Thursday, 3 September 2020

Britain says "Farewell" to James Partridge, its Giant among Campaigners for Facial Equality

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More than 500,000 adults and children in Britain have some kind of facial disfigurement, ranging from cleft lip and palate or birth marks, to injuries sustained in a fire, or by developing a condition such as Bell’s palsy or facial cancer. For the last twenty-eight years, James, who has died at the age of 67, has been their champion.

He was born in the Autumn of 1950, the son of Joan and John, in Chipping Sodbury, Wiltshire and spent his formative years in the Bristol area, living in Flax Bourton just outside the City and, from the age of 11, as a boarder, attending the public school for boys, Clifton College, Bristol, with its motto : 'Spiritus Intus Alit', 'The spirit nourishes within.' Founded in 1862, it was notable for emphasising science rather than classics in the curriculum compared with other public schools and for being less concerned with social elitism by, for example, admitting day-boys on equal terms with residents, like James.

As a boy, his father, the son of a Bristol boot and shoe maker, had been a bluecoat at Queen Elizabeth Hospital who had left school when he was 15 and joined Imperial Tobacco in 1923. As his son, James enjoyed a privileged childhood in an upper middle class family, financially supported by his father, who became Chairman of Imperial Tobacco when James was 12 years old and went on to receive a knighthood and, as Sir John Partridge, become President of the Confederation of British Industry.

At the age of 18, the world was James' oyster. He himself said : "At 18 I was a happy-go-lucky guy who had, really, the world ahead of him. I had all sorts of dreams and ambitions." Having taken the usual GCE ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels at school, he stayed on for an extra term in order to sit the Oxford Entrance examinations in the late Autumn of 1970 and was looking forward to his ‘gap’ year of work and travel. His long term plan was study for a Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree at Oxford University followed by a career in the City.

Shortly after sitting his exams and three days before leaving school, James, with a number of school friends and a master from Clifton College, was driving to North Wales for a weekend’s walking. Driving north on the 5th December, on a cold wet night from Chepstow towards Usk, the Land Rover, driven by James, overturned on a left-hand bend and skidded on its driver’s side across the carriageway. In Land Rovers of that vintage, the petrol tank was located under the driver’s seat and as James recalled : "I contrived somehow to turn the car over and the damn thing blew up and I was stuck inside for about 30 seconds, enough to get severe burns. And my life changed."

Narrowly escaping with his life, he recalled : "I suffered severe body and facial burns in the accident - my nylon polo-neck sweater did me no favours. My whole face was very badly burnt, and I was lucky not to lose my sight." In fact, he suffered 40% burns and subsequently lost a number of fingers. The other travellers were more fortunate, emerging virtually unscathed, with just one of them sustaining burns to his legs. He considered himself very lucky, as in the car behind was a trained nurse and her fiancĂ© who, sacrificing her coat and their night out, drove him at speed to Chepstow where the hospital had a burns unit.

His 'gap' year before Oxford was now to be spent in the Burns Unit of Queen Mary’s Hospital, at Roehampton, where he had to undergo a great deal of plastic surgery and associated treatment. He said : "People came to see me in those early months and I could tell from their faces that I’d done something pretty damn serious to mine. There are no mirrors in a burns unit but the reflection in the silver-coated splints on my damaged fingers told me that nothing lined up. After about three months I looked in a mirror and wondered : ”My God, what is life, looking like this?” I’d never met anybody who’d looked like that. All I’d seen was someone in a Battle of Britain film with severe burns and I’d recoiled. Now I was recoiling from my own face."

Shocked to the core, what stared back at him was unrecognisable compared to the angelic teenage face he had lost."The thought of taking this face into the street and meeting old friends - the self-consciousness level was of absolutely colossal proportions. The face is so much how we communicate. It's our self image. It's what other people remember. Not only did he have to come to terms with his unrecognisable face, which he called 'IT', but he had to build a new resilient person able to tolerate the intrusions and assumptions that went with 'IT.' “I was groping in the dark. It was a long, long struggle to get out the other side. I didn’t really have any guidance.” 


He recalled that : “Self-belief and self-respect are very hard things to find if you have had them blown away” and that it was his mother who told him that all the pain would not be in vain and would have meaning one day. “It was such a ridiculous thing to say, but she kept on saying it. It’s not that I really believed it at the time, but at least someone was saying it. It was very hard for me to see a future, but she was a fairly committed Christian and believed something good was going to come out of it.”

