The most stationary of all stationery items, scissors hate to be hurried. I learned this as a child. You did too, probably. Don't run with scissors. A clear and simple instruction. Pencils, glue, staples... no problem. For them, like us, it's a finite existence. Time is short so don't dilly dally. But don't run with scissors.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Moth Diaries

A slight departure from the sort of thing I usually write, but here's a movie review I did recently

The Moth Diaries, out now on DVD ...

Click through to the review here.

Friday, 26 October 2012

why it's time to stop counting your retweets

How easy would it be to write a post ridiculing the practice of assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have?

I think we all know it would be quite easy. 

How much value would there be in my doing that?  Well, about as much value as there is in assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have.

Did you see what I did there?

I read a blog post today in which someone said they’d tweeted something about the Uberdaddy of record-breaking sky-diving, Felix Baumgartner. That tweet was then retweeted more than 5,000 times, reaching more than 140,000 people’s streams by dint of just two of those RTs.

Woah..! Big numbers.

Big so what, too.

In an exchange on Twitter with a social marketer at one of the world’s premier sports brands, I recently said something that went a little bit like this:

Measuring your online relevance simply by counting how many retweets you get is a bit like driving all the way to the supermarket at the weekend, not actually going in to buy anything, but still considering it to have been a trip to the supermarket.

Technically, that’s a trip to the supermarket.

You don’t have anything to eat though.

One point I (try) to make to the brands I speak to about how they measure social success – and more importantly how they should measure social success – is that surely it has to be better for their business to find 50 people they know are spending money with them than to have 50,000 Facebook likes from people who probably aren’t.

That’s me all over though… I state the obvious.

Social media. Digital communications. Where did it all go wrong? We let it fall under the spell of people with no real experience of what it takes to create genuine interest and actionable desire.

Affecting a sustainable change in people’s perceptions and behaviour is not as hard as it might seem. As for measuring those changes, well OK that is a little bit hard. But it’s not impossible and it gets a good deal easier when you know what it is you’re trying to measure and why.

A former business contact of mine got a job last year as a “social media coordinator.”  I posited that one day, maybe in three-to-five years, there wouldn’t be anyone with the word social in their job title.  It’s all just media.

We need to stop dressing it all up as something it isn’t and get back to the business of crafting great narrative, building compelling brand stories, and measuring the things that really matter.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

the pleb, the whip, his bike and some bother

It’s more than three weeks since Plebgate. For once I feel ok about using the ‘gate’ suffix, as there was actually a gate involved in the story.

First, a quick recap… Andrew Mitchell (millionaire MP and government Chief Whip) was stopped at the gates of Downing Street and asked by a police officer to dismount from his bicycle, whereupon Mr Mitchell may or may not have called the police officer a “fucking pleb”.

This happened less than two days after two police officers were shot dead in the line of duty, prompting a nationwide out-pouring of sympathy and respect for the police.

Initial claims that Mr Mitchell had had a particularly “long and frustrating” day were subsequently found lacking in credibility, when it was revealed he’d had lunch at the Cinnamon Club, which is a very nice and fairly expensive restaurant in Westminster. He’d also spent part of his day at another (even more) exclusive establishment, the Carlton Club in St James’s – one of the oldest and most elite of Conservative clubs, is how it likes to be known.

Three weeks have passed and Mr Mitchell has failed to exorcise the Ghost of Insults Past. His apologies have only gone so far and his steadfast refusal to accept he used the word “pleb” have angered the police force in general, and the Police Federation in particular. Having said that, I think we all know how difficult it is to untangle one of those “he said / she said” arguments. Although it’s a “he said / he said” on this occasion.

On the BBC Radio 4 current affairs discussion programme Any Questions (aired on 12 October and repeated the following day), the government’s Defence Minister, Philip Hammond, described how no one other than those people directly involved actually know the truth over what was said.

This point of view was offered as an explanation as to why Mr Mitchell’s attempts at apology, which have been rejected by many in the police service as inadequate, ought to have been enough and that everyone (IE the media and the police) should now forget the whole thing and move on.

I witnessed something similar only a few days ago. I was on a train going into London that had been held between stations for over an hour. There was a very heated exchange between two male passengers – one accused the other of having upset one of the train staff. Several people saw their heated exchange, which almost came to blows, yet the only people who actually knew what had been said to cause the train employee to become upset, were the people involved.

