Fighting for residents, fighting cancer and treating Harold Shipman - retiring councillor reflects on life and work

Monica Graham is standing down as a councillor for Wakefield South after 15 years in the role
Monica Graham is standing down as a councillor for Wakefield South after 15 years in the role

After 15 years serving the people of Wakefield South, retiring councillor Monica Graham is reflecting on the changes she's helped bring about to her local area.

Of all the ways she's helped constituents over the last decade and a half, the creation of Standbridge Community Centre in Kettlethorpe, which has become a bustling hub of activity uniting local people, ranks in her mind as the one that's made the biggest difference.

Standbridge Community Centre plays host to various local groups.

Standbridge Community Centre plays host to various local groups.

Opened in 2014 on the site of the area's old primary school, after Coun Graham and others formed a trust to lease the building from the council, it now hosts everything from a boxing club for teenagers to support groups for people with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Puppy training classes, Zumba, and mother-and-tot exercises are just a handful of the other pursuits held there every week.

"I'm so proud of what's happened here," Coun Graham smiles, speaking from a small office within the community centre.

"Over the last seven years we've raised £500,000 to keep the place going, and it's going very well. Other community centres are struggling but this one is really thriving.

The community centre was opened on the site of an old primary school after a trust was formed to take over the building.

The community centre was opened on the site of an old primary school after a trust was formed to take over the building.

"It's a wonderful place to bring people together, and I can't think of a single activity we couldn't accommodate here now.

"It's a story in itself really, and a success story at that."

Born in South Wales before moving to Wakefield in the early 1970s, Coun Graham is now standing down as a ward representative at the age of 79. She insists she will remain active in the community, however.

Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time in 2017, for which she is receiving chemotherapy, her battling spirit remains firmly intact.

Coun Graham was re-elected to her seat three times.

Coun Graham was re-elected to her seat three times.

The love and support of family, friends, neighbours and others have been invaluable.

"You've got to keep fighting," she says with a symbolic fist pump for added emphasis. "It's the only way.

"I have a saying - if hugs were drugs I'd be cured. People just keep me going.

"I've had the most wonderful treatment from the NHS. The oncologists, the nurses, even the receptionists - they've all been 100 per cent spot on with me.

Pinderfields Hospital, which Coun Graham describes as her "saviour"

Pinderfields Hospital, which Coun Graham describes as her "saviour"

"Pinderfields (Hospital) has been my saviour.

"Watching Wales win the Grand Slam in the Six Nations was wonderful too - that was better than any medication you can get!"

A mother to three children, and a grandmother-of-six, Coun Graham jokes that she threatened the England-supporting members of the family with being cut out of her will if they didn't back her native land.

Indeed, it was for family reasons that saw her leave Wales in her 30s to come to West Yorkshire, as her husband was offered a work promotion.

Coun Graham, a dental nurse by trade, first practised in Normanton before the opportunity arose for her to work at HMP Wakefield.

There, between 1987 and 2003, she would come to face-to-face with some of Britain's most notorious criminals, including Charles Bronson and the country's most prolific serial killer ever, Harold Shipman.

Wakefield Prison, where Coun Graham worked for 16 years.

Wakefield Prison, where Coun Graham worked for 16 years.

The experience didn't phase her, and even with the benefit of hindsight she refuses to be judgemental about those who were spending their lives behind bars.

"I saw them as patients and they needed caring for," she says, matter-of-factly.

"Some of them would get across to you while you were talking to them that they weren't really bad people."

While off fighting breast cancer for the first time in 2001, a get well card came from through from work. Among those wishing her speedy recovery were 14 inmates serving life in prison.

Asked how that made her feel, Coun Graham responds, "Well it shows there's a little bit of good in everyone.

"There but for the grace of God go us all, you know.

"People would ask me why I didn't just stick a needle into some of these people, but why would I do that? That's dehumanising them. You'd make yourself as bad as them."

One memory of treating Dr Shipman, who killed at least 215 patients on a spree lasting two decades, stands out, as she witnessed him being bizarrely heckled with a chant of Darth Vader's Theme from Star Wars.

"You'd have groups of prisoners brought to the waiting room together," Coun Graham recalls.

"I remember seeing him there sat there, reading a book. When it was his turn I called his name out and all the other prisoners chanted, "Duh, duh, duh, duh da da, duh da da."

"He came forward and I remember looking at him and thinking I'd be just the kind of person that he'd bump off!

"I had to ask him his name, even though I already knew who he was of course. At the end of the day he was a patient.

"We booked him in for another appointment in three or four weeks' time, but that never have happened because he died shortly afterwards.

"I remember thinking that it must have been very hard for him to have treatment and heckling from the other prisoners. Maybe solitary confinement would have been better for him."

Perhaps her natural reticence to condemn people is one of the attributes that's made Coun Graham of one of Wakefield most popular elected members in the council chamber.

Leading Labour figures, as well as her Conservative colleagues, paid fitting tributes to her record at her last full council meeting last week, which she admits brought her close to tears.

Having only very reluctantly put herself forward to be a councillor in 2004 after being repeatedly asked, party political point scoring is something she has avoided.

She served briefly as Tory group leader from 2012, an experience she candidly describes as "difficult", partly because "Labour knew I was a softie".

"As I see it I'm a community worker," she explains. "My role as a councillor is to help people.

"To be fair to Labour, they've seen some terrible cuts. I know there's things they could do better, but it's really very difficult for them."

Special praise is reserved for council officers, who she says "do a marvellous job" behind the scenes and also for much-criticised maintenance firm ENGIE, without the work of whom she believes Standbridge Community Centre would not have been made a reality.

Stepping outside as she concludes this entertaining verbal whistlestop tour of her life and work, Coun Graham sums up her sunny outlook on life in just a couple of short sentences.

"You know I've worked in Wakefield Prison and for Wakefield Council and I've only met good people. Wherever I've been, you always make friends."

You get the sense that as she heads into retirement, Monica Graham will certainly have friends wherever she goes.

Local Democracy Reporting Service

Coun Graham recalled treating Harold Shipman, who killed more than 200 people between 1975 and 1998.

Coun Graham recalled treating Harold Shipman, who killed more than 200 people between 1975 and 1998.

"Better than any medication": How the former nurse describes watching her beloved Wales win a Six Nations Grand Slam

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