In total, James had over 50 surgical procedures and said : "The surgeons back then in the 1970s did a remarkable job, reconstructing my face so well that the shock factor disappeared. But I still looked different and there was no one to teach me how to live life like that. I wrote an article in the hospital magazine saying 'Thanks for all you’ve done, but come with me down the street, to the job interview, the party, the pub…there’s something more you have to do here.'" 

Despite his trauma, James was determined to take up his place at University College Oxford and took his place to read for his degree in 1971. He recalled : "Nine months after my accident I took my place at Oxford and started to find my bearings - if I acted positively, I could leave my room. I discovered that I could still flirt, talk to people I didn’t know, and that people were willing to be with me despite what I looked like."  His friends were supportive and he learned techniques for coping with intrusive attention : “Keep your eyes looking forward, do not let your chin drop, sanction the staring without reacting to it.”

Reading voraciously for his degree, James read one publication which one was to prove pivotal. “I chanced on 'Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity' by Erving Goffman in the sociology section of a bookshop as a first year student and it resonated with so much of what I recognised about myself except it offered no solutions. What it did give me, however, was a what-if moment. What if I could discover self-respect, which seemed highly unlikely, could I gain the respect of those around me which seemed denied to me because of my disfigurement? At that point I had no idea what the solutions might be, but I had a sense that finding my self-respect might enable me to deflect other’s stigmatising of me.”

During the vacations, when most of his contemporaries were travelling or working, James went back to Roehampton again and again and again for more surgery and also during the whole of what would have been his third year at Oxford. This included growing a pedicle, a tube of skin taken from his back and grafted on to the lower part of his face. When he graduated in 1975 and having developed a strong interest in health care, health promotion and illness prevention, he continued his studies at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he was awarded a Master of Science degree in Medical Demography.

At the age of 24 in 1976, James joined the National Health Service as a 'Research Assistant in Health Economics' at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. At his interview, one of the panel said : “I see you have had a lot of plastic surgery. Do you think you will be needing some more?” To which James replied : “Why – do you think I need more?” Subsequently he was taken on as a Research Fellow at Guy’s Hospital.

Having met and married Caroline Scofield, James' made a dramatic change of direction and, in 1979, at the age of 27, moved to her native Guernsey where they bought a derelict farm which they renovated and went on to raise a herd of Guernsey cows, became involved in Island life and raise a family of 3 children. James even found time to teach 'A' Level Economics at The Ladies College and was appointed both to the 'States of Guernsey Agricultural and Milk Marketing Board' and to the 'States of Guernsey Board of Health’s Ethical Committee'.

Interestingly, James was also a part-time Consultant to University College Hospital’s Phoenix Appeal. The Appeal had been set up in 1988 by the plastic surgeon, Michael Brough, who had to draw on all his skills at University College Hospital, when faced with the severely burned survivors of the 1987 King's Cross Fire, started when a wooden escalator at the London underground station burst into flames and the intense fire in a confined space resulted in 30 deaths with 14 survivors who suffered flame burns and smoke inhalation. 

James' life took a second dramatic change of direction when he was 48. In 1990 and after the Kings Cross fire and also Bradford Football Ground and the Piper Alpha oil rig fire, James met Paddy Downie, an Editor at Faber and Faber, who encouraged him to write the book : 'Changing Faces: The Challenge of Facial Disfigurement', which he dedicated to his mother and was published in 1990.

James said that he wrote the book as a dairy farmer, but its publication by Penguin completely changed his life. Radio interviews and television appearances soon followed and on the 'Gloria Hunniford Show', he met Nichola Rumsey, Professor of Social Psychology of Facial Appearance, who had written widely on the psychology of disfigurement. Afterwards she said that "the Guernsey cow farmer totally eclipsed the academic expert and then went on to steal the show".  Whilst talking, they both realised that, by different routes, they had reached very similar conclusions on the effects of disfigurement and that many people had problems of social interaction following disfigurement.

James started work by developing and running small programmes, initially working with individual and families, then gradually building up to work with the National Health Service and train their professionals. In schools he trained teachers and in companies with employers and their staff. He had found that staring, curiosity, anguish, recoil, embarrassment and dread, what he described as "SCARED syndrome", summed up the feeling of people meeting him and his face. He decided that : "When meeting new people, I take handshakes very seriously and make lots of eye contact. Incidentally, if you meet someone with a disfigurement it’s good to look them in the eye. If that’s hard at first, look at the bridge of their nose - it has the same effect."

