. This is not surprising as he had experienced many things which would now be considered as triggers. He was raised in poverty in the Depression in the north east. His mam abandoned the family of 8 when he was young. His dad was unemployed for many years and often absent. Dad kept the family together and was the sole breadwinner. He was very intelligent but left school at 14 to find work.

Until he met Mam when he was 17, I don’t think he had ever experienced true love and affection. He loved her dearly and he found the long War separation very difficult. His eldest daughter was 3 when he was demobbed and she didn’t know him. After the War, he had many jobs and lived in many homes. He was always restless and could not settle. He was frustrated as he believed he had never reached his full potential. He felt life had held him back. He was a tremendously proud man and his pride was severely dented when we were homeless for 9 months in the 1960s.

He also drank. Not daily but heavily at weekends. This often triggered his deepest depressions and his bouts of anger. Sunday afternoons were very difficult when he often stormed out of the house and threatened to “jump in the cut”. I still hate Sundays. It was even worse at Christmas. I think it is the reason I remember so few of my childhood Christmases.

At the time we didn’t know what was happening. Dad was just in one of his moods. He was never physically abusive to any of us. But Mam and my older sisters bore the brunt of his mood swings. I can’t imagine what this must have been like for her. There were times when he was almost impossible to live with. His mood swings could be so severe that he was hospitalised at least twice when I was young. No one ever said why he went away, or whether it was voluntary, or if he had been sectioned. We now know he had a mental health condition. I am not sure what the diagnosis would be today. Perhaps some form of bipolar? We didn’t know then that he was ill and of course he would never admit to it. He would have regarded it as a weakness. I don’t think we ever really talked about it. Even after that night at my house.

There were tears in my eyes as I watched the programme on the TV. There were tears in all of our eyes as we watched Dad that night. This issue affects us all. My brother has a number of mental health problems including bipolar. I am not sure if they are linked to Dad. His campaigning on mental health has taught me that if these issues are ignored or left untreated, they can destroy lives and families. I am proud of the work he does on mental health in spite of his disability and illness. I am also grateful to Holby for raising awareness in such a powerful way and I thank my friend Aileen Bushbell for making it a key theme in her presidency of The CIH.

It is too late for Dad. It is not too late for my brother and millions like him. I have never written about this before. I had forgotten how painful it is to remember. I had forgotten how difficult it was to watch the man we all loved and admired disintegrate in front of our eyes. I regret hiding it away for so long. He will always be my Dad and I will always love him. Just as I know he always loved us. I wish now I had understood these issues more at that time and that we had done more to help him when he needed us most.

The nature of Stewardship.

As I was walking this morning, along the wild Atlantic coast of Donegal, I was thinking of my friend, walking companion, and ex chair, Richard Farnell, who died just over a year ago.

On this Housing Day I was thinking about the last time I saw him. He was angry that a housing association we had established had sent him an annual report which spent over 40 pages talking about finance and surplus with no mention of values and social purpose. Something we had always regarded as the golden thread of the organisations we worked for together. As his anger subsided we began to talk about stewardship and the nature of changing housing association leadership.

We agreed that as leaders we were merely stewards who for a short time had the privilege of working for organisations that could make a real difference to peoples’ lives. Our role was to take what we found and hopefully improve it and leave it in a better position. We were the keepers of the flame of social purpose. Our priority was to maintain and protect it and never allow it to die. A good steward would always do this. A poor steward might not.

Richard was clear that to ensure this, values and social purpose should be an essential criterion in any appointment process, especially when appointing new leaders. He was kind enough to say that this was the main reason he had appointed me to be the chief executive of two housing associations.

He smiled as he said this. I shall never forget that smile. I shall forget our final words. I shall never forget him. On housing day we need to ensure that all of our leaders make it their top priority to protect the very reason that housing association exist. To ensure that in everything they do they judge it by original values and social purpose. After all, as Richard often said, it is why we are here.

Making Way

I was first invited to join a housing association board in 1980. Within a few months I was invited to join another. The reason was simple. I was the regional officer for the National Federation of Housing Associations (now the National Housing Federation) and it was assumed I knew something about housing associations. In those days very few people did. I was 28.

