Thursday 28 April 2016

Britain, once a country for a 6 year old refugee called Alfred, but no longer one for an 83 year old Lord called Alf Dubs

Alf Dubs, himself one of the 699 children brought out of Prague by the individual action of the stockbroker and humanitarian, Nicholas Winton, prior to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

Alf had said in the House of Lords debate : "It is thanks to Sir Nicky Winton, who helped to organise Kindertransports from Czechoslovakia, that I got here at all. I almost certainly owe my life to him." This was the main motivation behind his amendment to the Bill.

The year before, when Alf was 5 years old, representative from 32 western states had gathered in the pretty resort town of Evian in Southern France. They were there to discuss whether to admit a
growing number of Jewish refugees, fleeing from persecution in Nazi Germany and Austria. After several days of negotiations, most countries including Britain, represented by Lord Winterton, decided to do nothing.

Alfred was born in the republic of Czechoslovakia in 1933, the only child of a Czech mother and Jewish father and in a family prosperous enough to take summer holidays in Hungary. Hitler's coming to power in Germany in the year of his birth and his ambition to expand the Third Reich into neighbouring countries immediately cast a shadow over his childhood and he remembers "when the Germans occupied Prague we had to tear out the picture of President BeneŇ° out of the school book and stick in a picture of Hitler."

The German annexation of young Alfred's country meant that "my father left Prague the day the Germans invaded, which I think was March or April 1939. He just disappeared. His cousins, with who discussed it, apparently, they said they were staying. He said he was getting out. They ended up in Auschwitz. I never discussed why he knew what he knew or why he did what he did, because most of the Jews in Central Europe just waited for things to happen and they died. They ended up in the camps."

So at the age of six he was without a father : "My mother said "he's gone away" and I was always told never to mention anything at school which was talked about at home. I didn't quite know what was happening. I knew there was tension. I knew my father had disappeared suddenly. There were German soldiers everywhere in  Prague, but I wasn't particularly knowledgeable or sophisticated to know really what it meant, except I knew it meant something because there were tensions, that my mother was very worried about everything, I could tell, and then she said I was "going to join my father" because I kept asking her what had happened to him."

Alf's memory of events was sharp which he put down to the fact that : "When I was seven I started thinking about what happened to me when I was five or six and that fixed it in my memory in a way it would not have done had I no change in my life from year one to eighteen."

He remembered his mother : "She put me on the train. I can still see in front of me Prague Station (Praha Hlavni Nadrazi) and my mother standing there and looking anxious. It was about midnight. A German soldier with a swastika standing there." He reflected : "I was very lucky because most of the Kindertransport children said "Goodbye" to their parents in Prague and never saw them again"

"The parting for my mother was very traumatic because of the tensions. We got to the Czech-German border and the documents weren't right so they had to send somebody by car to get the documents. We went across Germany. A German soldier came in once and actually he was quite friendly which surprised us and when we got to Holland I looked out for windmills and wooden shoes and saw no windmills" and "We got to the Dutch border and the older ones, I was one of the youngest on this train, the older ones, they cheered, because they knew it was significant to have got out of Germany, because the train ran across Germany. There we got a boat to Harwich and then we got off at Liverpool Street Station where there's now a memorial to the Kindertransport. We had numbers, labels and things and most of them were taken by foster parents. I was lucky. I had a father who took me. I went to my father and then he was anxious if my mother would get out." Alf reflected that : "My mother gave me a little rucksack of food and I didn't eat anything for 2 days, so I must have been traumatised."

Then : "My father had been offered a job in Northern Ireland and so we went to Northern Ireland. It's quite funny because my father had written to my mother and said if you manage to get out of Prague we're going to Cookstown. My mother looked up an atlas confusing Cookstown in Northern Ireland with Cooktown in Australia." At first his mother was refused permission to leave Prague, a cause of great anxiety, but eventually got an exit visa and joined them in Britain.

"So we went immediately to Northern Ireland and a few months later my father had a heart attack and died. So we came back to England from Northern Ireland" For him, in addition, to his grief  : “When your father dies when you’re 7… For the rest of my life I had hundreds of questions to ask him, which of course I could never ask him" and for his mother : "It was quite tough for her : no husband, no money, no family." Eventually : "she arranged for me to go the Czechoslovak School which was actually in Wales. So I went there for two and a half years." "There were 400 of us in this school. So we did speak Czech then."

For secondary education he gained a place at Cheadle Hulme School an independent day school in Stockport and where : "When I was about 12 or 13, or even perhaps, younger I began wondering : 'why what had happened to me and the world ?' and I said to myself  : "if evil politicians can do so many terrible things maybe politics could also be a way of changing that." In other words if politics has the power to make things worse for people, it could also have the power to make things better for people." So I got passionately interested in politics."