There are some significant points of difference with Plebgate though, not just that there was a bike involved rather than a train.

Chief among those differences, in my opinion, is that one of the parties involved here is a serving police officer who was on duty at the time.

A police officer’s notes are generally deemed to be admissible in a court of law as evidence. As, indeed, would anyone’s eye-witness account. Yet Mr Mitchell has called on the whole country to ignore the police officer, their account and their notes, and instead to believe him, a man who’d had a long and frustrating day spending time at a nice restaurant and in a swanky club.

Of course, Mr Mitchell is not the first person to claim that a police officer is misrepresenting the truth in their account of an incident. But it’s not often we hear a member of the government claiming the police are playing fast and loose with the facts, being economical with the actualit√©, being less than trustworthy, making shit up… lying.

What sort of example is he setting? I don’t mean that to sound shrill or hysterical – it is (and ought to be) a genuine consideration. After all, his is the party of law and order, the party that announced very recently that it wanted a change in the law so that householders could, if the circumstances presented themselves, batter intruders to death. OK, maybe now I’m being economical with the actualit√©, but hey… it’s what the cool kids (by which I mean government ministers not actual cool kids) are doing these days.

This man is in government, by most people’s reckoning he enjoys a privileged position in life, a position of authority and responsibility, and yet his view is that the account of the police officer is not to be trusted.

Setting aside any opportunistic jibes I may have made, there are some very serious points here.

Only those with poor memories will have already forgotten the MPs’ expenses scandal, where our lords and masters were caught with their collective fingers in the till, trousering great handfuls of cash; sometimes out of greed and ignorance, sometimes out of a premeditated willingness to lie about where they lived or who owned the homes they paid rent on.

They were, en masse, deemed to have been acting as though they were above the law. Our Prime Minister pledged it was time for MPs to clean up their collective act.

Yet here we have the government Chief Whip and the Defence Minister both espousing the point of view that one ought not to trust the police. Their belief, one might come to believe, is that Mr Mitchell is not subject to the same laws as the rest of us.

Not every millionaire former public schoolboy is arrogant, obnoxious and self-important. But we seem to have a few of them currently ruining running the country.

So much for David Cameron’s hollow notion that we are somehow all in this together, and that we must all adopt a big society mentality.

Of course the police aren’t perfect. But they do a job that, by and large, most of us would not and could not cope with.

I wrote last year that we get the press we deserve. I think we get the police we deserve too. Accepting the fallibilities and frailties that are part of the human package, if we want a police force we can trust we surely – at some point – have to stop regarding them as untrustworthy. And if our politicians want to be believed and trusted surely it’s about time they started acting like they want to earn that trust.

Footnote: a big thank you to Brent Martin, aka @ZeitgeistLondon (“Be-wigged defence Counsel, working in the City of London in criminal law”) who, despite being on holiday, was kind enough to answer a quick legal question for me when I was writing this piece.

Today’s Independent carries this piece

The Guardian produced a handy timeline to the first few days of Plebgate

Alternatively, stick ‘plebgate’ in your preferred search engine and read what has been said elsewhere.

You can click here for more on
 Sean Fleming.

Friday, 5 October 2012

I come from England, I grew up there

In 1992, I went to Canada and the USA.  I spent three or so weeks travelling around, on my own, visiting friends and family.

It was the first time I’d flown.

Before we’d even taken off things started to get interesting.

The plane was delayed and while we were all sat there, on the tarmac of Manchester Airport, waiting for clearance, the pilot made an announcement to tell us all that it shouldn’t be too much longer before we were on our way.

He kept on talking, but not to us. For several minutes we could hear him chatting with the co-pilot, and whoever else was there, but it was conversation not intended for us to hear. Mostly it was incomprehensible technical stuff, and some of it was inaudible. Then the mic was cut.

A minute later, he came back over the speakers to apologise for having left the mic on while he was chatting to his colleagues and said “there are a lot of switches up here and it sometimes gets confusing.”

A lot of us exchanged quizzical looks. Had he really just said that..? Yes, he had.

Four hours later, a little more than halfway to Toronto – where I’d get to hear about Mrs Aqua for the first time   the guy across the aisle from me collapsed.

