Carrying the flame was obviously an incredible moment in and of itself, but the way it has been talked about in the media and around the country for the ordinary folks like me who had the chance to do it, was as an ‘end’ - in recognition of something, because of sacrifices made or roads fully travelled from start to finish. While my nomination was based on the Mad Hatters Challenge, the ‘end’ element of it was never really the case for me.
I am proud of the Mad Hatters Challenge – principally the £16,000+ it raised and, more than 60% better than the original target. Beyond that, I was proud of the togetherness it fostered, the challenges that people rose to, and the spirit it instilled. Friendships were made and strengthened, and everyone who was part of it will remember it fondly. In short, we raised the bar a bit and that £16,000 has already done a lot of good.
There is a ‘but’. The MHC started as a slightly wistful aspiration that was unlikely to come to fruition, emboldened by a night in the pub and a snap (drunken) decision to attempt an Ultramarathon the following week. It snowballed from there, and it was a success because people pooled their collective skills and efforts. Chris Jackson, driving me on to run a series of marathons. Alex Doorey, building a website for me in her severely limited spare time because she knows I am useless with computers. Richard Norman, my colleague and great friend who actually made me believe that £10,000 was realistic, not pie-in-the-sky, and quarterbacked Hadrian’s Wall. The likes of Jonathan Tanner, Andrew Robarts and Simon Platts, who trained so hard for triathlons and marathons to help a mate and do a bit of good; who without realising it inspired everyone around them. And of course, the folks at LLR who helped me with every step; from Emily Wainwright, who answered my first phone call to the office and made so much happen. She’s left now, but we’re still in touch. Matt Lawley, who sorted loads of marathon and triathlon places, and so many other people. Above all, everyone who saw what we were putting ourselves through and put their hands in their pockets.
It was these people, and those like them, who made the MHC a success. As you can tell it was put together on the hoof, with little regard to strategy or maximising the opportunity we’d carved out for ourselves.
This meant that, despite all the good, at the end of the MHC I felt deflated. Not that it had failed – it obviously hadn’t – but that it had missed a major opportunity.
- It surprised me that people remained interested for the duration. I hadn’t realised at the start, but when you attempt something over a series of events and a period of time, you get the chance to build a proper narrative and a deeper engagement with the people who follow your progress.
- I got my head around the science, at least a little. At the start, I had no idea how focused LLR was on the goal to beat blood cancer. It’s an actual plan, not just a massive statement that has no real basis. And it will happen. Investment in research has delivered a huge amount of knowledge and progress. The money is spent very, very well. I learned about things like the Trials Acceleration Programme (TAP), which is saving lives right now through world-leading clinical trials. Geoff Thomas has been working to drive that forward.
- I learned what it meant to people. Through speaking at conferences and attending LLR events, I met people who are part of the blood cancer community who I would never have met otherwise. People like Hazel Staten, who survived. John Reeve, who lost his son, walked to Germany and wrote a book in his memory. Sylvia Gaunt, Geoff Thomas, Harvey Greenwood, the Calendar Girls. People with such varied lives and backgrounds, and one thing in common. And I had something in common with them because in one way or another we’ve all been affected by this horrible disease. And after meeting them, I quickly fell in love with them, and realised that even if I never raised another penny, me working hard for LLR meant a lot to them, so I would carry on.
That’s where Leading Light came from. I’ll pick up the story in the hours after the Torch, before the launch:
...talking through the decision to launch he campaign on the same day as the Torch with the folks at LLR, we knew we needed a central London location. In the end we decided on CAFOD’s headquarters. I work for CAFOD and we have a really good space on the top floor. There is a terrace, and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Parliament, St Paul’s, the City, and a few less-iconic south London estates. With a good sunset, the setting couldn’t be better.
After recording a few videos back at the Harris Academy, we piled in the LLR car and I got a lift to Windrush Square in Brixton, where I was supposed to have an interview with ITV London Tonight. I’d arranged to meet my family there too. By this point it was pushing 2pm. The launch party was 7-9pm, with an after-party on the roof terrace of a nearby pub.
David, LLR’s photographer for the day and I got out of the car and stepped into the square. Brixton is a wonderfully vibrant community and does not deserve the reputation it has, and the square is its centre. The torch had passed through only an hour earlier and there were still people everyone, the familiar smells of Jerk Chicken wafting from the stalls, and the ubiquitous sounds of Marley reassuring us all that everything was going to be alright.