I was not new to boards and committees. I had been secretary for the Inter Racial Solidarity Campaign and president of my students’ union in Leicester. I had also served on a number of trade union boards and committees. It was part of my life in those days. It still is.

Since then I have served on 8 housing association boards and chaired 2. I became what was known as a Statutory Appointee for the housing regulator. This meant that I was appointed to boards experiencing regulatory problems. Since retiring from the role of chief executive I have sat on 3 more HA boards as well as undertaking other non-executive and trustee roles. The 3 HAs were all in regulatory supervision. On each occasion I was asked to join because of my previous experience. My average stay has been 2 years as I always move on when the issues are resolved.

It is against this background that I say that when I retired I decided not to apply to be a normal board member of a housing association. I was busy being chair of HACT at the time and also chair of Emmaus. But this was not the reason for my decision. I believe that too many ex chief executives and executives join boards and become chairs almost by default when they retire. I have often wondered if this is a good thing and if they have thought seriously about the difference in roles before doing so. Just because you have been a chief executive does not mean that you will become a good board member or chair. The skills required for one are not necessarily the skills required for the other. I believe also that we have a duty to make way for younger talent as I said herehttps://tommurtha.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/the-next-generation/ some years ago.

The best chair I ever worked with had never been a chief executive and had no desire to be so. This meant that he had no interest in doing my job and at the time I had no interest in doing his. This is vital. Understanding the differences in the two roles and having clear lines of responsibility are essential to a successful chair and chief executive relationship. I have seen too many chief executives trying to do the chief executive’s job, when they become chairs. (Just as I have seen chief executives trying to do the chair’s job, but that’s another story) This often entails becoming too involved in the operational side of the business and blurring lines of responsibility and control. Of course if things go wrong this might be necessary, but not in normal circumstances. Strategy, vision, values, and challenge and support through the board are the chair’s main functions not day to day operational leadership. As an old coach of mine often said, “good chairs rarely venture onto the dance floor. They stay on the balcony.”

This strategic view is one of the essential qualities of a good board member, along with a commitment to the values of an organisation, and the ability to monitor, challenge, and support performance. In my view diversity is also an essential component of a high performing board. This means that chairs should be ensuring the appointment of a diverse range of people including younger board members as well as the more mature. We should make spaces on boards to appoint younger people. Just as we did when I was young. My question to ex chief executives and executives is, why do you want to become HA board members? Perhaps you should resist the temptation and do something else, and create more opportunities for younger people.

The Last Parade.


The clock on the tower of the church in Evington Village struck a quarter to the hour as they exited the door. I spotted him immediately. His flowing white hair blowing in the cold biting wind. He marched in time with the others. His back ramrod straight despite his age and infirmity. He swung his cane with a swagger. A swagger he had carried throughout his life. He was on parade again. Medals proudly flashing on his chest in the low sunlight.

He was marching with the local branch of the British Legion to the small cenotaph at the centre of the village. He did not know I was watching, hidden behind the church wall. He did not know I was filming his last parade. I wondered what thoughts were going through his mind as he marched with his comrades for the final time. I could see that his eyes were watering. Was it the wind? Was it his memories?

He had been mobilised in the spring of 1939 as he was in the Territorial Army. When War was declared in September he was serving in the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. His army number was 4859243. He was transferred to the Royal Artillery in 1940. He spent most of the War serving on anti-aircraft batteries. He was injured in the leg and blinded in one eye while in action.

He was the fittest in his platoon. He could run a mile in under 5 minutes on cinder tracks wearing old plimsolls. He became a physical training instructor. Because of this, he was promoted to bombardier on many occasions but his lifelong struggle with authority and regulations meant that he was ‘busted’ to private just as regularly. On his wedding photo you can see the shadow of his stripes on his battle dress.

Like many of his generation he rarely talked about the War. All I have are brief glimpses of what he did and what it meant to him. He served most of the time in remote locations in the UK. But, he did tell of excursions abroad to bring back the diamonds from the Netherlands and something he called Heavy Water. He never claimed to be a hero but he was proud of his service. For him it had been an adventure in the same way as attending university was for many of my generation. He was away from home experiencing a different life and making new friends. Friends that he remembered for the rest of his life. Was he thinking of them now as he marched in silence to the beat of a lonely drum?

