Sunday, 14 April 2019

Brexit Britain is, thankfully, still a country for old sea dogs and ex-public school boys like Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

In all its present Brexit travails it is heartening to know that Britain still has the company of sailors like Sir Robin who is 80 years old and who, when he was 30, in 1969, became the first person to perform a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Then in 2007, at the age of 67, he set a record as the oldest yachtsman to complete a round the world solo voyage.

Sir Robin has explained the secret of his success by saying : "When I was on a cadet ship and we were about 50-50 grammar and public school, there was a difference. It showed in funny ways. For instance, the bullies tended to be grammar school boys. I think if you’d been a boarder at a public school you’d been through it there. I do think they had this ethos of ‘Do it, go for it, don’t look back’.”

He maintains contact with the polar adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the broadcaster John Simpson, with whom he appeared in 2009 in the BBC series 'Top Dogs.' The three men were shown visiting the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan, Cape Horn and the tundra of  Newfoundland and he agrees that it is significant that all three of them were ex- public school boys. In addition, he said of mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington : “We go climbing occasionally. He went to private school. It is boarding, I think. But no question." 

The "no question" in Sir Robin's case was Berkhamsted Boys' School in Hertfordshire, which his parents coughed up the money for him to attend, as a boarder, from 1957 to 1968 and where he acquired the qualities which assured his success as a sailor. With its motto 'Virtus laudata crescit' or 'greatness increases with praise' it was originally founded in 1541 by the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, John Incent.

Interestingly, the foremost 20th century novelist, Graham Greene, was at the school some thirty plus years before Sir Robin. The the son of the Headmaster and a boarder in St John’s House, he  was bullied so badly that he ran away from school, toyed with suicide by playing Russian roulette and had to see a psychoanalyst. It has been suggested that this deep, school-engendered unhappiness is why Greene, as a writer, didn’t really do ‘goodies.’ Everyone seemed to be a ‘baddie’ – only some were worse than others.

Thankfully, Graham’s analyst did change his direction, encouraged him to write and introduced him to a literary circle and he returned to Berkhamsted Boys' School as a day-boy. Also, while continuing to play truant to avoid bullies he used the ‘spare’ time reading adventure stories and the tales which deeply influenced his future writing.

Sir Robin is in the news again because he is considering a drastic end to Suhaili, his 32ft ketch, which is showing its age and has suggested that perhaps he should arrange for her to be burnt with his body. “It’s something I should think about. I think it would be unfair to leave it to the grandchildren. I could have a Viking funeral, I suppose.”

It was Suhaili which was was knocked flat in the Southern Ocean in 1969 and nearly had its roof torn off, where Sir Robin was thrown from his bunk, drenched in seawater and realised that if he did not bolt his cabin back together he would die in an open boat. No doubt the old public school ethos kicked in and saw him through and privilege, once again, paid off.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Brexit Britain is no country for proud old men

Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's 1956 play : 'Look back in Anger' immortalised by Richard Burton in the 1959 film.
"I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids.... There aren't any good, brave causes left."

Those old men, now in their seventies, who were the immediate post- Second World War baby boomers and their elder brothers, now in their eighties, who were growing up as boys in the War, were justifiably proud of what their fathers and uncles had done in the Armed Forces during the War. Britain had fought the good fight and triumphed against manifest evil in the European and Asian theatres of war. They held their heads high in the knowledge that their country had been, and still was, a force to be reckoned with in an unstable world.

The phrase 'laughing stock' first appeared in the 1533 book, 'An other boke against Rastel' by John Frith, in which the following passage can be found :

“Albeit … I be reputed a laughing stock in this world.”

The origin of the phrase is linked with the medieval practice of putting errant villagers in the stocks for a certain period of time, allowing them to be hectored and ridiculed by their fellow citizens.