"After I left school I went to the London School of Economics because that was the most political university in Britain and I studied Economics and Politics. I joined the Labour Party. I became a local councillor and the I stood for Parliament and the first time I didn't and then I got elected to parliament and then I lost in one election and then I was head of the Refugee Council. It was quite odd, somebody who was a refugee to actually become the Head of the Refugee Council, although the refugees at that point, this was later, were mostly from other countries, not European and then I was put in the House of Lords, where I still am."

"One election I stood in the centre of London. I didn't win and I was a part-Jewish refugee from Prague and my opponent was a man called Christopher Tugenhadt who stood for the Conservatives who was a Jewish refugee fro Vienna and the newspapers didn't pick up that the battle for the constituency for the middle of London was being contested by two people from Central Europe."

"I didn't know for years about Nicholas Winton. I knew I'd come on a Kindertransport and then only 15-20 years ago the news got out and I met him several times." The occasion had been when Nicholas made an appearance on Esther Rantzen's BBC tv programme, 'That's Life', in 1988 and asked "whether any in the audience owed their lives to him ? and, if so, to stand", at which point more than two dozen people surrounding him rose and applauded and because the programme was aired nationwide, many other rescued children wrote to and thanked him :

Before Nicholas died last year Alf said : "We all feel we're 'The Winton Children' and we have an obvious affection for him because I would have thought none of us would have survived had it not been for him, that he got us out. So one feels pretty warm towards somebody who saved ones life."

For the time being, the Government's refusal to allow Alf's 3,000 child refugees to enter Britain has scuppered his chances of following in the footsteps of his hero, Nicholas. It also reveals Government policy towards refugees to be little different to what it had been in 1938. The door is closed.

Please sign this petition : At 100,000 signatures, this petition will be considered for debate in Parliament :
Alf's e-petition :

The Government should accept the call to give sanctuary to child refugees who are alone and at risk in Europe.

 We will champion freedom of
represent the iall the people who live in their constituences.
342 votes to 254. All those who voted against were Conservatives.
The legislation is expected to gain royal assent within days after peers agreed to end the parliamentary “ping-pong” phase where it moves between the two houses until agreement is reached.
While the passage of the withdrawal agreement bill (Wab), which puts the deal into legislation, became a formality after Johnson won a significant majority in December’s election, it is nonetheless a symbolically significant moment after Theresa May’s plan was rejected by MPs three times.
In a brief comment calling for an end to “rancour and division”, Johnson said: “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”
There was, however, some final controversy, as opposition MPs condemned the government for ordering Conservative MPs to oppose an amendment drafted by Alf Dubs, the Labour peer and former child refugee, guaranteeing family reunion rights. Lord Dubs called the move “bitterly disappointing”.
The amendment, passed in the Lords on Tuesday, was rejected in the Commons by 342 votes to 254. All those who voted against were Conservatives.
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“What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?” Dubs said in a tweet.
It was among five amendments to the EU withdrawal agreement bill passed by peers which have now been overturned. The bill puts the government’s Brexit deal into law.
There were also amendments on EU workers legally residing in the UK getting physical proof of their right to remain; a commitment to the UK parliament not legislating for devolved matters without the consent of the devolved legislature affected; and two relating to the power of courts to depart from European court of justice rulings.

Labour’s Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said the government was “attempting to shirk its moral and legal obligation to child refugees and their families”.

She said: “The Tory manifesto just a month ago claimed they would continue to support refugees, and even that they would increase that support. This is a shameful betrayal of those promises.”

It is difficult not to agree withStuart McDonald, the SNP’s immigration spokesperson, who said: “Rather than stepping up and playing its role in addressing the refugee crisis, the toxic Tory government has instead lurched to the extremes and closed the door on some of the most vulnerable children in the world.”

Dubs, who came to the UK as a Kindertransport child refugee after fleeing Prague in 1939, has urged the government to enshrine, after Brexit, the principle of family reunion for child refugees fleeing conflict .

Responding later in the Lords, Dubs said he noted government promises to make a statement on the issue in the next couple of months, saying ministers should explain how they would make sure the system was ready for the start of 2021, when the Brexit transition period ends.

While the measure was originally in the bill, it was removed after December’s election victory for Boris Johnson, with the government insisting it would stick to the commitment but did not see the need to put it into a Brexit bill.

“The government’s policy is unchanged. Delivering on it will not require legislation,” the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, told MPs as he explained to the Commons why ministers opposed the amendment.

“Primary legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children as it cannot guarantee that we will reach an agreement. And that is why this is ultimately a matter which must be negotiated with the EU, and the government is committed to seeking the best possible outcome in these negotiations.”

Barclay came under pressure from MPs to explain his reasoning. Yvette Cooper, the Labour former chair of the home affairs committee, said she did not understand the active decision to remove the measure from the bill.

“There’s loads of things in legislation through the decades that the government says it agrees with and so it says it’s not needed, but it doesn’t remove it from the statute book,” she said. “And that is what makes us all suspicious.”