James left Guernsey and the farm and moved back to his beloved Bristol to Redland, with his wife, three children, the cats and the dogs, the guinea pig and the parrot and also Moonshine and Stardust, the goats and in 1992 James founded  'Changing Faces', based in London. It was to become the leading charity in Britain for anyone with a scar, mark or condition that affects their appearance. Its aims were to :

* change attitudes to facial disfigurement by facts underpinned by evidence and backed up by research
* pioneer unique life skills programmes for people with disfigurement, their families and friends
* campaign, educate and inform society at large
* support "the thrivors", as James called them, in their daily lives

It worked with burns victims, but also with a wide range of other disfigurements, including birthmarks, Bells Palsy, cleft lips and palates, facial cancer, those involved in road traffic accidents, industrial injury, violent attacks and a range of other conditions. It is underpinned by his beliefs that : we can and should accept people for what they are and who they are; with training, encouragement and support people with disfigurement can face life with confidence ; discrimination can be confronted.

Under James' leadership 'Changing Faces' helped thousands of people and their families and saw its work expanded in Britain with its literature is translated into many languages. He saw the University of the West of England create the 'Centre for Appearance Research' with five years of core funding provided by the charity to give it a good start. In partnership with the North Bristol NHS Trust, it founded the world’s first 'Disfigurement Support Unit' at Frenchay Hospital. James said at the time : "There has been an inadequate support system before now, with some hospitals providing follow-up, some burns units providing support and some hospitals sending health professionals into schools to teach about disfigurement - but no national service."

James recalled : "When I set up the charity in 1992 there was no Disability Discrimination Act in the UK. I made it my mission to connect with other disability organizations which were lobbying for such protection, because I felt that disfigurement should be covered by that legislation. A disability bill was produced but it didn’t include people with disfigurements. We became very active and managed to successfully lobby for the 1995 Act to include this protection. We put disfigurement as a human rights issue on the map. And the subsequent Equality Act 2010 provides ongoing protection against discrimination in work and day-to-day life."

By 2007, despite the successes, James felt that Britain's appearance-obsessed society head bred a less tolerant attitude towards people whose looks do not fit 'the norm." He said, with some disappointment that : "We hoped we were going to ride a wave towards diversity and the inclusion of people with disabilities, but it's almost the other way. The norms of acceptability are narrowing." 

By this time the charity was being contacted by up to 1,000 new clients annually and counseled and supported 2,000 ongoing cases. Callers typically suffered from low self-esteem, feelings of being rejected and problems with intimate relationships. What James could not have foreseen was how the charity would come to be used by people who have had cosmetic surgery. He said : "The face lift or nose job didn't turn out in a way they hoped and hasn't given them the buzz, the self-confidence boost, or made their love-life better." 

It was his core belief that professionals played a key role in helping people adjust to their changed appearance, whether it was surgeons, doctors, teachers or HR departments, they all needed to become skilled in creating a society where face equality was at its heart. With this in mind he worked with his businessman friend, Phil Friend and started 'Dining with a Difference' where he and Phil hosted dinners, usually monthly and aimed specifically at large organisations like Royal Mail and Lloyds Bank. With their captive audience of Board Members and Senior Executives, they explained the good business case for employing people with disabilities.


James saw 'Changing Faces' launch 'The Campaign for Face Equality’ in 2008 with award-winning posters on the London Underground and in January 2010, to support the 'Children’s Face Equality Campaign' , 430 'Changing Faces' posters featuring children with disfigurements were displayed on stations throughout the London Underground, with the potential to reach 2.2 million commuters.

In November 2009 when James was a guest lunchtime newsreader for a week on Five News, the first person with a disfigurement ever to do so worldwide and as part of the Charity’s campaign work, he said : "It was a terrifying experience, but it was great." He was pleased that, when 'Changing Faces' asked for comments from the viewers about his reading the news, of over a thousand replies, only one was a negative response.

In 2012 when the TV series, 'Downton Abbey' ran a storyline about  a wounded First World War Canadian officer who arrived at Downton to rehabilitate who told Lady Edith that he's actually, the heir to Downton, Patrick Crawley, who was pulled out of the wreckage of the Titanic with amnesia and was misidentified. His face was covered with horrific burns and bandages, making him unrecognizable, but he said the explosion brought back his memories of who he was. Needless to say, the plot jarred with James, who got in touch, made his feelings known and saw the cast offer their unqualified support and host two successful fund-raising evenings.