At this point I was beginning to wonder why they bothered putting movies on for us to watch – the flight itself was providing far more entertainment and distraction than I’d bargained for.

We landed, in one piece. The collapsed man was OK too.

My passport photo, taken in 1992
At the immigration queue the guy in front of me got instantly deported… into a holding cell and put on the first plane back to Manchester.

Three days later I saw two guys from the Ku Klux Klan being deported from Canada, at Fort Erie, and sent back to the USA.

By this point I couldn’t tell if I was still suffering from jet lag, or whether I was simply over-stimulated from everything that was going on around me. But one thing was for sure, I was wired.

One of my abiding memories from that trip is of something that happened at Penn Station in New York.

I was waiting for a train to take me to Fayetteville, North Carolina. All the trains were delayed. As any fellow Brits will know, this is a situation we have all become accustomed to. And so it was that I found myself hanging around at Penn Station with lots of other delayed travellers, one of whom struck up a conversation with me.

He was a couple of years younger than me, was well dressed, wore a broad smile and had a couple of suitcases. He introduced himself by saying something about the delay being annoying and that he was on his way home from college.

It was 20 years ago, so what follows is not an actual word-for-word account of what happened next. But the main thrust of it is here…

  • Me: “what are you doing at college?”
  • Him: “liberal arts.”
  • Him: “how about yourself?”
  • Me: “I’m travelling round for a few weeks, I’ve got some friends in Maine and North Carolina, and my brother lives in Michigan. Last week I was in Toronto for a few days.”
  • Him: “may I just say, you speak really good English.”
  • My actual voice: “Er, I’m English.” (note: I’m not, I’m an Irishman who grew up in England, but that’s a tale for another occasion)
  • Him: “Sure, but how come you speak such good English?” (the ‘such’ and the ‘good’ were over emphasized)
  • Voice in Sean’s head: “THIS IS HOW IT ENDS…!”
  • My actual voice: “Well, I come from England. I grew up there. It’s what we speak. I really ought to find a telephone. It’s been great meeting you.”

On that same trip a lot of very weird and funny stuff happened. But the “how come you speak such good English guy” was a real stand-out moment.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

september 2012 word cloud: "people like apple"..?

September 2012 saw the greatest volume of traffic to my site/blog since I started this version of it in February 2009 (it replaced an older iteration of the blog, which dated back to 2007).

Judging by the evidence below, it appears I may have focused on the fact that "people like Apple" - but I somehow doubt that was the case.

September 2012 word cloud

Sunday, 23 September 2012

the iphoney war and apple’s transformation into the AOL of mobile

Two kinds of queue form in the run up to a new launch from Apple.

The first is, of course, fanboyz who cannot wait to be among the very first to own the new iPhone, iPad or iWhatever.

The second is the nay-sayers, typically Android-owners who cannot wait to be among the first to mock said new and shiny Apple hardware. Although it’s generally the software they take issue with.

Thus it was this last week when the iPhone 5 came out and iOS 6 was released.

It’s as dull as it is predictable.

I used an iPhone for about three years and have been an Android user for the past year. Each has their good and bad points – like most things, really.

The ideology underpinning these two platforms is very different though.

There’s an excellent piece about in this GigaOM, which reports on a talk given by RIM’s Sebastian Marineau-Mes last week on the need for curated openness

Hat-tip to @craigdeakin for tweeting about it and bringing it to my attention.

Apple increasingly reminds me of AOL, something I think I first said in 2010. Surely I ought to have an original thought, but anyway...

Back in the mid 1990s AOL made getting online really uncomplicated and non-confrontational for its users. But the internet they were accessing wasn’t like the internet the rest of us were playing and working in. Eventually the walled-garden, where you were allowed only what your provider wanted you to have (or just the bits they thought you needed) suffered a breach.

In droves, AOL users defected to less tightly-bound online environments. You can track similar patterns in many early online communities and groupings – great at first because they were easy, they failed to keep pace with the changing needs and tastes of their users, who soon outgrew them.

I’m not saying the same thing could happen to Apple.

But that’s only because the main alternative in the mobile world – Android – looks like a cross between 'Lord of the Flies' and a food fight in a soft-play centre by comparison with the order and control Apple instills – despite it’s cool counter-culture image, Apple has become the man in recent years. Massive financial success tends to make one want to protect ones interests, after all.

