So what do you do these days?

Me and my friend Sally at the end of Ride 100 in 2016. Still laughing despite the pain.

People sometimes ask what I do these days. Here is a snapshot.

Today, I will be one of 12 Samaritan volunteers from the Brighton, Hove and District branch at TransPride.  This is a community event for people from the trans community to come together and be themselves in a safe, supportive space. Samaritans know it can be an alienating and difficult experience for some people just to be who they are. We are there to listen, but also to talk about what we do, in case anyone is interested in volunteering with us. I am really looking forward to it.

On Monday, 24th July 2017, Samaritans will be at railway stations across the country encouraging people to listen to one another and to know they are not alone. Volunteers from our branch will be on Brighton, Hove and Haywards Heath Stations from 7 – 9 in the morning and 5 – 7 in the evening, handing out leaflets, talking to commuters but most of all, listening. This national series of events is part of the ongoing partnership between Samaritans and the rail industry. Next time you travel by train, if you turn over your ticket you might see one of our messages. Please also look out for our posters on every station. As they say, we are in your corner.

On 6th August, we will be on the road again, this time at Brighton Pride, a massive event celebrating all things LGBT. We will have a well-staffed stall to publicise what we do. And because we also know that supposedly joyous occasions can be unbearable for those who are feeling lonely or desperate, we will be there as well for those who need us.

And I am back on my bike on Sunday 30th July 2017 raising money for Samaritans. You can read more about it here, including how to donate. No pressure, though – we all do what we can. 

I first learned about Samaritans aged 11 via an article in Readers Digest. I then read Monica Dickens’ novel The Listeners, based on her experiences of being a Samaritan volunteer in London soon after the charity started 64 years ago. Later, I read the collected short stories Is there Anyone There? edited by Monica Dickens and Rosemary Sutcliffe. And I called Samaritans once or twice, from a red telephone box like the one on the cover.

In my early twenties, I trained to be a Samaritan myself, and volunteered for a couple of years. I loved it. But I was economical with the truth about my own issues. While going through a particularly bad patch, I found I didn’t have enough to give. I should have told a senor Samaritan and taken time out. But instead I just left. I have felt bad about this ever since.

I think I always knew I would go back. But not that it would take quite so long. As I pedalled for 8 hours through Ride London 100 in 2015, raising money for Samaritans, I knew that the time had come. In January 2016, I booked myself into an information event at my local branch. And with support from amazing trainers and fellow trainees, I completed initial training, mentoring and probation and became a listening volunteer again.

What has changed in 38 years? More importantly, what remains?

New technology, of course. Emails and text calls, booking shifts and online recording. But still nothing beats listening to someone by phone or face-to-face. Nor being supported by a fellow Samaritan who somehow notices you’re having a tough call and offers you time to reflect. The equality between volunteers, new and experienced, lies at the heart of what we do. I’m so glad that hasn’t changed.

We had policies back in the day, but not like now. Over-reliance on them can have unintended consequences, stealing time, making people over-cautious and discouraging independent thinking. The policies we are asked to follow are designed to maintain high standards and keep everyone safe. And if they need to be changed, it is up to us to say why and how.

Training is more thorough nowadays – in 1978 selection and training happened over a weekend. But the focus on being there for distressed people hasn’t changed at all.

Once more, I find I get more than I give by being a Samaritan. I love the stillness and focus of the Ops Room. I am inspired by the courage of our callers and the humanity of my fellow Sams.  It is lovely to be back.

It is true that not everyone has the capacity to be a Samaritan. You have to be able to set aside judgement and the humility to learn how to listen really carefully. But I truly believe that many more people could do it than probably realise. All it really takes is genuine love for other humans.

If you are interested in volunteering with us, either as a listener or a support volunteer, please take a look at this. We would be so pleased to hear from you.