For almost a year now, those proud old men of Britain, along with everybody else, have been assailed in their press by articles like these and it has made a severe dent in the pride in which they once held their country :

 July 2018

December 2018

January 2019
Opinion: Brexit has made us a laughing stock around the world 

March 2018                                                                                           
April 2019

In their sadness and to their consternation proud old men find that :

* the New York Times commentator, Thomas Friedman, has said : “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t come to London right now, because there is political farce everywhere. In truth, though, it’s not very funny. It’s actually tragic.” Here was a country “determined to commit economic suicide but unable even to agree on how to kill itself”, led by “a ship of fools” unwilling to “compromise with one another and with reality”. The result was an “epic failure of political leadership”. Scary Stuff  "but, you can’t fix stupid”.

* the Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria has said in a piece entitled 'Brexit will mark the end of Britain’s role as a great power' that Britain, 'famous for its prudence, propriety and punctuality, is suddenly looking like a banana republic” and its implosion might even be the beginning of the end of the west, as a political and strategic entity.'
* Susan Hattis Rolef in the Jerusalem Post has said : Given the 'unbelievable mess that the UK has got itself into', Israelis should perhaps 'avoid wishing ourselves ‘the best of British luck’ ahead of elections this month. All in all, 'Britain seems to be short of luck at the moment.'

* even Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela's Foreign Minister, in the midst of a devastating political and socio-economic crisis, has tweeted the British Government had been “unable to meet its obligations.” The country needed leadership that, rather than intervening abroad, “takes care of the most felt necessities of the country and distances itself from political chaos.”

* Subir Roy in an editorial in 'The Hindu' has said : 'How could a modern, educated and open society have got it so wrong?' The answer, he said, was that Britons 'were deluded by their popular, lowbrow, chauvinistic, right wing press.'

* Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, has said many Indians saw Brexit as the latest chapter in a "sharp decline in the place Britain commands as a great power.” Britain “is not a gold standard to look up to. We get a feeling of a sinking ship, and everybody wants to leave a sinking ship.”

* Nick Miller of the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and 'The Age' has written : To see a country 'deliberately throwing away a close, mutually beneficial partnership, wilfully damaging its economy and influence on a point of cultural principle was a surprise.'

* in Hong Kong, Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy MP, said she “used to think the Brits were a very sensible people” but added, “as a former colonial person, it’s almost like a farce. It’s sadly funny, sadly amusing. I’m baffled as to why and how things got to where they are now.”

* the 'Daily Maverick', a South African news website, has compared the Brexit saga to a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera – although perhaps 'not so likely to end the way they do, with everything nicely and tidily resolved in the last few minutes.'

* commentator J Brooks Spector, who writes for the 'Daily Maverick' has said 'Britain shrinks to a sort of economic ‘Middling Britain’, useful for some great shopping and often great theatre, but not to be seen as a serious global player any more. Even if the country is ultimately able to cobble together some kind of new economic relationship with the EU, the international reputation of its prowess as a negotiator would seem to be fatally compromised.'

* Adema Sangale in Kenya’s 'The Daily Nation' asked : 'Dear Britain, have you ever heard of project management? This discipline refers to when you set yourself a goal and clear milestones and tasks towards achieving it.'

* Nick Rowley from Australia 'ABC News' said : "How Britain resolves, or fails to resolve  Brexit and the terms of its divorce from Europe, is of more than passing interest to Australia. It is a bit like watching a loved grandparent in physical and mental decline. You care for them deeply. You appreciate all they have done for you. But each day they become more inwardly focused. Their world contracts. They seem increasingly incoherent."

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Brexit Britain, anxious and fearful of the future, is no longer a country for an old, American radio broadcaster called Bill Heine, who once put a shark in his roof and a smile on its face

Thirty-three years ago Bill Heine, who has died at the age of 74, generated widespread amusement when he installed a 25ft-long fibreglass shark at 2, New High Street, Headington, an eastern suburb of Oxford, in August 1986, in a very different Britain to the Brexit Britain of today.

