Sometimes you get to step out of your life into someone else’s. Last Wednesday was one of those times. A graduate of ours, Suzette Shahmoon, has been supporting the Princess Royal Trust for Carers for a number of years, and through her efforts last year we at Quest were able to give the Cognitive Hypnotherapists in our network the opportunity to offer their services to carers at a number of centres the Trust has throughout the country.
This new connection opened our eyes to a situation that tends to be lost under the radar of public awareness: that there are six million people in this country who are unpaid carers; that the saving to the country through their efforts is equivalent to the budget of the NHS, and that three out of five people will be carers at some point in their lives. I guess it’s an easy thing to not notice until you become a carer, or are connected to one, as Bex and I are.
So through this connection to Suzie I was invited to St James Palace for a formal dinner hosted by Princess Anne and her husband. I don’t know how you spend your evenings, but that’s quite a distance from a normal experience for me. I confess I knew little about the palace beyond its location, now I know a lot more. Queen Elizabeth I spent the night there before the Armada, King Charles I before his execution, and Queen Mary’s heart and stomach are buried there (what I don’t know is why). And it’s beautiful. The minute you step through the door you’re transported into the grandeur of royalty that Britain does so well. I was resplendent in my penguin suit and a disobedient bow tie and spent a really pleasant evening meeting new and interesting people – and HRH. If only life was a video you could rewind and re-record, because it started off so well.
We were arranged in horseshoe groups in a lovely huge reception room and the plan was that the Princess and her husband would circulate independently and talk to all the groups in turn. Admiral Lawrence was fine, I saw him coming and had a nice chat. Then I got talking to a nice guy from Ecclesiastical Insurance (they’re sponsoring the trust to celebrate their 125th anniversary) about his membership of a skittles team – apparently that’s still going strong in Gloucestershire. I got so immersed in the conversation I forgot what we were there for until his eyes widened as he looked over my shoulder. I span around, and there was the Princess. For a very long second I had brain freeze. The last time we met was 20 years ago at the Royal Tournament when I was wearing a pointy hat and guarding her car. That’s not really meeting at all, is it? In that moment I completely forgot the contents of the protocol sheet we were sent (“the Princess is first to be addressed as Her Royal Highness, and subsequently Ma’am to rhyme with Pam”) and just said…”Oh, hello!” A reliable source says I looked both surprised and chuffed to bits that she could make it.
My faux pas came crashing down in my head and my internal voice went crazy: “Oh hello? What are you doing, channelling Kenneth Williams? What can I say next to get back on track?” I could only think of “Her Royal Majesty” as a title and I was pretty sure that was wrong, but I couldn’t say Ma’am because I hadn’t said the long title yet – whatever that was. Suddenly inspiration came to me…bow!! That was in the sheet. I bowed. From the waist, way too deeply, and I’m pretty sure I clicked my heels together. At least I didn’t say “Klop!” I managed a homage to ‘Carry on up the Palace’ and ‘Allo Allo’ in the space of ten seconds. It’s a talent.
I felt she was a mite startled but recovered like the true professional she is and engaged me in a polite exchange about Cognitive Hypnotherapy before moving on. That’s what I’m all about, representing Cog Hyp in an unforgettable, professional and positive manner.
Anyway, I come to the point of this blog beyond reminding the world I’m a numpty. After a very nice meal came the speeches. Up stepped Harry. He’s 13 and was present with his mother and sister Saskia. He waited patiently as someone put a step for him to reach the mike, and then he told us about his life. His younger sister has paraplegic cystic fibrosis and epilepsy, and his mother has damaged her back doing all the lifting that her care requires. Before her birth he and his mum used to go on holidays and take trips in the car. Now they can’t. Because of his mum’s injury Harry gets up every morning and helps Saskia out of bed and gets her breakfast. When he gets home he helps with the chores and her care. He didn’t mention love once but it was present in every sentence he uttered, the unspoken motivation for the life he lived. Utterly humbling and there were many dabs of hankies around me. Sadly Harry’s caring leaves hardly any time for hobbies or the kinds of things a 13 year old should be doing. When he does spend time round his friends’ houses he’s reminded of how different his childhood is compared to most. And that gets him down sometimes.
That’s what made Harry’s speech special; it wasn’t a resolute, singularly upbeat message, it was more honest than that. He admitted that he shouts at his mum and sister sometimes, and then feels guilty, that he resents his limitations sometimes, and then feels guilty. And that’s when I understood what the evening was really about, the setting was just gilding: how a young boy is made extraordinary by the efforts he makes within constraints that aren’t fair – and the help he gets from the Trust. Someone to talk to, respite care for his mum, and funding for music lessons for him so he can become, in his words, ‘a brilliant musician’. A bit of space to be a child and to dream of his future. There are many Harry’s out there, and adult carers with their stories too, all needing support, which highlighted the official purpose of the dinner; to announce the union of the Princess Trust with another body that has long supported carers, Crossroads Care. From March this union will be called The Carers Trust, an eminently sensible pooling of resources in the current climate and a means of coordinating the available help to those carers who need it.
On the train home I had time to think.
I thought about how a boy like Harry has missed out on many aspects of childhood, and yet has probably become more characterful through rising to his challenges, and how the process of caring for someone else will lead to a resilience that will never leave him. The man he’ll be as a result of his journey is likely to be a good one I think.
I thought how easy it is to believe the press and see our youth as spoilt and lazy, when there are better examples they could be spotlighting – and how our view of our society would shift if they did.
I thought about the power of love and how it can contort lives into difficult shapes in its service, but still transform people for the better through that process.
I thought about the Carers Trust, and how Quest could do more to help the likes of Harry, and some of the other six million.
And I thought how, after tonight’s performance, I’ve got some real work to do to get back on track for a knighthood.