Dear Govia. Dear Government

Dear Govia

Another week of cancellations, delays, overcrowding and stress-inducing journeys for passengers who travel on Thameslink, Gatwick Express and Southern trains. Please don’t insult us by calling us customers. We can’t make a choice – you run all of our trains. And you treat us with as much contempt as you treat your staff.

Last week, when some commuters were stranded overnight in London after all trains to Brighton were cancelled for 3 1/2 hours, we learned it will get even worse. Your train drivers have voted Yes in the ASLEF ballot to join the RMT industrial action, stopping all overtime and holding strikes on additional days to the RMT. We face further disruption, plus 3 strike days a week throughout December on top of the usual railway closedown for the holiday period. And more in the New Year.

We have had problems with reliability for at least two years. They got much worse in December 2015 when a new timetable was introduced. And yet you refused to admit the dispute until April 2016. Why not?

You communicate as though only Southern trains are involved. This is more deceit. We know to our cost that all your trains are affected.

The excuses you give are pathetic. “Short-term unavailability of train crew” is the default. Is a year short-term? How about employing more staff? People want permanent jobs, after all. You knew 2 years ago that you were heading for a driver shortage. Was it greed or just incompetence that you let it happen?

Other excuses include broken down trains at stations unrelated to the journey in question, line-side fires  – sounds reasonable until we remember we are no longer in the era of The Railway Children, signal failures – in other words, blame Network Rail – and an epidemic of passengers being taken ill on a preceding train. The best one so far is “congestion on the line” –  are we to believe that runaway trains have trespassed onto tracks that only YOU are franchised to use?

And instead of accepting responsibility, when you aren’t blaming Network Rail, you blame your staff. You “apologise” by saying that the unions are causing the problems. As anyone who has ever managed anyone could tell you, Rule Number 1 is that you support your people in public. You do not badmouth them. Especially when times are tough or you are in sensitive negotiations. For this alone, you should be drummed out of office. You are a disgrace.

I am a season ticket holder at Brighton and Hove Albion, where customers are treated with respect. We pay for home game travel via our tickets, with the football club passing a substantial sum each year to Govia. The train service to and from Falmer station on matchdays has always been unreliable and overcrowded, but over the past year it has become unuseable. After our last evening game, with no notice whatsoever, you cancelled all trains. Thousands of people, including young children and the elderly, were stranded late at night. Many had to walk miles home along the dual carriageway. Those from further afield, including away supporters, were forced to spend the night in a car park. Despite the club chasing you for several days, you gave no apology. Eventually, you blamed your own staff. Again.

We have to ask why you have completely lost the goodwill of your people when other railway companies have not. We appreciate that the margins for error on our crowded railway are tight. We know it is not difficult for staff to cause delays and worse by small acts of sabotage. But the decision to strike and to stop overtime affects them personally. So they must be desperate. You control the trains and you employ the people. The answer lay with you. But you blew it. After the latest announcement and your woeful response, there is no way back.

Hand the franchise back now. It is the only honourable course of action left.

Dear Govia, please resign. Thank you.

Dear Government

Our national economy is being affected through lost productivity. Commuters are losing their jobs. The negative morale of millions of passengers and staff affect safety on the railway and the mental health and wealth of all of us.

Please do not hide behind franchise rules. They are in your gift to change.

And there is a feasible alternative. Transport for London have longstanding expertise in running a complex transport network. The Mayor for London has offered to take over the franchise and sort things out.

If, as we suspect, part of the solution requires major investment in rail infrastructure in the South East, know this. The people who are forced to use these trains pay higher rail fares than anywhere in Western Europe, up to six times in some cases. There is no law that says that rail companies are entitled to create huge surpluses. Govia are taking you and us for a ride as they oversee a burgeoning catastrophe while they continue to trouser profits.

It is time to stop making speeches about how bad things are. We know. Instead, take action. Yes, it may be complicated and will require cross-party co-operation. But that is why we elect you, to do difficult things on behalf of all of us.

Thank you.