Barclay replied: “The reason is the purpose of this legislation is to implement in domestic law the international agreement we’ve reached.”



Sunday 17 April 2016

Britain is to be no country for an 'old' physicist and polymath of genius called Professor David Mackay

Page views : 2292

David, whose stomach cancer has robbed Britain of one of its brightest of academic stars, has died at the age of 48. From the time when he was a brilliant undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge in the 1980's, to when his condition caught up with him last year, he achieved much in diverse scientific fields.

David first announced his cancer on his blog, 'Everything is Connected' in 2015 in a post entitled :  'Unexpected signs of malignancy' :
'My doctor told me something on Thursday 16th July 2015, and I'm going to write about it here. I noticed that my doctor told me in a slightly oblique way, flying past the central topic a few times, using slightly technical language, and emphasising how unexpected the information was. Somehow, this emphasis on the unexpectedness of the information made it comfortable to absorb. 
My doctor got straight to the point: tests had been done on biopsies from my endoscopy; the letter from the hospital said the ulcer showed signs of malignancy, most unexpectedly.
"Malignant adenocarcinoma", he said.
"That's a cancer of the glandular tissue", he said.'

David was born in the spring of 1967 in Stoke on-Trent, the youngest son, in a family of five, of Valerie and Donald, who in turn had been born the son of a GP in Caithness Scotland in the northern fishing village of Lybster. During the Second World War Donald had spent three years working on radar research and before David was born, had moved in 1960 to the new, University of Keele in Staffordshire where he set up the renowned 'Department of Communication and Neuroscience.' His innovative concept had been to use the language of information science as the lingua franca for the interdisciplinary team he assembled of physiologists, psychologists, physicists and engineers investigating the sensory communication systems of the brain and their disturbance in blindness and deafness.

Donald was a leading thinker for 'Research Scientists Christian Fellowship' and John S.North gave a glimpse into family life for young David when he wrote of Donald that he 'had dined with his family in their home on the outskirts of Keele, joining him, his wife Valerie and their five children, as they considered the Scriptures and prayed for each other at the end of a busy day.'

Donald was 45 when David was born and already had a son and three daughters and was only 65 when he died after a long battle with cancer when David was an undergraduate at Trinity College. A man of equanimity of whom North said that he 'maintained an attitude both gentle and tenacious in the discussions, however ill-informed or ill-mannered the questioner. These two experiences provided the confirming reassurance that this intellectual is a person of warmth, strength, consistency and wholeness.'  We must assume he exercised a big influence on his young son, although you wouldn't know it from David, who said that from the age of 5 to 10 : 'I ate salted porridge for breakfast every day, went to school, played soccer and rounders' and from 11 to 18 he 'learnt at the excellent grammar school in Newcastle-Under-Lyme and came home to a wonderful dinner.' In addition, he 'played judo, hockey, violin and viola and rode my bike a lot. I only went to one disco, so I still have a good sense of hearing and my clothes don't smell of beer and cigarettes.' In the fifth year at school, when he was 15 in 1982, he sat prominently, second from the left in Form 5 beta in the form photo with Bill Beaton his form tutor and biology teacher..

In his last year at school David recalled : 'When I was 18, I represented Britain at the 'International Physics Olympiad' in Yugoslavia and had a great time with the Germans and Canadians ' and won first prize in the 'Practical' and then it was off to follow in his elder brother, Robert's footsteps and take up his place at Trinity College Cambridge, but to study Natural Sciences in the Department of Engineering, rather than Mathematics, which was : 'good fun. I looked after a punt and played croquet and lived in Great Court for a year. In the holidays I climbed mountains in Wales and Scotland. After my finals in Physics I rowed for a couple of weeks, went down four in the First and Third fifth boat, and experienced the 'May Week Boatie Dinner' at Trinity, which was of course in June - which all makes sense to anyone who's been at Cambridge.'

He recalled that at the age of 19 and in his second year at Trinity : 'My first research work was in 1986 at RSRE Malvern, where I was given the task of testing high precision digitizers statistically, by putting in uniformly distributed random voltages and looking at the distribution of digital read-outs. That summer I sent a contribution to an 'Institute of Physics' Magazine, giving a solution to the problem of constructing a spiral mirror. Other topics that amused me at that time were : the construction of astrolabes and making a learning-and-prediction program which attempted to predict the next digit in a human-generated binary sequence.'

At the age of 21, after graduation in 1988, David, the brilliant scholar, recalled : 'I made a difficult choice between going to Caltech and Edinburgh for my PhD. Caltech won.' So it was off to the USA and a PhD in 'Computation and Neural Systems' as a Fulbright Scholar at the California Institute of Technology where he discovered that he : 'cared about green politics and founded Caltech Environmental Task Force. I bought a car, Caltech is in L.A. and realised that I didn't want to live in a car society. Caltech was a great scientific place, but I wanted to get back to the green spaces of Cambridge as quick as possible.'