Mrs Thatcher, who ranks alongside Lloyd George and Winston Churchill as a 'great' 20th century Prime Minister, was at the helm. In January Britain and France announced plans to construct the Channel Tunnel, which they hoped to open by the early 1990s and in February Mrs Thatcher presided over the signing the Franco-British Channel Fixed Link Treaty at Canterbury in the presence of President Mitterrand, she said in French :

"This treaty is an important event, not only for relations between our two countries, but also for the whole of Europe, and will open up a new chapter in industrial cooperation between France and Great Britain, based on private enterprise and the competence of our heads of industry and businesses, and this will also give a unique opportunity to our businessmen and finance in order to show what they can do." 

In his speech the President said :
"You are deeply attached to Europe too and there is no going back on this, and this is the first stone perhaps. It is a French expression. The first stone has been laid. I do not know if it is a stone, but there will come a time soon when the cross-Channel Fixed Link will be part of the geological scenery of our planet and I personally think that this is very important and I want to thank you, Madam Prime Minister, for the efforts that you have made in order to bring this project to fruition." 

Fast forward 33 years to Brexit Britain, led by Mrs May, Prime Minister in name only and a 'Britain Thinks' poll of more than 2,000 people, the results of which were released this week, which found that 83% of those surveyed were sick of hearing about Brexit, while 64% thought it was damaging their mental health. The poll found that the dominant words people use in relation to Brexit have changed: in 2017, it was “confusing” or “uncertain”; now, it is “broken” and “chaos”.

The most important findings from the research indicated that the public :

* is totally fed up with hearing about Brexit and worry about the impact on their mental health.

* blames the whole political class for the mess and both main parties are now sustaining major reputations damage.

* struggles to see a route out of the chaos.

* consists of 'remain' voters who feel disconsolate and disenfranchised by Brexit.

* consists of 'leave' voters who find their optimism has turned to desperation.

Who was Bill Heine who brought a smile to the nation's face in 1986 ?

The answer is that he was, in fact, an American, born in 1945, the last year of his country's war against Germany and Japan, in the Second World War, in a catholic family, in the small farming community of Batavia, Illinois. Where, when her family moved to Batavia when she was 12, he befriended Jackie de Shannon, who later recorded 'What the world needs now is love.'

In his teens he attended a military academy, a high school that placed a high emphasis on military preparation, academic rigour, and physical fitness where he learned how to use pistols, rifles and even howitzers. He then read 'American Diplomatic History' at the Jesuit University of Georgetown, 
Washington DC. He then worked in the United States Senate and the Executive Office of the White House before embarking on a Law degree at Balliol College, Oxford, but had to postpone his studies when he was sent home when drafted for service in the Armed Forces in the war in Vietnam. Bill avoided military service by volunteering for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Peru before returning to Oxford.

Having completed his studies at Oxford he decided to stay in Britain and did so for the next 50 years and explained his reasons in 2009 : He later said that the “clincher” behind his decision to stay had been the National Health Service and said : “This is a country where the ideals of the people have been enshrined in the way the country organises itself and that, to me, is incredible.”

After graduation and considering his future, he noticed that, though there were three cinemas in Oxford, they only showed films “like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or porn”. As a result,  the 1970s he bought a redundant cinema off Cowley Road and in 1976 with a friend reopened it as the 'Penultimate Picture Palace' or 'PPP', because his bank manager told him that if it was not the ultimate reckless enterprise it was 'the penultimate' or next worst thing. He revitalised the frontage by installing a sculpture by John Buckley, depicting Al Jolson in minstrel make-up reaching out his white-gloved hands in a scene from his 1927 'The Jazz Singer.'

For the next 15 years, under Bill, the 'PPP', which was run as a 'members’ club', built its reputation on art house films and films that had been denied a certificate by the censor, often attracting the ire of the City Council. Bill went on to open the 'Moulin Rouge Cinema', which he later renamed 'Not The Moulin Rouge' in Headington, for which John designed a giant pair of legs.  

His shark, designed by John, which appeared to have fallen headfirst from the sky and plunged straight through the roof slates up to its pectoral fins, was erected, without planning permission, on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki. It was also intended as a protest against the American bombing of Libya and as a statement about nuclear weapons. Installed in the midst of the Cold War the shark apparently depicted how even suburban quietism was at threat from atomic holocaust. As in Jaws, nowhere was safe and Bill suggested : "It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki."