With each new iOS version Apple has seemed, in recent years at any rate, to be clawing back control and I have to admit part of me really admires the slow steady way in which that's being done. Like so many frogs in pans of gently warming water, iPhone (and iPad) users probably won’t realise they’re being cooked until it’s too late.

Try migrating from iPhone to Android and continuing to carry your music around with you like you used to have it in your iTunes library. Oh hai digital rights management. Now, where did I put my iPod?

At the moment, Google is too busy grafting additional fingers on to its hands so it can make friendly with all the pies. This cannot continue indefinitely.

Once it has reached sufficient critical mass in its key operations, markets and offerings, there will be a move to consolidate what it’s doing. At that point, I wonder if someone at Google will decide its time to stop pissfarting around and offer Apple customers a safe and enticing alternative, with no walls but plenty of garden for everyone.

I got a tweet from Charles Arthur, the technology editor at the Guardian. I was flattered that he'd read my piece. Here it is:

Well, I worried that I may now look a bit of a prat. While it wouldn't be the first time, it's not a state-of-being I like having thrust upon me.

To that end, here (below) is a screengrab of the sync history from when I synced my phone and laptop at around 2:30pm.

You'll learn two things from this. 

The first is that the term DRM is used and given as a reason for the failure of certain things to sync, thereby mitigating the risk of my looking like the sort of prat who mightn't know that "apple (sic) hasn't had DRM on music for years."

I should stress, I am not arguing with Charles. I am merely drawing your attention to the fact that the piece, which is written purely as opinion not fact, is drawn upon my experiences not my assumptions.  It may well be the case there's no DRM on music via Apple. Yet it appears here in an error message.

The second thing you'll learn is there's right old motley collection of stuff to be found a-lurking in my iTunes library. From "My Sharona" to "Finn Family Moomintroll", from "Psycho Killer" to "Brideshead Revisited".

To Charles's other point, yes there are ways around this stuff, but I think the ease-of-use aspect of my piece was apparent. This piece is a comment on how Apple make it easy for you to stay and (relatively) hard for you to leave - hence the analogy of frogs being slowly cooked. It is not a "How to..." guide, which is just as well really, as I'm sure you'd agree.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

spinach, start-ups, and bloated tech companies

Dear Tesco, what is the point of this?

I’m referring to the pic of two baby spinach leaves with a speech bubble asking “what am I like?”
 At first glance, and maybe because I lived in Manchester for a time, when I see “what am I like” in my head I hear an annoying voice going “what am I like, eh? I’m just dead mad I am.

But no, the baby spinach is asking a straight question which is subsequently answered. For this is an attempt to tell anyone who has never tried baby spinach what it’s like.

“Young and tender dark green leaves…” is the first thing we are told. It’s also the first thing I have issue with.

“No shit,” one of the unfiltered voices in my head cries out. Baby anything tends to be young and tender.  And I can see there are dark green leaves, because much of the bag is transparent.

Next we are told the leaves come “.. with a distinctive flavour.”

I see.

A distinctive flavour.

Dog shit has a distinctive flavour (sorry, same unfiltered voice as above). So does toothpaste. Everything that isn’t a compound of other flavours has, by definition, a distinctive flavour.

Describing the flavour as distinctive doesn’t tell me anything useful.

So, what’s the point?

I’m not on some there’s-too-much-information crusade. I see this as yet another symptom of marketing departments populated by people with no real clue how to communicate with other people – well, with real people; they probably manage just fine talking utter garbage to other dullard marketing managers.

Anyone in PR will at some point have had to work with one of those people at a client. A mid-to-senior level marketing manager who is only in a position of responsibility because everyone better than them was either made redundant in the post-2008 downturn, or left to do something more rewarding.

These people don’t understand concepts like communicating effectively. They talk almost exclusively in jargon. Can’t cope with being challenged and have no frame of reference outside the impossibly narrow confines of their pointless job and equally uninspiring dimwit colleagues.

They add no value and, by and large, the only skills they have acquired are sufficient political nous to dodge the redundancy bullet and a few knife-wielding chops, but only when people’s backs are turned.