In 1988 he was involved in research involving the fruit fly, drosophila 'which had had a p-element inserted in the genome. I looked at polka-dot expression patterns in the brains of larvae and adults and found a few interesting patterns, including one strain in which the stained cells appeared to be associated with the optic chiasm of the adult.'

Back in Britain at the age of 25 in 1992 he was 'lucky to get a superb postdoc as a research fellow at Darwin College', the Royal Society Smithson Research Fellow and 'bought a house and a number of bicycles, including a Brompton and a tandem' and 'started playing Ultimate on Jesus Green (right) with a nice bunch of psychologists' and 'after a few years became a lecturer in the Physics Department.'

He also recorded in the same year that : 'back in Cambridge, I worked on defending my thesis against the attacks of David Wolpert (left) and others. I did this by writing review papers, writing a paper on 'optimization versus `integrating out' hyperparameters' and entering the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers 'Prediction Competition' using my software.'

In 1995 he started what would become a 640-page textbook on 'Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithm' which, when completed in 2003, he said had started as : 'a tiny, elegant (?) 8 chapters for an 8-lecture course on Information Theory; the book gradually expanded as I taught a 16-lecture course in the Physics Department.' In addition, 'The book's growth was partly driven by complaints that the brief exposition was too brief, so I felt obliged to fill in omitted steps and arguments. Guess what? I then received complaints about the filled-in steps and arguments, so those had to be expanded too. The book also grew because of my lack of self-control : I recklessly added new topics to the book. For me, everything is connected, and it was great fun to include all the things I was interested in - for example, my paper on evolution, sex, and information theory : rather than go through the inevitable tribulations of submitting it to a conventional journal, hey, just slip it in the book!'

Away from the laboratory, David helped in the successful campaign to 'Free Sally Clark', the solicitor wrongly convicted in 1999 of murdering her two baby sons. Although he didn't know her, he volunteered to set up and maintain her campaign website free of charge and helped to use mathematical arguments of probability to demonstrate the unsoundness of the original conviction.

1999 was the year he started his major new research project, 'Dasher', a software tool for disabled users which allowed them to write text as fast as normal handwriting using a single finger or head-mounted pointer and created "a new metaphor for what writing is. Instead of writing is 'pressing buttons', or 'scribbling with a stick', writing is n'avigating in a library of all possible books'." "It's just like driving a car. We want it to be very simple for people to learn and the idea is : you point where you want to go." By 2003 he had 'made a useable breath-mouse and demonstrated that writing at 12 words per minute was possible by breath alone.'

In 2000 his 5-strong Cavendish Laboratory Research Group, including 23 year old Seb Wills (left), won 'The Mouse Brain Competition' : a  puzzle set by two researchers in America, John Hopfield and Carlos Brody. The first part of the challenge was to explain how a simulated `mouse brain' made up of about a thousand neurons performed speech recognition and the second part of the contest required entrants to construct their own simulated brain, capable of speech recognition on a ten-word vocabulary. Apparently they cracked the computational principles underlying the `mouse' after a one-hour brain-storming meeting and David said : "I knew we had solved it' when our tentative explanation started predicting curious details in the recordings from the "brain"'.  The team donated their prize money to the 'Free Sally Clark' Campaign.

While all members of the Group had physics degrees, it worked on a wide range of topics in addition to Dasher : error-correcting codes for communication systems, the search for 'gene expression patterns' in data from cancer patients and research into effective physics teaching methods. David said, in a direct echo of his Father's inter-disciplinary approach : "the boundaries between departments are outdated. I've always been interested in the whole of science - I have collaborations with engineers, computer scientists, materials scientists, psychologists statisticians, pathologists and physiologists. To be a good scientist, you need to be curious and to have an urge to get to the bottom of things. I would find it impossible to be curious about physics alone. I'm grateful to the Physics Department for giving my group a home where we can pursue research without frontiers."

In 2003, the year he became 'Professor of Natural Philosophy', he developed, with his older brother, Robert, Professor of Mathematics at Warwick, 'an explicit theory of how biological systems such as actin/myosin convert chemical energy efficiently into work' and also 'became involved in the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, a new institute in South Africa providing a one-year course for African graduates in mathematical sciences' and spent roughly 8 weeks per year there in academic years between 2003 and 2006.

In 2005 David became interested in the global energy crisis and started writing a popular book tentatively titled `You Figure It Out'' and three years later published 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air' which he made available free online before hardback publication in 2009. He said that he had decided to write the book because he was tired of the “greenwash” surrounding the energy and climate change issue :  “I was tired of the debate – the extremism, the nimbyism, the hairshirt. We need a constructive conversation about energy, not a Punch and Judy show. I wanted to write a book about our energy options in a neutral, human-accessible form.”