It provoked a storm of outrage in Oxford and brought repeated calls from Oxford City Council to remove it. Bill fought a six-year battle with the Council which ended in 1992 when the Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine intervened and he was granted retrospective planning permission with the decision that : 'Any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the down right quirky.'

The shark also heralded the start of Bill's media career. He began writing a column for the 'Oxford Star' and in 1988 'BBC Radio Oxford' asked him to host a lunchtime phone-in programme, his interviewer assuring him : “This is the beginning of something big. This is why we’re going to pay you peanuts.” Over the next 30 years, he became known as an opinionated and fearless interviewer willing to tackle anyone, from senior politicians to criminals. His campaigns included an investigation into a paedophile running a child model agency which, he claimed, resulted in an attempt on his life.

Bill, who died on 2nd April, knew that his shark had become a popular landmark, drawing thousands of tourists to an otherwise unremarkable suburb of Oxford and that the council had become reconciled to its existence. As a result, last year council members were reported to have backed a project to protect it as a permanent part of the city’s skyline and Bill was presented with a 'Special Certificate of Merit' in recognition of his contribution to the city.

While working at BBC Radio Oxford he interviewed David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, Ricky Gervais, Alan Bennett and Gordon Brown of whom he asked : 
"Prime Minister, are there times when you feel impotent?" 

P.S. Bill's BBC interview with Nelson Mandela's daughter, Makaziwe :

Monday, 1 April 2019

Britain is a country which still needs to say "Farewell and Thank You" to its brilliant old, medical pioneer and compassionate clinician, Sir Stanley Peart

If you have either had a kidney transplant or know someone who has had one or have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you may well have reason to thank Sir Stanley Peart for the work he carried out in his career as a medical pioneer in the last century at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, in the City of Westminster, London. Having said that, apart from an obituary in the regional newspaper, 'Ham&High' and a couple of tweets, his passing, at the age of 96, has gone unnoticed..

Stanley was born, William Stanley Peart in the Spring of 1922 in South Shields, County Durham, the son of a mother with Scots 'Fraser' ancestry and a father, Jack, who was a professional football player, a centre forward known as "the nightmare of goalkeepers", who had played with nine league clubs, including Newcastle United, Derby County and Sheffield United before Stanley was born.

Who could have predicted that 34 years later he would become Professor of Medicine at St Mary's Hospital in London after a formidable track record of work as both a clinician and medical researcher with Fleming at St Mary's, followed by Edinburgh, the RAF and Mill Hill. He continued, as far as he could to maintain his two roles with his new research on tumours on the adrenal gland while still finding listening "to somebody's problem, trying to dissect it out, just as satisfying to me as any research programme." 

By the age of three he was living in Rochdale, Lancashire where his father was player-manager with the football club and his earliest memory was when he was three years old watching, from the window, the mill girls going to work with clogs on their feet at five o'clock in the morning. Five years later he was in Bradford, West Yorkshire where his father was manager of Second Division Bradford City and when he was 10, he passed the entry scholarship to Bradford Grammar School for Boys. In 1935, at the age of 13, his education was disrupted when he had to move to London when his father became manager of Fulham Football Club, tempted South with £600 a year and the same bonuses as the players.

His new school, Kings College School, a boys public school in Wimbledon, was not a happy experience because with his Yorkshire accent he stood out like a sore thumb and recalled a "terrible French master" who "asked me, in French, some questions and I sort of answered it with a sort of Yorkshire accent, quite wrong and all the pupils there laughed and that was devastating for me. I felt so awful." He dropped the accent and life became easier.

Of all his teachers later recognised the "tremendous influence" of his biology master who was "the zoology man" and in 1939, at the age of 17, the year that Britain entered the Second World War, Stanley applied for a place to read medicine at University and given his clear and exceptional promise "was offered a place, but not an exhibition or scholarship to Oxford University." However, unable to afford the undergraduate fees, he couldn't accept the offer and later reflected : "So Oxford marred my life, actually, in a way." 