I know he missed Mam during those long years. They were married in 1942 in her local church in Leicester. He was on special leave. My sister Pat was born the following year. He saw very little of her until he was demobbed in 1946. On one occasion he ‘borrowed’ the battalion motor bike and rode from the south coast in the middle of winter to see them. His hands were frozen to the handlebars when he arrived. He was punished on his return and lost his stripes again.

He had been a fighter all of his life. He boxed for his battalion and once fought the Canadian professional lightweight champion in an inter-army bout. He was badly beaten but survived the three rounds to lose on points. The bout took place in the De la War Pavilion in Bexhill. We visited it once when I was young. He claimed that it was the boxing match described in Spike Milligan’s book, ‘Adolf Hitler My Part In his Downfall’. He also claimed that he was the ‘Ginger’ who taught Spike to drive an army lorry. His hair was flaming ginger then. To match his temper

He told another story of a time he was stationed in Belfast. He did not know the town. On a Saturday evening he walked into a local pub to ask the way to the nearest Catholic Church so that he could attend evening Mass. The pub was in a protestant area and was full of Orangemen. Even though he was wearing the uniform of a British soldier he needed all of his fighting and running skills to escape that night.

He had lost his boxing medals during the blitz of Sefton when his billet was bombed out. The only medals that survived the war were the ones he was now wearing on his chest as he marched on into the cold headwind. I walked along with him, still filming. I could see that he was struggling but he would not stop. There would be no more parades after this. The local branch of the Legion was disbanding as most of its members had passed on. He had been determined to attend and to finish the parade, despite his illness.

As they reached the stone cross the column came to a halt. Men and women stepped forward to lay their wreaths. He did so slowly. Kneeling to place his on the steps. The church clock struck eleven. They all stood to attention. The boy bugler blew the Last Post. I could no longer see his face but I knew there would be tears. Like me, he always cried when he heard the last post. I stepped forward from the crowed to take his arm. He was shocked and swore, surprised to see me there

We had always argued about Remembrance Day as we argued about many things in my youth. I failed to understand what it meant to him. As a pacifist I thought he was glorifying war and cruelly told him so.  I know now that he hated war as much as me and that the parade was a reminder of this and of the friends he had lost. He said goodbye to the few who remained and we walked to my car to drive home. We did not speak. We rarely did. His knuckles were white as he gripped his seat. He never trusted my driving. I never showed him the film I shot on that day. I keep it as a memory of his life and of his courage and of his suffering.

When he died in 1997, Mam told me that he had asked that British Legion Colours be placed on his coffin with a guard of honour. I told the old Irish Monseigneur at their local church that this was his last wish. He refused to allow it. He said that there would be no representatives of the British Army in his church. He knew my Dad well. They had often argued about this and about many other things. They were both stubborn men. I told him that I supported a united Ireland and understood his concerns but that this was Dad’s wish. We compromised and the British Legion members walked after him with colours flying as he exited the church from the funeral mass. This was truly his last parade. I walked behind them in honour of dad’s final wish. Seeking his forgiveness for the arguments of my youth and the words that were never said. He was my hero in so many ways. Yet I never told him so. I say it to him now as I watch him march away again, his head held high, his back ramrod straight, his hair flaming in the light of the setting sun.

This is part of a series of memories about my Dad which includes;

The Last Wave.

The Last Vote.

The last Words.

The Grave Dig.

Still talking after all these years.

A talk I gave recently to North Wales RSL Equality Partnership.

Nearly 40 years ago I was secretary to the social housing sector’s first enquiry into Race and Housing. It was established by the National Housing Federation in the wake of a period of social unrest which occurred in many inner cities in 1981.

The enquiry produced its first report in 1982. It found that housing associations and local authority housing departments were guilty of racial discrimination both in the provision of their services and in their employment practices. The report made a number of recommendations to overcome this.

40 years later we are still talking about the issue in the context of a wider debate on diversity or lack of it in social housing. Has anything changed? Clearly there has been gradual progress in some areas but a number of recent reports show that we still have a long way to go.