I’d completely forgotten that I was wearing the ridiculous bright white Olympic tracksuit and carrying the Olympic Torch around in broad daylight. Big mistake. It took the best part of half an hour to get from one side of the square to another. People wanted their photos taken. Well not just them, but everyone they knew too. ‘One with me and you and the torch. Good. Now one with just me and the torch. OK. Now one with just you, the torch and my kids. Hang on let me ring my boys they’ll love this. *holds phone to my hear* Go on, speak to my boys! Just one more photo’. Everyone just wanted to be part of it. It was wonderful, no doubt, but it was a decent window into what it must be like to be famous and, I have to say, that half an hour was enough for me!
Finally met up with my family at the other side of the square, by which time I’d missed the interview, and we were off to the pub. It was much the same there – it took twenty minutes to get through the door, and there was almost a queue in the beer garden. [Actually, I went back in to the Trinity Arms last night for my friend’s birthday, and they still have pictures of that day on the walls. Good pub. Recommend it]
After a couple of pints and a few sandwiches, we were off to CAFOD. We arrived at about 6pm and the LLR team was already in full flow setting up the event: cutting videos from the day, getting donation points ready and making sure all the AV equipment was working. Plenty of my colleagues were still around and the Torch did a little tour round the office. Then the booze arrived, so I was able to channel the lads’ energies into helping unload (then consume) that, while I found a quite spot for 20 minutes to think about what I was going to say.
I made the mistake of logging on to Facebook. I need to apologise to everyone I am friends with for melting down their news feeds that day – there were photos everywhere, messages from so many people it’s impossible to count. Many of them I hadn’t seen for years, living in different countries or continents. It was overwhelming stuff, but I had to focus. I ordered my thoughts as far as possible, and wrote down a few notes to remind me what to say. Then I headed upstairs.
The event was in full flow. The wine was poured and friends, family, colleagues, LLR’s team and some of their trustees and supporters were mingling away – catching up with old friends, making news ones, reflecting on the Torch relay or anticipating the Games. I was able to pretty much slip into that, and get around as much of the room as possible. I was amazed at what LLR had done with the place – there was a live Twitter feed on a big screen, canapés and drinks on offer, contribution cards and branding all around. I handed over the Torch to Bekah, part of the fundraising team at LLR who puts up with and looks after me, and had done so much to make the event happen. There was a space on terrace for people to get their photos taken with the Torch in the sunset. I remember looking over and seeing how chuffed to be part of it, as well as how ridiculous some of my friends’ poses were. I also remember reminding myself not to drink too much.
It felt like everyone was there. All the people I mentioned in Part 2 – the ‘love’ people. It wasn’t that literally everyone was there, but it felt like all of the different strands of my life were represented. Family, school, friends north and south, uni, music, sport, work, politics, Man City, faith, blood cancer. And the ones who couldn’t make it were still there with us. The only ones missing were those we had lost along the way.
Time for the speeches. Cathy, LLR’s CEO, stepped forward. I had sent a not-very-subtle message through the legendary Emma Whelan, LLR’s Marketing guru, that Cathy could praise the campaign all she wanted but not me personally. Believe it or not I don’t like the attention, don’t feel I am worthy of the praise, and actually feel a bit uncomfortable with it all. Plus, on the practical side, if you’re saying a few words straight after, you have look straight at everyone present and find the words to justify the hype. Obviously Cathy basically ignored that message – she said some really lovely things about the campaign and about my relationship with LLR, and obviously hammered home LLR’s mission to beat blood cancer. The important bits will stay with me forever. What people might not know about Cathy is that she is driven from the same place as ordinary LLR supporters, but is able to combine it with huge amounts of wit, focus, energy, charisma and a strategic mind that raises the charity to new heights. It’s not just a job for her; it’s a life’s work. To be associated with, let alone praised by, people like that is a real privilege for me.