David's genius was to express all forms of power consumption and production in a single unit of measurement – kilowatt hours per day and in an easy to understand : a 40 watt light bulb, kept switched on all the time, uses one kWh/d. So driving the average car 50km a day consumes 40 kWh/d. Such comparisons, David argued, helped to shift the focus to the major issues away from much-hyped 'eco-gestures' such as believing you have done your bit by remembering to switch off the mobile phone charger. 'The amount of energy saved by switching off the phone charger is exactly the same as the energy used by driving an average car for one second' and Switching it off for a year saves as much energy as is needed for one hot bath. He saw such gestures were akin to 'bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon.'

Within two years his book had sold more than 40,000 copies in print and been downloaded about 400,000 times and having been made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2009, it is no surprise that he was appointed 'Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change' from 2009, a role he undertook until 2014 and involved him in encouraging students to take part in the 'British Physics Olympiad' where they would : 'Have fun problem solving, test their knowledge with stimulating questions and see the real-world problem-solving potential of Physics.' David also served as a member of the 'World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Climate Change.'

On April 10, just four days before his death, he posted an 'open letter' to the Directors of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge prompted by his sleepless nights in a hot ward and in which he wrote: “The hospital is a great one, the staff are wonderful, and I’m grateful for everything the NHS does for me here. But I do have just one impassioned question and plea... Why oh why oh why does the room not have any semblance of intelligent thermal environmental control?”

In 2010 David published his recipe of 'How to make Porridge' and finished with :

'On birthdays and other special occasions it is permitted to add raisins   and or golden syrup.
                          For me, every day is a special occasion.
                            I add a large spoon of golden syrup

In his last blog post on April 12 David said, when it came to making gifts :

'I'll set up a JustGiving site, dedicated to the Arthur Rank Hospice Charity.'

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Britain is still a country for an old, unphazed, unbridled and unrepentant backbench Member of Parliament called Dennis Skinner

Dennis is the 84-year-old Labour MP for Bolsover and one-time Chairman of the Labour Party and yesterday, once again, proved himself a great parliamentary backbencher, as he has been for the whole of his 46 year Parliamentary career, when he asked if the Prime Minister, David Cameron, if he would clarify his questions about the PM's mortgages for his two homes ? :

"At the time when he was dividing the nation between strivers and scroungers, I asked him a very important question about the windfall he received when he wrote off the mortgage of the premises in Notting Hill and I said to him : he didn't write off the mortgage, the one the taxpayers were helping to pay for, in Oxford. I didn't get a proper answer then. Maybe 'Dodgy Dave' will answer it now ?"

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, asked Dennis if he'd like to "rephrase his statement", specifically the word 'Dodgy', or leave the Commons Chamber for a 'Breach of 'Parliamentary Order.' Dennis ignored the Speaker's suggestion and continued : "This man has done, to divide this nation, more than anybody else. He’s looked after his own pocket – I still refer to him as Dodgy Dave. Do what you like."

Unphazed, unbridled and unrepentant and in no mood to recant,  without saying another word, Denis strolled out of the Commons Chamber of the 'Mother of all Parliaments.' Dennis, who has been a Labour Party, Member of Parliament for Bolsover since the age of 38, was born in Clay Cross, Derbyshire in 1932, the third of nine children of coal miner Edward, who was sacked and blacklisted after the 1926 General Strike
Bright and articulate, he passed the 11-plus and went to Tupton Hall Grammar School a year early, at the age of 10 and at the age of 16, chose to leave school, rather than try for university. He followed his father down the pit and when he started work at Parkhouse Colliery, one of 10 mines close to Clay Cross and at a time when there were 700,000 miners in Britain who were the vanguard of the Labour Movement.

From the word 'go' he made a series of vows as an MP :  no junkets, no drinking in the Commons bars, no pairing with the Opposition and his majority in Bolsover has remained rock solid : “I’ve survived because I had a set of principles and took decisions about expenses 20 years before the trouble came out in the press.”

Dennis usually sits on the first seat of the front bench below the gangway in the Commons, known as the "Awkward Squad Bench" because it is where rebel Labour Party MPs have traditionally sat and he continues to wear a distinctive tweed jacket and signature red tie, whilst most other MPs wear suits and has gained the sobriquet, 'the Beast of Bolsover', for falling foul of the procedures of Parliament, many of which are, in his view, archaic and contemptible.

And Dennis over the years :

Dennis questioning  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street expenses :

Questioning  Prime Minister Cameron 2011
and 2012

Sunday 10 April 2016

Britain is a country robbed by Alzheimer's of its great, theatre stage, set designer, John Gunter

John Gunter, who has died aged 77, nine years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was responsible for the look of some of the most memorable shows in 20th Century British theatre, where he consistently created worlds of  pleasure for the audience.