Instead, Stanley secured a 'rugby scholarship' to study medicine at St Mary's Hospital at Paddington in London. He recalled being interviewed by Sir Charles Wilson, who became Lord Moran, Winston Churchill's physician during the War, who said : "Well you play rugby. How fast do you run the hundred yards ?" To which Stanley thought : "I roughly knew how fast, so I thought, well, if I take point two of a second off, it will look good. So I said 10.2, which was somewhat faster that I could run. But I sort of brazened it out a bit." It worked and he was offered a place.

Within his studies he was drawn towards anatomy and recalled : I just liked it. It has, obviously, some sort of aesthetic quality, even when about those shrivelled frames. There's a certain beauty in seeing that when you look where a nerve goes and how it gets to its destination and to display it nicely gave me a lot of pleasure."
In pursuance of his studies he bought a brain from his local curator with the £5 given to him by his mother, which he stored in the garden shed and "was trying to see the various tracts in the brain and the various structures" which he found  "absolutely fascinating."

With the Second World War around him, Stanley wanted to join the RAF but as part of a 'reserved occupation' he had been excused the call up for service in the armed forces and had to continue with his medical education where the clinical course, at the age of 19, gave him "the revelation and opened my eyes to all the diversities of human nature. All the ways in which people reacted to circumstance. All the things they told you about their life. I learned an enormous amount from that. It sort of matured you in a very quick way." It was around this time that he met Peggy, who was to be his future wife and was a charge nurse at St Mary's.

When he was now taught by George Pickering he gave up all thoughts of a career in surgery. It was now "medicine and the questions behind what we were looking at were all important." In that first meeting George ; "brought an amputated leg which had arteriovenous anastomoses within it, leading to overgrowth of the limb and subsequently to amputation to try and correct the high cardiac output and failure which it caused. He had injected the arteries with a barium paste and wanted someone to try and find the connections by simple dissection. As I liked dissection, I volunteered, and though I was unable to show any major connections, which were presumably at arteriolar-venular level, it was to mark the beginning of a very long apprenticeship."

Having qualified in 1945, at the age of 23, Stanley finished his residency and became a 'peniciiln registrar' at St Mary's with the job of looking after everything 'clinical' which came into the wards which were in the the care of the old giant of immunology, Almroth Wright and creator of the world's first antibiotic substance 'benzylpenicillin', Alexander Fleming. These were the pioneering days of antibiotics and it was very painful when administered to patients as Stanley himself testified : "People used to be screaming with the pain of it, I could understand because I had a boil on my neck and Fleming injected this stuff into the base of that on my neck. I nearly collapsed actually."

He considered himself lucky because his job as registrar brought him into "close contact with Fleming and all the people around Almoth Wright". Working in Fleming’s penicillin ward he saw the groundbreaking drug was used to treat many soldiers and war veterans. Fleming taught him some bacteriology and "how to draw pipettes, how to do bacterial counts, how to draw blood". 

He witnessed the miracle effect of penicillin because puerperal sepsis was very common at St Mary's because the high rate of dirty, back street abortions taking place in its vicinity. He saw some women with "colossal infection", who were cured. "It was absolutely miraculous to somebody who was used to seeing people die of pneumonia previously. It was a complete revolution." He remembered Fleming as "a quiet, small man, sitting, looking down the microscope, with a cigarette drooped from one corner of his mouth. He used to love coloured bacteria and used to draw pictures with them on agar so that he'd just grow them up solid, so he'd have a union jack."

In 1946 he left St Mary's on a £300 p.a. Medical Research Council scholarship to work at Edinburgh University on his investigation of 'sympathins', those substances secreted by sympathetic nerve endings which act as a chemical mediator. He displayed the confidence and determination of youth : "I was fascinated. What I wanted to do from an early time, was to make my own little mark. I wanted desperately to do something which was unique and really made an advance, That was my ambition."

He now came under the influence of the brilliant Marthe Vogt, who was about to reveal the earliest evidence for the role of acetylcholine as a neurotransmitter and under her direction switched his attention to the liver, worked on laboratory rats, rabbits and cats and "switched to splenic sympathin and lo and behold as soon as I started to do this I started to get results. They started to flow." The result was his groundbreaking paper 'The Nature of Slenic Sympathins.', published in 1949.