In the end it went well. I followed Cathy. I be honest I can’t really remember what I said, but I was among friends so if it was drivel they would forgive me anyway. I thanked people, particularly the Mad Hatters in the room. Spoke a bit about the day, and a bit about the new campaign. A bit about loss and a bit about life. I can’t imagine it was coherent, but like with the Torch, there are snapshots that I remember. Here they are:
I remember perching on the arm of the sofa my brother and his wife were sitting on, and feeling his big reassuring hand, knowing how proud he was. He had run Hadrian’s Wall with me so was invested in this too. I remember handing him the Torch when I went up to speak and seeing him inspecting it out of the corner of my eye. I remember seeing Clare Lyons, my colleague, who is an emotional crutch at the best and worst of times and who has been a sounding board for a lot of the feelings that this kind of work throws up. In fact, I remember having to look specifically for her – she had typically taken up a spot in the background. I remember seeing Tanner, and remember Jacko looking embarrassed when I singled him out for thanks. I remember seeing Paul Murphy, and Daniel Farrimond, and Kie Knowles, who all knew Steven too – and thinking how nice it was to have some of his other friends there. More often than not I’m describing Steven to people who never met him, and it was special to have people in the room who knew him just as well. Paul and I were two of his pallbearers, and I remember specifically thinking that. I remember Jack putting his sunglasses on – he has more reason to be affected by this than most. I remember noticing a hand-rolled cigarette resting behind Greg’s ear. I remember seeing my sister laughing at the photos on the screen behind me. I remember seeing Shani and reflecting that people have so many different reasons for being here. I remember wishing that my uncle Dave could have been there (not really my uncle, a friend of the family), but he died suddenly a few years ago. I remember having to think about something else pretty quickly, as I didn’t want to crack up in front of everyone. I remember putting the mic down, giving Cathy a hug, and having a laser focus on getting hold of a drink as quickly as possible.
After a few more photos and a bit more mingling, the event drew to a close. But it was clear to everyone that it had been a success. Lots of people had signed up for various challenges – including Greg and Paddy who, at the end of Hadrian’s Wall in 2010, vowed never again. Turns out they’re doing it again. Lots of people went away energised, with a better understanding of what this campaign is about or why I live my life the way I do. Above all, for everyone present that night, LLR will always occupy a special place for them.
We moved to the pub. I think it’s best for all involved that we don’t go into too many details, but it was a good night and I’ll share a few snippets. Not having to buy a drink was obviously a real highlight for me. Letting go of the Torch and watching it make its way around the roof terrace, with photos that really cannot be shared for legal reasons. Shani and Leah realising we were missing a trick, grabbing a couple of empty glasses, and charging round the place raising £40 for LLR, sticking all the money in a couple of empty fag packets at the end of the night. Goodall refusing to let it go. Greg, discovered alone on a couch in the corner towards last orders, talking to the Torch, then spending the next 20 minutes trying to steal Michelle’s hat. The lads, when we left, recreating the security ‘envelope’ from earlier in the day to make sure the Torch was safe around south London’s midnight streets, and maybe taking their roles a little too seriously.
We got home at about 1.30am. I made cheese and chicken toasties for everyone, and we had a couple more drinks. The Games would be starting the next day, but the 20 hour day I was approaching the end of had been quite something. Exhilarating. Exciting. Exhausting. And something to be proud of. I went to bed, put the torch down beside me, closed my eyes and drifted off. Hard to say whether I’ve woken up yet.
I’d be pretty surprised if you have read through all three instalments of this blog. It’s a long old slog. If you have, thank you and well done. If you haven’t, no worries, it’s your time and your choice. At the very start I shared my anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to find the words to do it justice. Well here we are at the end and I’ve used around 5000. I don’t know if it’s captured everything – or anything – particularly well, but I’ve told the story as best I can. For those of you who were there, I hope it brought back fond memories. For those who weren’t, I hope it helps you share in it.
But here’s the contradiction: it’s not really about words. Not now, anyway. All the necessary words have been said. You know about the campaign now, you know when it started, why it’s happening, what it aims to achieve and how. Now it’s about action – you action, my action, our collective action – and we actually have to make this a reality, and deliver £1million.
But here’s the best bit – doing it is fun. It’s some of the most fun you’ll ever have, and if you become part of this campaign and its success, you will be proud of it forever. So you’d better get onto the campaign page and get signed up.
Yes, carrying the torch was special. Yes (along with City winning the league in May) it was probably the best day of my life. But together with you, over the next four years, I think we might just find a way to top it.
Starting on Sunday.