In 2012, five years after he was diagnosed, John staged an exhibition, in the Lower Gallery of Lauderdale House, Highgate, in which he presented his 45 years of professional work, including miniature sculptures, and abstract drawings made since his diagnosis. At that point John couldn't remember much about the reasons for his work. He couldn't  remember his distinguished career, where he worked alongside the likes of Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, who at that time described him as “an expert, knowledgeable about all the arts, deeply practical and with supremely good taste.”

John also couldn't remember much about the day when he and his wife, Micheline, got married in Chelsea Town Hall in 1969, when he was a 31 year-old set designer. John had been in Vancouver with the 'Mermaid Theatre' in 1967 when he met her, a New York-born dancer with Glen Teley's Company and she came with him to London and danced with Robert Cohan’s  New London Contemporary Dance Theatre.     
So what was the life and career of this remarkable man, the memories of which were robbed from him by his cruel condition ? John was born a year before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1938, the younger son of Charlotte, an actor and Herbert, a popular GP in Billericay, Essex and from the age of 13 was educated at Bryanston, a mixed public school near  Blandon Forum in Dorset with its motto 'Et nova et vetera' 'Both the new and the old.' Quinlan Terry, the later architect, was in the year above him and Terence Conran had left shortly before he joined. In school he had shown an aptitude for drawing and making model aeroplanes and back in London he, with his Mother's encouragement, successfully applied for a place at the 'Central School of Art and
Design' in Camden, London where he studied under the revered Ralph Koltai. 

After graduating in 1959, his first job was making costumes for 'The Rivals' at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and he followed this with a stint of making birdcages and copper fruit trees for antique shops and further spells in rep at Hornchurch and the Bristol Little Theatre, before winning a competition and joining the Royal Court as 'Resident Designer' at the age of 27 in 1965.

In his first year he designed the sets for Edward Bond’s stark, poetic and brutal Saved' with its controversial scene with Ronald Pickup alongside Tony Selby and a teenager called Dennis Waterman, in which they lark about with a baby in its pram, poking it, pulling off its nappy, goading each other until they stone it to death.

In 1967 he demonstrated the quality of his costume sketch for the Royal Court in the 'The Soldiers Fortune' although he confessed 40 years later : "I’m not a great costume designer I just love working with people with great talent and letting them loose, telling them what I’d love to see, and then letting it flow from there. It’s then wonderful to be surprised when you get something that you hadn’t really expected."

The following year he was working on 'The D.H. Lawrence Trilogy', which saw the putting together the three plays of childhood, marriage and death in a Nottinghamshire village as one panorama of English working-class life, directed by Peter Gill. He devised a set in 'The Daughter-in-Law' in two angles, so that the audience could see the action and counter action. Along with Assistant Director, James Moran and Deirdre Clancy the clothes designer he had visited Eastwood where James recalled : 'We found Princes Street and located an empty house which we explored. And that is the house upon which we based the designs in the Daughter in Law and subsequent elements of the two other plays.'

It was at the rigorously austere Royal Court, where the governing, Brechtian aesthetic was that of putting an actor and other less animate objects, on the stage, before any scenery, that he served his apprenticeship and it was here that he designed 28 productions.

He worked on David Hare’s 'Slag' in 1970 with its cast of  Lynn Redgrave, Anna Massey, and Barbara Ferris which was a breakthrough play for David and won for him the 'Evening Standard' 'Most Promising New Playwright' and launched his prolific and successful career.

After five years he had, by this time, specialised in architectural feats and was a past master at putting houses, contraptions or edifices on the stage and for David Storey’s The Contractor in 1970, this featured his huge wedding tent that was erected, decorated and then dismantled over three acts and at the time, both baffled and fascinated critics.

John Osborne's 'West of Suez' was his 12th play and was the main attraction in the Royal Court's 1971 Season with John's sets in an imaginary former British colony with Ralph Richardson as its main character, the elderly novelist Wyatt Gillman, resembling a fading Evelyn Waugh, who has become a spent force and a prophet opposed to change.

John's international career began in 1970 with a four year residency at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus and he pursued an increasingly busy freelance career in Britain and found time to head up the Theatre Design Department at the Central School and abroad, notably in Broadway productions as both scenic and costume designer, as in 'The Philanthropist' in 1976.

John's first design for the National Theatre was for Michael Rudman’s 1979 revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Warren Mitchell, at 'The Lyttelton' for which he won his first Olivier Award as Willy Loman in a performance hailed by 'The Stage' as 'the greatest triumph of this actor’s achievements to date' which came to define his stage career as much as Garnett defined his tv profile..

In 1981 with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he set Trevor Nunn’s beautiful 19th-century 'All’s Well That Ends Well ' with Peggy Ashcroft making her last stage appearance as the Countess in a gigantic conservatory.