While so much of the tech sector is currently experiencing paroxysms of joy over the incredible talent of our burgeoning start-up communities, the heavier weight tech companies remain bloated by people who were hired during periods of rapid growth and who ought to have been jettisoned long ago.

In case you were wondering, yes I do feel better now thanks.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

tweeting while naked

Not literally naked. Good lord, no.

But figuratively speaking – as in the Emperor’s new clothes.

There was a story circulating last week about how few CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are active on twitter – 19 of the 500 have accounts and only nice actually tweet regularly.  This low take-up of twitter can be linked to $1.3 trillion of missed revenue opportunities, apparently.

Unlike one member of my family, I am not a mathematician. But even I know a trillion of anything is a lot. So, when someone starts talking about $1.3 trillion and links that with tweeting, you can be certain lots of publicity will follow.

Wow. Only 19 of the Fortune 500 have a CEO on twitter, and only nine of those are active.

Wow. $1.3 trillion in missing revenues.

Wow. What a bunch of bozos those CEOs must be. It’s a wonder they haven’t all gone to the wall, isn’t it..?

It’s all nonsense. Furthermore, its misleading, dangerous and self-serving.

What I see from this report is that 491 of the Fortune 500 are getting along nicely without their CEO being paraded around like some superannuated Aunt Sally.

I can’t think – off the top of my head – of any other genre or sector where research can be so blithely turned on its head in an attempt to convince us all that black is white. Nor a sector where so many seemingly bright and capable people are duped so easily – and so frequently – into believing social media will save us all… that if we tweet a bit more, like a bit more, somehow businesses will gain a financial reward.

Maybe… if they’re in the business of charging simpletons for wafer-thin research and hokey advice on social media. Otherwise, nah.. there’s no direct causal link between tweets, likes and sales.

There’s more to social media than Twitter and Facebook, I hear some of you cry. Well, of course there is. But we all know where the concentration of traffic, investment and attention lie.

I saw something else recently that said the ‘marketing function’ within businesses was now redundant because of social media. I can only presume that was written by someone who once had marketing explained to them briefly and promptly forgot most of what they’d heard.

Which brings me back to the naked thing.

There are so many flaws in these kinds of report they remind me of sixth form magazine journalism. All posture and opinion, no facts and bugger all evidence.

If you recall the childhood fable, the reason you can see the Emperor’s bum is because he’s not wearing any trousers. Not because you aren’t special enough to be able to see the magic cloth.

The continued insistence by some in the comms world that social media (note, ‘social media’ not ‘digital communications’) and in particular the use of Twitter is one of the great business transformers of our age, is misguided.

Social, in all it’s multi-platformed glory, might be relatively new, but it’s not so new that there hasn’t been time to try it out, use it and see what it’s good for.

It’s good for chatting to people, sharing stuff, issuing vouchers or running competitions. It’s amazing for cat videos going viral, and for giving customers a variety of ways with which to broadcast how much they hate your shitty products and crappy customer service.

It’s good for off-piste online dating activities, and for pretending to be something you’re not.  (hello bored married people wherever you may be).

Not so good at helping any kind of business-to-business transaction though. I'm not saying it has no role at all here but it ain't no paradigm-shifter, that's all I'm saying.

Otherwise it wouldn’t be so hard to find actual case studies of businesses (that you’ve heard of) deriving actual ROI (that you can measure) from their use of Facebook, Twitter and gawd knows what else.

Before you say anything, yes… I know it works better for businesses selling to consumers. But even then, it’s generally acting as an adjunct to existing marcomms tactics and the extent to which it is used well depends on the creativity of those responsible for its use.

The more of us that push back on the nonsense and deploy a little critical thinking, the better.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

ANDREW'S BEEN FOUND!!! help find my friend's missing brother

At 12:46pm (BST) Andrew's sister Sarah tweeted that Andrew had been found and was on his way back to hospital.

Thank you so much to everyone who read and shared this post, and others, in the effort to find him.

Andrew McArthur is a vulnerable young man who went missing yesterday and was last seen in West Wickham – the Bromley end of south east Greater London.

I’d like you to take just a couple of minutes out of your day to read this post and help us find him. Please could you also share this post with people you know, or tweet about it... anything really.

His sister, Sarah, is a friend and former colleague. So I felt compelled to try to do something to help. I can’t do much, but if I can help spread the word (and I appreciate it’s a big if) maybe that will contribute in some small way.

