Saturday, 13 September 2014

Britain is a country where Paliamentarians who, having said "Goodbye" to their sketchwriter, Simon Hoggart, finally debated the cancer which took him from them

At the end of a week in which Simon resurfaced in the Guardian today in an article he had written about Ian Paisley, it is entirely fitting that the cancer which killed him at the age of 67 in January should have been the focus of a Parliamentary Debate in Committee Room 10 on Monday afternoon : 'Backbench Business : Pancreatic Cancer with Christopher Chope in the chair'. Fitting, because as Parliamentary Sketchwriter for the Guardian for twenty years, he knew Westminster intimately and Westminster, its personnel and MP's knew him. After his death, Michael Deacon of the Telegraph wrote : 'Won't be the same watching Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow, without him muttering asides two seats away.'

Simon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2010 which, by that point, had spread to his spleen and metastasised in his lungs and so was pronounced 'terminal'. With this form of the disease he might have expected to live for five to seven months, but thanks to cutting-edge treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital, managed to fight on for another three and a half years. He proudly considered himself to be the 'poster boy' of pancreatic cancer treatment and was delighted every time his doctors showed off his stats at medical conferences around the world.

Had he lived for another eight months, he might have been present at the press table in Committee Room 10 on Monday afternoon and :

* would have entirely approved of the fact that the debate was taking place, not because of a Parliamentary backbench initiative, but due to the efforts of a member of the public from Scunthorpe called Maggie Watts, who had lost her husband to the disease at the age of 48 in 2009 and had fought hard and succeeded in getting 100,000 signatures on an e-petition to 'Provide more funding and awareness for pancreatic cancer to aid long overdue progress in earlier detection and, ultimately, improved survival rates'.

* would have been appreciative that, sitting in the public gallery behind him, Maggie was from the North East, because his own world view had been shaped by his family roots in the industrial North and her supporters, adhering as he did to the spirit of the handwritten note he attached to his battered imperial typewriter as the Guardian's political reporter at the age of 27 in 1973 which read : 'Always remember, you are not writing for your contacts, for MPs or civil servants, but for a clergyman in Norfolk, a busy housewife in Penge and, with luck, two or three other people'.

* would have approved of the presence of fellow Lancashire-born actor, Julie Hesmondhalgh in the corner of the public gallery, who as Hayley Cropper in 'Coronation Street', suffered from the disease and used her celebrity status to promote the petition after heart-wrenching scenes where, as Hayley, she decided to take control of her fate before the disease and drugs stole it from her.

* would have also approved of the lead speaker in the debate, Nic Dakin, MP for Scunthorpe, haling from the North and educated like him, in Leicestershire and got his degree in English at the University of Hull, where Simon's famous father, Richard, had been a lecturer some years before.
* would have no doubt echoed Nic's tribute to his constituent, Maggie : "who started the petition with a determination to push pancreatic cancer further into the public’s conscience and higher up the political agenda. That we are here today in a packed Westminster Hall is tribute to her efforts and to those of everyone in the pancreatic cancer community—the charities, clinicians, patients, survivors and family members and friends of patients—who energised the nation to say through the petition that the time is right for us to up our collective game on pancreatic cancer."

* would have been familiar with the fact that his cancer  "was the fifth leading cause of UK cancer death with the worst survival rate of all cancers yet it receives only  about 1% of research spend and its five  year survival of 3% hasn’t improved in over 40 years, whilst survival rates for other cancers have" and agreed that : "It has not been a public or political priority and that has to change."

* would have have noted pancreatic cancer survivor, Ali Stunt's presence in the gallery and Nic's quoting her saying that in the "past 4 years since I founded Pancreatic Cancer Action I have met and got to know some fabulous people who have bravely fought and helped me raise awareness of this cruel disease. Not many of them are still alive, but all will have a special place in my heart. It is and always will be my mission to get more people diagnosed sooner—so more can have the same outcome as me.”

may have recognised the experience of the consultant surgeon and surgical oncologist who told Nic : “The patient turns up and the chap says, ‘Well it’s not reflux and I’m a reflux doctor. Back to your GP.’ So he goes back to the GP—more delay is coming. The GP says, ‘Well it isn’t reflux. Maybe now he has some back pain or something. We’ll try the spine doctor.’ So he goes to the spine surgeon. The spine surgeon says, ‘Well, it’s not spine pain. Back to your GP.’ This is the common scenario. The patient becomes a tennis ball.”

* would have been amused when Maggie's supporters behind him in the gallery clapped in applause when Nic had finished and interrupted the Chair, Christopher Chope who got as far as "I call" and forced to pause, continued : "Order. It is not customary for us to applaud. We keep quiet and listen. I am sure that the mere presence of so many people in the Public Gallery is an indication of the strength of feeling on this important issue. I call Eric Ollerenshaw" at which point the usher appeared and told the Gallery audience that if they did it again he would "have to clear the Gallery."

* would have sympathised with Eric who began with : "May I also put on the record that my interest in the subject comes from having lost my partner to pancreatic cancer in 2009, only six weeks after diagnosis" and agreed when he continued : "We are currently in a Catch-22 situation :  new researchers do not generally want to enter the field, partly because it is deemed difficult to make advances in it and partly because the funding is not there. But the funding is not there because not enough research applications are being made. I firmly believe that we need to break that vicious circle and to pump-prime research into pancreatic cancer, making sure that we hit the minimum funding level required to gain critical mass. I also firmly believe that the Government can and should play a role in that."

* would have have been behind Barbara Keeley with her questions to the Minister : "What action could the Minister take and what action is she taking, to boost public awareness of pancreatic cancer and among GPs and other medical professionals, of pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms?" and "What action will she take to end the state of affairs in which a patient can be pictured as a tennis ball? What can be done to give GPs more direct access to CT scans or ensure that patients with symptoms that could be pancreatic cancer have all the appropriate investigations in a more timely way?"

* would have listened with interest to the Under-Secretary for Health, Jane Ellison when she admitted that :  "this subject is certainly not low on my radar" and "fundamentally this is hard: it is a hard disease that is hard to diagnose and research... This is not easy territory, but we need to do better; we all know that and that is acknowledged...I will ask the Chief Medical Officer if she is happy to meet with me and the debate’s co-sponsors to look in a bit more detail at the research package and to understand the research journey and where it might go We all know that change needs to come and that it will not be easy, but we can make change. We have seen it in other hard areas of medicine, so it is not impossible; it is just difficult. Through the Government working in partnership with patients, charities, the nation’s excellent research teams, the pharmaceutical industry and the NHS, as well as by drawing on international data, we can make progress, and we all know that we must."
* would, after the debate, have been able to check the transcript :
and the video record :

* would have been heartened by the fact that, in Nic's words :

"The campaign must go on, beyond today and into the future. Campaigners are here today in strong heart and with a strong determination to ensure that that is the case" and that Maggie and her redoubtable band are pledged to fight on and shall watch to see if the Minister keeps her promise and matches her words with her actions.


At the time of Simon's passing :

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Britain is no longer a country for an old and rare political sketch writer called Simon Hoggart who wielded a truthful, witty pen


  1. Thank you for this inspiring and moving post. A good read on a dull Sunday morning!

  2. You are welcome Anne from E. I used Simon's death to get signatures for Maggie's petition back in February when she was still 50,000 short of the 100,000 needed for the petition to get a debate and tweeted it to MPs. I'm sure he wouldn't have minded at all :