In 1982 it was Richard Eyre’s glorious revival of 'Guys and Dolls' with the National Theatre in the Olivier that he set the stage with a riot of sensational neon-lit Broadway billboards and adverts and of which Richard said this week in The Guardian : 'His set was a joyous and ingenious invention that fully exploited the most thrilling aspect of stage design – the ability to transform space; it moved effortlessly from the intimate to the epic, from the realistic to the fantastic, while making each location specific and detailed and full of character. It was a love letter to Broadway that made the audience smile and cheer.'

In the same year he was awarded the 1982 'London Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Designer' of 1981 for 'Guys and Dolls' and 'The Beggar's Opera' for his collaboration with director Richard Eyre at 'The Cottesloe.' The following year he mastered the theatre with ingenious moveable houses mounted on trucks, and panoramic vistas of Bath.for 'The Rivals' directed by Peter Wood.

The Olivier auditorium was his true domain as he demonstrated with his third great city design hit on the Olivier stage : a turbulent, revolutionary Florence in Alfred de Musset's 'Lorenzaccio' was conjured with huge statues, sweeping curtains, ladders and scaffolding.

In 1983 he also spread David Edgar’s political epic, 'May Days' 1983, focussed on the Hungarian Uprising, an English University and Greenham Common at the height of the Thatcher revolution, in which David's his apostate anti-hero, Martin Glass, grows tired of the posturing of Communist party politics and, in a moment of right-wing epiphany, sees his entire belief system come crashing down : "You see, I don't think it's just Stalin, or even Lenin. I think it is the whole idea that our childlike sense of justice and compassion and fair play, the thing that got us here, that we must hone and beat it down, from a ploughshare to a sword; that there's no morality except the interests of the revolution."

 Also in 1983 he was the guest of Roy Plomley on BBC Radio's 'Desert Island Discs' and chose as his nominated luxury :  “more William Walton.”

Then, for Michael Frayn’s rewrite of Anton Chekhov’s 'Platonov' as 'Wild Honey' in 1984, he provided four atmospheric settings, including the terrifying sight of an onrushing train and the following year was awarded the 'Laurence Olivier Theatre Award' for 'Best Designer.' In 1985, in Gogol's 'The Government Inspector', audiences at the Olivier adored his surreal setting : its sea of bureaucratic paperwork and huge portrait of the Tsar stole the show every night.

The 1980's also saw him designed Benjamin Britten’s 'Albert Herring' and Giuseppe Verdi’s 'Falstaff' for Peter Hall at Glyndebourne and in In Trevor Nunn’s 1986 Glyndebourne production of 'Porgy and Bess' he created the teeming world of 'Catfish Row' poured through the ramshackle, transparent remains of an 18th-century colonial mansion. In addition, at the Royal Opera House he designed 'Simon Boccanegra' and - one of his personal favourites – 'The Flying Dutchman' and he opened the new house on the Sussex Downs with designs for 'The Marriage of Figaro' in 1994.

In 'Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell' in 1989, starring Peter O’Toole, at the Apollo in the West End, in which the titular character woke at five in the morning in his preferred Soho hostelry, 'The Coach and Horses' and in which John's lovingly accurate interior tilted on a diagonal axis, as if seriously hung over itself.

In the same year it was 'Hamlet' with Daniel Day-Lewis replaced by Richard Eyre after his breakdown on stage and Judi Dench as Gertrude and of which Michael Coveney of 'The Financial Times' applauded the costumes and sets, which he said evoked 'the cold, windswept northern Europe of Cranach the Elder and Durer' and 'John Gunter's design is dominated by a grey, stone, Comendatore-like statue of the old king, and his careful recreations of lance-infested battle scenes are inset in a grim corridor that extends the Denys Lasdun concrete nightmare into the very heart of Elsinore.'

John Caird's revival of 'The Seagull', also in 1989, led Paul Taylor in 'The Independent' to comment : 'At the start, the setting is almost empty. The cast then assemble and start to mill about as though conscious of participating in a work of art. Beginning with the rectangular outline of the makeshift stage on which Konstantin's experimental drama is to be performed, John Gunter's design adds, act by act, fresh layers of proscenium-like frame to this stage picture, each smaller and more cluttered with objects. By the final scene, you seem to be looking at a palimpsest of all that has gone before, and when, at the back, you see the original stage collapse as Konstantin walks forward into the present, the effect is undeniably moving.'

In 1998 at the age of 60 he was nominated for a 'Laurence Olivier Theatre Award' for 'Best Set Designer of 1997' for the Peter Hall Company's 1997 classic repertory season, which included Beckett’s 'Waiting for Godot', with Ben Kingsley as Estragon at the Old Vic Theatre.