Here’s a recent pic of Andrew.  When he was last seen he was wearing a black Bench waterproof, a grey T-shirt by Penguin, and jeans. He has light reactive lenses in his glasses.

Andrew McArthur
He went missing from The Maudsley Hospital in Beckenham on Monday 3 September.

Andrew was last seen at around 5pm by the hospital staff. If you live or work in or near Beckenham, Bromley, Croydon or any of the areas near Bethlam Royal Hospital, please keep a look out for him.

Andrew seemed to be OK to the staff at the hospital, so he was allowed out alone. He went missing once before back in 2009, so we're really hoping that he turns up safe and sound.

Andrew suffers from schizophrenia and by 10pm Monday was due to take his medication. Obviously, the more time passes when he’s not medicated, the harder it will be for Andrew to think and act rationally. So it’s really important he’s found.

Please share this with as many people as you can.

If you see Andrew please call Sarah (his sister) on 07890 105 089 or let the Metropolitan Police Service know by calling 101 and quoting the reference number: CAD8123.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

brothers in arms - my interview with Veterans Aid CEO Hugh Milroy

A couple of months ago, I had the good fortune to be commissioned by the Victoria Business Improvement District’s magazine “inSW1” to interview Hugh Milroy, Chief Executive of the charity Veteran’s Aid.
The magazine is now out, and so I have taken the liberty of publishing my version of the article here.  Beware... this is a lengthy article.

Dr Hugh Milroy leans back in his chair and fixes his gaze upon me from the other side of the desk. His is an intense stare that accompanies a relaxed manner and a ready smile. This is not, I find myself thinking, quite what I had expected.

A former Wing Commander in the RAF, recipient of an OBE and holder of a PhD, what I had expected was that the CEO of Veterans Aid would be altogether more formidable and imposing.

The room itself also belies many of the usual preconceptions you might have of a CEO’s office. Boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling against one wall, full of clothes and other essentials. Another wall is dominated by a painting of a WWII Spitfire. There’s a meeting table, which I’m later told is second hand. Elsewhere there are collection tins inserted into old boots, a portrait of the Queen, and artwork produced by some of the veterans the charity has helped. But more on that later.

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid
What wasn’t in evidence in his office was any trace of standing on ceremony, of self-importance or of lavish expense. It is a businesslike office with enough personality about it to feel genuine, without being over-bearing.

Little did I know at that precise moment, I had entered a world where so many of my preconceptions would lead me to nothing but a slight feeling of confusion.

Affable and amiable he may be, but Milroy is clearly a driven man, a man with a clear sense of purpose and deep understanding of the people Veterans Aid supports. And it is in regard to these people that I soon begin to realise that much of what I had considered to be received wisdom was actually nothing but misleading.

Veterans Aid works with former service personnel who, in civilian life, have hit upon hard times for one reason or another. A veteran is classified as anyone who is ex–Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, or from the Merchant Services. It also covers the Reservists and in fact just one day's service qualifies any of the above to be considered veterans. The charity sees itself as very much part of the Victoria scene and has been for much of the 80 years it has been in existence.

Myth busting
Anyone paying even scant attention to the media will have read or heard that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers in the capital are veterans and that they all have drink and drug problems.

This is perhaps the first myth that needs dealing with, and it’s one that Milroy dispels with the relaxed sense of focus he displays throughout our time together.

“We see veterans who are in crisis,” Milroy explains. “Real crisis – homelessness is only one aspect of that.”

Yet for all the truth of that statement, it remains inescapably true that when it comes to actually getting someone off the streets, Veterans Aid is remarkably efficient and effective. The charity provides in excess of 20,000 nights of accommodation every year, and can house between 60 and 80 people per night; in addition to its Buckingham Palace Road HQ, Veterans Aid has its own hostel in east London.

“You could look upon Veterans Aid as the accident and emergency service for the veteran community,” Milroy tells me.

“If someone needs accommodation we’ll find them somewhere, whether it’s in our hostel or in a hotel. If they need detox we’ll get them on a detox programme. If they need clothes, a suit for a job interview perhaps, we’ll do that. We try to be as pragmatic as possible in the way we handle things.”

There are no hand outs. But there is a helping hand up to those who need it and, just as importantly, are willing work hard to make the most of the help available.