When James met Downtown creator Julian Fellowes and told him about the 'Changing Faces' 'Face Equality on Film Campaign' which hoped to focus greater awareness on how movies and TV shows too often have disfigured characters portraying villains, the result was an ad entitled 'Leo' starring Michelle Dockery, who played Lady Mary Crawley on Downton Abbey. It ran in British cinemas and showed a man with a badly disfigured face, played by Leo Gormley, a real life burns victim, watching from his car as a woman arrives at her townhouse on a rainy night. He then heads for her door and it turns out, is a friend who has shown up early for dinner with the ads tagline reading : “What did you think was going to happen?”

At the Downton Gala dinner held in 2014 James was joined by the presenter, Adam Pearson who suffers from the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis and other Downton actors alongside Michelle Doherty.

In 2018 he launched 'Face Equality International' which now has 38 member organisations around the world. By this time he was undergoing cancer treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but was still able to host its first conference. Having successfully campaigned at Changing Faces to get legal protection in Britain for people with 'severe disfigurements', James hoped to do the same for people in countries such as South Africa and India, where they have no such protection or rights.


In 2019 and clearly affected by his continuing cancer treatment, James made with ITV : 'How I'm using my face to challenge attitudes.' 

The latest James Bond film, 'No Time to Die', which had its release delayed this year because of the Coronavirus Pandemic, has two baddies with facial disfigurements. One of them, the character, Blofeld, played by Christopher Waltz, has a deep facial scar. James used the delay as an opportunity to raise awareness about how this shorthand for a movie villain continues to stigmatise people.

He also wrote to film director, Peter Jackson and Amazon Boss, Jeff Bezos about the new 'Lord of the Rings TV Extravaganza' which he said will “lazily portray the ‘baddie’ Orcs as facially and bodily flawed”, when Tolkein didn't. James insisted that : “We have to take the fight to those who continue to promulgate these stereotypes.” 

James also took issue with airbrushing apps used by millions of young people on social media, which, in his opinion, meant that a new generation is bombarded with unobtainable images of beauty on their phones 24/7. He believed that now cosmetic surgery has now become so normalised that if you have a less than perfect face it’s seen nowadays as your own fault. He said : “There is almost a moral obligation to have work done, to get your face fixed”. He has warned for many years of the potential dangers of cosmetic surgery and how it needs to be much better regulated, but said :  “The Government has failed to get a grip of the whole problem”.

This year he published his second book, 'Face It : Facial Disfigurement and My Fight For Face Equality', which was part memoir, part manual and part manifesto for change.

Last month James entered the national debate about face coverings in the Coronavirus pandemic and said : "Wearing face masks will prevent people seeing my face and those of many people with cranio-facial conditions, the aftermath of facial cancer or a Bell’s palsy, or with a skin condition like psoriasis or acne. In my ideal of a fair post-covid society, we would all have a right to be seen, respected, and accepted, and the current absurd “face-perfect” judgements of our global society would be consigned to the dustbin of history. It seems likely that we will need to wear face coverings for some years to come, which just might make it easier to argue the case for face equality for everyone, whatever their face looks like, free of prejudices and low expectations."

Some years before he had said :
"There’s often a sense that a disfigurement has to be removed, got rid of. Surgery matters, of course, but it’s not a panacea. Public understanding is gradually growing that all faces should be respected. As with anyone, there’s more to me than just my face, but for me my face matters very much, scars and all."  He described it as “a hotchpotch of scars, skin grafts and weird asymmetry, thanks to brilliant surgery” but said :

“I live with my very distinctive face with pride.” 

His ambition, for the last 28 years, has been, for all those with some sort of facial difference, to feel the samehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4-JlWtlMZ0

Reader's comments :

'It's a lovely tribute. A campaigner to the end.'

'I really appreciate this. I had known James for over a decade and he was my inspiration for the Concept and Creative Direction of my exciting Portrait Positive Project which received global publicity/coverage.'

'Having known him for over 60 years, I was moved by the perception of this and the way it captures the man and his purpose.'

'That's a powerful piece. Makes you realise how cramping is the pressure to focus on appearance and how liberating a change of perspective might be.'

'A wonderful tribute to James Partridge. Gratitude, respect,admiration!'

'This is tremendous. Well done. James was a good man who did a lot of good for a lot of people,'

'Thank you for taking so much effort to remember such a lovely man. I'd like to add that along with myself  (Phil Friend), Stephen Lloyd and Simon Minty were also closely involved in the development and subsequent success of Dining with a Difference.'

'A tribute to the wonderful man that was James Partridge. I've had to stop reading for now because it's just harrowing and emotional. Gone too soon lovely man and I miss you already.'

'Great summary of James's latest book and a lovely tribute to James.'


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