He was nominated for a 2003 'London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Stage Designer' for "Love's Labour Lost", performed at the Royal National Theatre directed by Trevor Nunn with Joseph Fiennes and confessed that when Trevor asked him he "was rather surprised since it is rarely produced" "Trevor knew he wanted an idyllic glade and I happened to be passing a card shop in which there was an extraordinary photograph of a beech tree. I thought that trying to bring a magnificent tree onto the Olivier stage was rather a marvellous place to start. I rushed away and made a model within the week. He seemed to be very happy with what I had done, but then of course one has to put it together and make it work, and find the people to make such a thing. One thing about trying to emulate nature is that you have to be very careful that it ends up looking as if nature has done it and not something that you know is strapped together in a rather haphazard way. We were lucky to get the very, very good makers, Sam Kelly from Souvenir, who embarked on this epic tree which stands over 10.5m high with a girth which must be about 3.5m across, surrounded by a whole swathe of grass. It has to do two things; it has to be the battle scene prologue and epilogue to the piece, as well as the extraordinary forest glade that Trevor wanted."

In 2004 he worked on Tevor's 'Hamlet' at the Old Vic with 23-year-old unknown named Ben Whishaw in the lead, who catapulted instantly to fame with his unforgettable performance.

His last theatre designs were for the Peter Hall Company over several seasons, a Peter Gill revival of John Osborne’s second play, 'Epitaph for George Dillon', starring Joseph Fiennes and Anne Reid, at 'The Comedy' in 2005, of which ' Michael Billington in 'The Guardian' said : 'Peter Gill's production and John Gunter's design exactly capture the gestures towards ghastly good taste of 1950s suburbia: the Radio Times lovingly encased in an embroidered folder, the square mantelpiece clock, the kitsch picture of birds in flight.'

His set for Peter Hall's Verdi's 'Otello' at Glyndbourne in 2005 met the disapproval of Martin Kettle in The Guardian who thought : 'John Gunter's set, which displaces too much of the action and attention on to multistorey verandahs that cool the white heat of Verdi's depictions of the central relationships. Otello works best when it is sung down at the footlights.'

In 2006 there were also designs for English National Opera at the Coliseum, including a rare revival in 2006 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 'Sir John in Love' with a twisting configuration of Tudor houses in the shadow of Windsor Castle and of which Andrew Clark said in the Financial Times : 'Nor do I have anything but admiration for the simple, evocative sets ,John Gunter and Nigel Levings.'

In his last work he set a monolithic slab of ecclesiastical grey stone for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt at the Tricycle, North London, in 2007 for a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, with the the action revolving around a collision between the formidable principal, Sister Aloysius, and the charismatic Father Flynn, who taught PE and religion and she suspected him of having sexual designs on a 12-year-old boy, who, as the school's only black pupil.

It was in 2007 that John’s condition began in a small way. “He started forgetting things and I knew something was wrong” said Micheline. “One morning he woke up and said, ‘When I go downstairs to the kitchen, I think I’m in a foreign land.’”

John appeared to be going gently into the dark night and the fact that by 2012 he couldn't  remember much of his prolific design career, which included those memorable 'Porgy And Bess' at Glyndebourne and 'Guys And Dolls' at the National, wasn't troubling him too much : “I just go on. It wasn’t: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to crash.’ I just don’t mind. I can’t actually say that I’m fighting to get it all back. I suppose I’ve turned a corner and I’m just saying that this is what I’m going to do now. It doesn’t hurt me. I’m very happy with what I’m doing.”

Gradually life changed for John. He could no longer read the plays he'd once read and his creativity had changed with his technical drawings and scale models of his former stage sets with their intricate perfection, replaced by sculptures of rocks and beautiful abstract drawings that evoked years of creativity and training freed from the practical restraints of the theatre.

John approached his condition with equanimity : “I can’t remember much of my former work. If people talk to me about it, I have it in my head and then it just goes. I live in another country now, in my head. But, you know, it doesn’t worry me, it’s actually a wonderful release.”

When prompted to remember his memories of theatre productions all over the world, small and often unconnected anecdotes returned to him : “There was a play in Buenos Aires. We had to sign the contract with a General who said if there was a war, the whole thing would have to be scrapped. There were people just shooting in the street at the time and I remember too that the play was so moving that the director just wept in my arms.”

In tribute to John this week Richard Eyre said :
'I learned from John that what you left off the stage was as important as what you put on it, and that being “theatrical” could have as much to do with austerity as excess. From him too, I learned that designing a play is a process of discussion, anecdotes, sketches, photographs and reference books; that you have to keep asking, “What’s this for?” and “What does this mean?”; and that a designer needs to be an architect, engineer, painter and sculptor.'

In 2003 John said :

"One has to have a deep and almost intimate rapport with all the people one works with, because you are bouncing ideas back and forth and its that sense of co-operation that you build up whether it’s for the set, props or painters. It’s about trying to establish a rapport so that they feel confident that what you are talking about together is allowing them to have the freedom to explore things further. It’s very important to get that right and so it becomes a pleasurable experience putting the thing together – a very easy atmosphere, fun and a few giggles."