Having gained his Membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, in 1947 and still only 25 years old he left Edinburgh and joined the RAF Medical Service based at the RAF hospital at Ely in Cambidgeshire In addition to the clinical cases he dealt with among RAF personnel he also gave his opinion on civilian cases from the area. It was emblematic of his immense capacity to want to do good that he was "running a sort of private hospital service for the inhabitants from around Ely and the villages beyond."

After two years he left Ely having gained the position of Clinician and Lecturer back at St Mary's with his research focus centred on the kidneys and the enzyme, renin, secreted by and stored by them, which promoted the production of the protein angiotensin. His focus was to test the proposition that it 'was likely that renin would be an enzym working on a substrate in the plasma to produce a peptide.'

His pursuit of renin in large enough quantity took him the Northumbria with George Pickering where rabbits were hunted and sent to the London market. Thus they obtained 2000 kidneys which they duly cut an dried in alcohol then ground into a powder and he got what he called "my crude preparation which I used for my preparation of angiotensin."

It was now at the suggestion of George Pickering, now Professor of Medicine that he left St Mary's to join the Department of Physical Chemistry at the National Institute of Medical Research at Mill Hill on the outskirts of North London, to continue his work on the purification of angiotensin. He did this before, what would be, his final move back to St Mary's in 1954 where he returned to his old position as Senior Lecturer in the Medical Unit, before he was placed in charge of the Unit when he replaced George as Professor of Medicine two years later, a position he held for 31 years until his retirement in 1987

He focused the Medical Unit's research on the substances released by tumours working with phaeochromocytomas, rare cancers which start in the inner section of the adrenal gland and force it to make an excess of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline and consequently create sweating, headaches and high blood pressure. In fact, it was the Unit's work into blood pressure became the main focus of its research under his direction.
The kidneys were another focus, as he recalled when interviewed in 1993 : "There I was, being confronted by patients with renal failure, for who I could do very little except dialyse them." As a result he became the driving force behind kidney transplants in the early 1960’s, attempted after the introduction of the immunosupressive drug, azathioprine and a dedicated transplant ward was opened in 1966 with 6 single rooms for barrier nursing as well as a small operating theatre and an out patient clinic.

An analysis of 65 of the cases of him and his team was published in the Lancet in 1969. The transplant unit had access to “brain dead” young adults with head injuries at the neuro-surgical unit of the Atkinson Morley Hospital, Wimbledon and both organs were transplanted into two patients within a short time of the donor’s death.

Stanley received the acclaim of his peers when he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 47 in 1969. He was Chair of the Medical Research Society for more than a decade from the mid 1960s and later served for five years as a member of the Medical Research Council, during which he was involved in the decision to create a MRC unit in Reproductive Biology in Edinburgh. He received his knighthood at the age of 63 in 1985 and was he awarded the 'Buchanan Medal' of the Royal Society in 2000 'for his contribution to the foundations of understanding of the renin angiotensin system in particular through his seminal work on the isolation and determination of the structure of angiotensin, purification of renin, and subsequent studies on the control of renin release'.

In 2000, when Professor Jane Anderson, now the Chair of the National Aids Trust was asked : "Who were your most influential teachers ?" She replied : "Two amazing men. Professor Stanley Peart, who was an inspirational clinician and Dr Hillas Smith whose clinical approach to infectious disease led to my current field."

Stanley's daughter, Celia, has said : “People will remember my Dad for his kindness. He had this amazing combination of being a clinical detective but also an incredibly compassionate man. He was absolutely loved by his patients and was able to combine being an academic, researcher and clinician. No one could do that anymore.” 


“He always wanted to know how things worked in all sorts of fields. He’d come over and ask the grandkids : "Why do pigeons bob their heads?" He always asked questions to make them think.”

Stanley was interviewed about his life in medicine by Max Blythe and Dr Brigitte Askonas on five occasions when he was 71 in 1993 : Part 1Part 1 (2)Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5