A report in Inside Housing revealed the extent of racism, sexism, harassment and bullying in UK Housing. I expected an outcry from the sector in response to this. But it did not come. The silence from our leaders was both shocking and shameful. It appears from the lack of comment and even more importantly the lack of action that the sector is in denial about the issue. Or does it think that it is immune?

Evidence from elsewhere suggests that it is not. Reports into similar behaviour in Parliament show that sexism, harassment and bullying are endemic. A report into activities at Save the Children tell a similar story of sexual harassment, bullying and more. The report indicates that 30% of staff reported such behaviour which compares to similar figures in other sectors. If we accept the findings in Inside Housing, this figure is almost certain to be repeated in social housing. We are not immune.

Another report showed that we are also continuing to fail in employment of senior staff. The number of women or BME executive and non-executive leaders in social housing is extremely low. In recent years the number of women leaders has increased gradually especially in Wales. The number of BME leaders has remained static or has even fallen. There was an expectation that this would change when the current generation of mainly white male leaders reached retirement age and moved on. Did it?

Inside Housing looked at 34 appointments of chief executives of larger housing associations in the last 2 years. This showed that only 1 new BME leader had been appointed and only 5 women. A once in a generation opportunity to change the diversity at the top of social housing has been lost. Many reasons have been put forward to explain this shameful failure to recognise the diversity in our society. I continue to believe that, just as they did 40 years ago, racism and sexism play their part. Although the sector again fails to recognise this. It has become the issue in social housing that dare not speak its name. Some have called for an independent enquiry to be established to investigate fully these matters. I support this call but will our sector leaders?

A recent article in 24Housing raised similar issues and rightly identified the role of housing association boards as crucial. For me this is where we start to change. Boards should set the culture of organisations especially on what behaviours are acceptable and what are not. They should insist that there is zero tolerance of racism, sexism, harassment and bullying. They should regularly ask awkward questions of senior staff and others on this. They should establish fully independent whistle blowing policies and safe areas and support for those who experience such behaviour. They should look at their own behaviour and prejudices and ensure that in their recruitment and appointments the board and senior teams reflect fully the diversity in society. All of this should be regularly monitored and reported openly at least once a year. A fully comprehensive equality and diversity report should be part of the annual report. I would go further and make it an independent regulatory issue. The reason is simple. The only time social housing made real progress on these issues was when it was part of the regulatory regime.

We began talking about these issues over 40 years ago. We have talked for too long. What we need is real action and change. That process starts with you.




Richard Farnell’s Thanksgiving Service.

A message from Richard Farnells’s family on arrangements for his Thanksgiving Service at Coventry Cathedral at 4pm on Subday 21st October.
When we gather at the Cathedral on Sunday 21st October, at 4pm, as a family, we hope to be able to say ‘hello’ to as many of you as possible. Please introduce yourselves, and forgive us if we don’t recognise you or know your connection with Richard- he had numerous networks! There will be cards to complete to let us know that you were there and what your connection was with Richard. Do bring a pen to complete one to help us, thank you!

It was Richard’s wish that any donations in his memory at the Thanksgiving Service should go to support the work of the Cathedral, as he was Chairman of the Cathedral Council for several years. There will be an opportunity on the day to make such a gift. Alternatively, you can make a donation via their website from the Home Page of http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk

For those planning to be there with us, a few bits of advice:

    • Allow plenty of time to park and walk to the Cathedral. Most of the city centre car parks are reasonably close.
    • Find yourself a loo before you get to the Cathedral- they are in short supply once there!
    • If you are visiting from a distance, and have time, take the opportunity to explore Coventry City centre and visit the Cathedral beforehand. It is a very special place! The Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation is so important in our world today. The University is right next to the Cathedral and is also an exciting institution these days! Richard’s academic work regularly straddled the City / University / Cathedral.
    • We hope to have a loop of photos displayed at the back of the Cathedral before and after the service.
    • There will be drinks available after the service.
    • The actual service is planned to be about an hour long.
    • If visiting clergy wish ‘to robe’, please contact the Precentor, Canon David Stone.