I ask Milroy if this pragmatism is because the organisation, and the majority of the people working there are ex-military – do people with a military background have a particular approach to fixing things and making progress because of having served in the armed forces?

“There may be something in that, perhaps we are quite straight in our approach to things. But I think it’s important to point out that people don’t come to us because they’ve been institutionalised by the time they spent in the armed forces. If we were dealing with problems caused by institutionalisation, then it would seem strange that we rarely see people who have served for a long time.”

Common ground, common language
Milroy talks to me at length about the need to help people rediscover their resilience, something he describes as running like a thread through all service personnel. He refuses my suggestion that surely those who have served in the armed forces are predisposed toward eschewing hand outs and favouring an opportunity to stand on their own two feet, whereas – I suggest – run-of-the-mill civilians are that bit softer, lack that resilience, and will gladly take the hand out.

He is quick to correct me in a firm yet non-chiding manner that sits well with his overall demeanour of a man who is thoroughly relaxed and at home with himself, yet uncompromisingly focussed and alert. “The ‘service’ part is a very good way of getting to ground zero, where we can all talk the same language,” he tells me. “Beyond that it’s down to the individual.”

Finding a common language is clearly an important aspect of helping someone in need start to find their self respect once again. After all, few of us flourish as a result of being patronised and talked down to. Veterans Aid works to sow the seeds of a physical support network of friends and acquaintances in the lives of those it helps, addressing one of the most pernicious demons many of its clients are facing – social isolation. The downward spiral of drink and drug addictions, much like the burdens of growing mountains of debt, will ultimately push people away from their friends and family until, all too often, they have no one to turn to, no one to talk to.

The typical user of Veterans Aid’s services is male and aged somewhere between 38 and 45. It is generally the case that they joined up at an early age and served for around three years. Like many people they encounter difficulties in later life and some simply struggle to overcome these difficulties.

The younger veterans, in their 20s, encounter the same barriers to social housing that face anyone else of their age in the UK.

Far and wide
Last year, Veterans Aid received around 2,000 calls for help, it put 216 people into accommodation. But it also works hard through a network across the country to identify those needing support before they arrive in London – Victoria coach station being one of the key magnets.

Milroy talks of people graduating from the Veterans Aid service, and how they must be ready and capable individuals that can sustain themselves once they’ve received the helping hand up. Otherwise, he cautions, it’s a waste of both time and money.

“We see people from all branches of the services and all ranks. But very few are in trouble because of their military service. They’re here because of life in Britain today – which can be difficult for anyone.

“In fact, it is extremely rare (Milroy places a great deal of emphasis on the words extremely rare) for Veterans Aid to see somebody with PTSD. What we see is people with complex problems. Addictions, alcohol abuse, debt, general mental health issues – just like one-in-four of the general population might also suffer at some point,” he says, referring to a statistic often quoted by the NHS and mental health charities such as MIND.

Not just art for art’s sake
It’s not all detox and emergency housing though. There are examples of veterans going on training courses that will enable them to get regular, well-paid jobs. Some have gone to university, and in December Veterans Aid will be hosting an exhibition at the SW1 Gallery of works of art created by some of the people it has helped.

Veterans Aid is an integral part of the Victoria community and this year is its 80th anniversary. Clearly held in high regard, it was the recipient of Victoria BID’s jubilee fund raising lunch in May and has received the support of the Lord Mayor of Westminster. It is involved in training officers from the Metropolitan Police on how to identify and help veterans in need of support. It seeks to stem the flow of homeless people arriving in SW1. It rolls up its sleeves and finds practical, sustainable solutions to the problems facing many people who at some point in their past have served Queen and country.

I reflect on what I’ve learned as I leave Milroy’s office, and upon the ordinariness of it all – the lack of pretention, the absence of affectation.

On my walk up the two flights of stairs earlier that morning I had met two Veterans Aid staff who had once been on the receiving end of the charity’s help, and a third man who was clearly there in need of said help.

It is someone’s birthday at Veterans Aid, and as I leave I hear an office full of people singing “happy birthday” to their colleague, as happens in pretty much any and every office all across the country.

You can find out more about Veterans Aid by visiting their website here.
Portrait of Dr Hugh Milroy is copyright Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid