Life for Len has been a struggle of late as he cares for the woman he promised to look after in sickness and in health. And he is doing so to the very best of his ability, like so many others whose lives have been made even harder during these times of isolation.
Len’s wife Shirley has Alzheimer’s, but he is determined to battle on. After all, they have been married more than 60 years. They have framed a letter from the Queen, sent to mark their anniversary, and it takes pride of place on the wall in their home in Batley.
Len redecorated the kitchen during lockdown and tried to take his wife out for picnics on sunny days. But he was missing company down at his local community centre, which had closed due to the pandemic. His wife, sadly once a chatty, lively companion, can now hardly communicate.
That is the cruelty of this disease as I sadly know all too well. And so he picked up the phone and asked for help, which didn’t come easily to this former textile worker. In doing so his life changed for ever. Len contacted the Royal Voluntary Service who had run the community sessions that had been forced to cease.
It took him a lot to admit he needed support, but support is what he got and more. During the pandemic the RVS, alongside the NHS, have recruited more than 360,000 volunteers. Some deliver food, others take patients to the doctors or hospital or pick up their prescriptions.
Some provide home-cooked meals or do the shopping. And of course any of us who have ever been inside a hospital know the welcome cuppa from their trolleys.
During these strange times some RVS volunteers have simply picked up the phone to have a chat, knowing just a few moments of cheery conversation is enough to let the person on the other end of the line know they are not forgotten. That they are not alone.And that is exactly what happened to Len. Only the person who called just happened to be a future Queen.
Len was flummoxed when he was told the person who would be phoning him would be a very important person. “What should I call you?” he asked when he answered the phone. “Just call me Catherine,” was the response.
His new friend even sent him a pasta machine and pasta flour when he expressed the desire to make his favourite Italian food for himself and Shirley.
They had enjoyed holidays in Italy and he thought she might enjoy a taste of the times they had shared together. And this week Catherine brought her husband to see them both in person.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge travelled to Batley to meet Len and Shirley as part of their whistle-stop tour of the UK to thank carers, teachers, volunteers and hospital staff for all they have done during the pandemic.
As they strolled up to Len’s front door with a brass band in their wake, you could see how much it meant to him as he stood proudly on his doorstep with his wife by his side. He would remember this for the rest of his life, he said. And I am sure it will give him the strength to carry on.
But then Nicola Sturgeon and Vaughan Gething stuck their oar in. The Scottish First Minister and Wales’ health minister have, as my mum would say, turned up their noses at the decision by the Royal couple to embark on a brief tour of the nation.
Their attitude towards them has been frosty, to say the least. Scottish officials reminded Kensington Palace of the restrictions in place, Ms Sturgeon said. Mr Gething went further, saying people should not be encouraged to travel into Wales. How to misjudge the mood of the majority for political point scoring. Firstly, you are allowed to travel if it is for caring purposes, which this was. Secondly, you are allowed to travel if you are working, which they were. And finally, what harm did they do with their masks and socially distanced visits? None at all.
They were hardly queuing outside Harrods or, worse still, organising a rule-breaking birthday party, unlike pop star Rita Ora or newsreader Kay Burley, who were forced to apologise for “mistakenly” forgetting the rules. Oh, yes. That old chestnut.
William and Kate simply did not deserve the flack both ministers seemed determined to heap upon them. Ask Len. The Royal Family survives only if it remains in touch with the people of this country and when I last looked that included Scotland and Wales.
Meeting the people in good times and bad is at the heart of the Queen’s philosophy and has been since the days her mother toured bombed-out streets during the Blitz. That is the purpose they serve.
They may not live as we do but they can still share our pain just by being there when we need them the most. The alternative, with politicians as our figureheads, is unthinkable and if Ms Sturgeon and Mr Gething believe they would better reflect their people by pandering to the republicans among them they are sadly mistaken.
Len Gardner called the Duchess of Cambridge “Love” when she called him to chat during the past few months. Typically Yorkshire, he made light of it, saying, “It’s just what we call people in these parts.” It is, Len. And there is nothing wrong with that at all.
This past year there have been millions, yes millions, of people who have been spreading a little love and the country has been the better for it.
Let us not criticise a Royal couple, who would be condemned if they simply stayed home, for trying to do the same.