I’m travelling up to Nottingham tomorrow to deliver the Get Steven Home talk for what may probably be the last time. This is the gig I’ve been to twice a year for the last seven years. It’s organised by Birmingham University and is part of their Best Interest Assessors induction course. The trainer, Wendy Silberman, always manages to book some great speakers. I’ve met Justices Baker and Eldergill there and of course it was two years ago that Wendy organised my emotional reunion with Justice Peter Jackson.
When Wendy told me the date I genuinely didn’t know whether I’d still be alive but life moves on even if we’re in the death throes of the deprivation of liberty safeguards. By the time the next course comes around in September, it’s more than likely that DoLS will have been replaced by the Liberty Protection Safeguards and Steven’s story will have passed into history. I don’t feel sad about that but I do feel sad that we might be back to square one with the pigs ear that is the LPS legislation. The fact that providers will be able to authorise a detention and that independent advocacy and scrutiny is going to be very thin on the ground leaves me terrified that 2010 could easily happen all over again but without the positive outcome. It feels like we have turned the clock back to pre Bournwood and it feels inevitable that within a few weeks of the new legislation being introduced we’ll be hearing about the 2019 incarnation of HL.
Knowing they’re coming to an end, as is my part in talking about them, I’ve been thinking back to my experiences of telling the Get Steven Home story over the past 8 years. The first gig I was booked for was the Legal Action Group conference a few months after the court case. I was invited to speak along with our barrister Amanda and our solicitor. As it happened I didn’t get a word in. I just sat at the end of the table like Exhibit A. The solicitor had left his chambers by this point and the head of the firm came in his place and did all the talking. I didn’t get a chance to speak until the Q&A and it was a bit of a rude awakening. Sir James Munby had been the keynote speaker in the morning and he had now taken his place in the audience. Suddenly he stood up and said: “Question for Mr Neary. DoLS. A good thing or a bad thing?” I think my answer was along the lines of: “Well erm, your erm honour. Yes, Sir. DoLS erm. Haha. Yes. Thank erm you….” I did manage to say that for all the inherent problems with DoLS, they did ultimately save Steven’s life because without them we would never have gained access to the court system. Hillingdon’s actions would have remained unscrutinised and Steven would have ended up permanently in a hospital in Wales. I got a round of applause and saved that line which I still use to finish the talk on.
The bookings grew. For some reason I’m quite popular in Yorkshire and the Midlands so that started my love/hate relationship with Virgin Trains from Euston station. I did discover a taste for Aeros again on the long journey but also became reacquainted with haemorrhoids again due to their godawful seats. I’ve also stayed in some great hotels and some that would never get past the casting agent for Four In A Bed. I love the hotel opposite the station in Derby that serves the most delightful chicken in mushroom sauce dish and the coldest Guiness you’ve ever drank. I had the trip down memory lane in Cleethorpes where I ate in the same cafe that we took Steven to during our “introduction week” with him, 20 years earlier. There was the unsettling B&B in Poole with the 17 knitted mauve cats lurking in my room and the “crispy local sourced bacon” that had come in disguise as Parma ham. You’ll notice that food plays a big part of my galavanting. One day I’ll compile my list of Top 10 complimentary biscuits. The posh hotel in Manchester won’t be winning that award as after I’d finished off a pair of shortbread biscuits I noticed they came with a price tag of £5.50.
I’ve never been heckled. Not outright. There was the MCA conference in Bracknell where the psychiatrists monopolized the centre table and sat with their backs to me the whole time I spoke. Actually, that’s not quite true. They put away their laptops or stopped speaking amongst themselves about 15 minutes from the end of my talk and made a beeline for the buffet that was just opening. They returned as I was getting to the “DoLS saved Steven’s life” bit and provided a soundtrack of munching celery sticks and sucking vol au vents whilst I reached my deflated encore. Then there was the awful head of the OPG at the Court of Protection conference who did quite a performance of walking out as I was being introduced and stood talking on her phone loudly just outside the door for the duration of my turn. Inevitably there is usually someone (always male and often wearing a tie that clashes terribly with their shirt) who will pipe up during question time and say, “This isn’t really a question, more an observation……” and then keep going for so long that nobody else gets a word in edgeways.
The last couple of years I’ve experimented a bit and have often winged the talk. At the National Advocacy Conference, it seemed logical to structure the talk so the emphasis was “where was Steven’s and my voice?” There was another gig where the host was the comedian Jake Mills. I liked him and I liked his act, so decided to tell mainly the funny stories of 2010 and for the first time told the Take That and Lulu story. I know the parts of the story that make people gasp. I know when they will cry. I know when I’ll see steam coming out of their ears. But I like to make them laugh more than anything. I definitely don’t present Steven or me as a victim and I can get quite peevy with members of the audience if they frame us that way. It’s just a story. But it’s a bloody good story.
One odd development that’s happened in the past few years is that I’ve started getting requests. I think it’s because some people have heard the story before and moved on to another council where they’ve booked me again. The first time it happened I was completely thrown. I’d finished and the senior DoLS lead took the mic and said, “Mark, we’ve got five minutes to spare. Can you tell us the risk assessment folder and the balcony incident? I love that story”. I thought, “Crikey. I’ve got some greatest hits that people expect to hear”. I’d never be able to present the equivalent of an acoustic version of my set. I’d be interupted with “Hurry up with that rubbish. We’ve paid to hear you do the being thrown out of the mental capacity assessment story”.
So, it’s coming to an end. I’ve had a blast. I’ve met so many great people, some have even become really good friends. I’ve learned a huge amount about the law, the games that are played and how to shape and deliver a funny anecdote.
I don’t want to talk myself out of any future work though. DoLS may be dead but Steven’s story is just as much about the Human Rights Act as the Mental Capacity Act. I can come to your event and talk about Personal Budgets, or Building a good support team, or even the difficulties inherent of getting an accurate blood pressure reading over a turquoise safari suit.
Besides, I haven’t been to Cromer yet.