Monday 26 April 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to its old 'Playwright of the People and Champion of Community Theatre', Peter Terson

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Peter, who has died at the age of 89, was born in the wet February of 1932 in Walker, a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of Jane and Peter Patterson, a joiner. He grew up on the 1930s Daisy Hill housing estate and said he remembered his mother was "worn out with work and worry" and the fact that 'fathers not getting on with sons' was a recurrent theme in his later work as a playwright suggests that, as a teenager and beyond, he didn't get on with his dad. He said his father's "only concession to culture was a Daily Herald edition of George Bernard Shaw and a set of Shakespeare which was never opened". He provided an early example of his commitment to local community when he became a founder member of the 'Daisy Hill Boys' Club and played in its football team. 

Secondary school was 'Heaton Grammar School for Boys' in Newcastle and he had only been there a year when his mother died and her death affected him deeply. He clearly excelled in technical drawing and when he left school at the age of 15, just after the end of the Second World War, he got his first job working in a drawing office with a view to becoming a draughtsman and was still drawing in his 50s as he demonstrated in his BBC Series, 'The Journey' in 1985. At the same time he continued his studies in evening classes at the Newcastle upon Tyne Technical College. Walker didn't have a theatre, but the 'Gloria Cinema' opened there when he was six years old and doubtless he was taken to it as a boy and visited it as a teenager. Peter briefly attended  in 1950, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the R.A.F for his two years National Service where he trained as a 'ground wireless mechanic'.

After he was demobbed, at the age of 20, he left behind his roots in Tyne and Wear in the North West and travelled to the South West where he spent the next two years training to be a teacher at Redland College in Bristol, where he met his future wife, Sheila Bailey.

Peter settled down to a career in education as 'Mr Patterson', teaching History and Physical Education at Blackminster County Secondary School for Boys near Littleton in Worcestershire. He was three years into the job when the birth of his first child, Bruce, revived an interest in writing that had been dormant for years. Finding that he was often up in the middle of the night caring for Bruce, he began work on a novel but abandoned the project in favour of writing plays, a decision he made based on his interest in writing dialogue. His first two plays were optioned by the BBC for radio, but weren't produced because they were judged to need too much work to adapt them for broadcast. However, encouraged by the sales after publication, he continued to write in his spare time out of the 1950s and into the 1960s and later admitted that he had “enough rejection slips to paper the walls”. By this time he had changed his professional surname, to 'Terson' because he thought 'Peter Patterson' was a “bit of a mouthful”. 

Peter sent samples of his work to Peter Cheeseman, Director of the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, an 'in-the-round theatre' in a converted cinema where he was committed to regionalism in his productions. His widow, Romy, said : "When Peter took over the running of the theatre in 1962, from the very beginning it was his mission to make contact with local people".

Cheeseman was impressed with Peter's work and 'A Night to Make the Angels Weep' was performed at the Victoria in 1964. Subsequently, Peter gave in his notice at his school and took up the position of 'Resident  Playwright' at the Victoria in 1965. He immediately took to working in the theatre-in-the round because, as he said, there were "no fake door handles", minimalist scenery and set designs which allowed the action to move along apace. With a year's salary sponsored by the Arts Council he moved with his family into the district. It hadn't taken much persuasion for him to leave teaching and he himself  admitted that, as a teacher : “I wasn’t very good and the boys saw through me, but were very supportive”. Apparently, he never mastered the rules of basketball and said : "It was eight years of agony. I spent my time writing plays in the changing rooms" and Cheeseman said : "On sports days he used to lose the stopwatch and he had to make up the time, so he didn’t like it".

Peter the Playwright now began to draw on his experience of the nine years he had spent as a teacher living in the Vale of Evesham, a rural, fruit-growing area in central England and made it the setting for his early plays, which shared theme of rural tradition opposing the forces of change. In his 1964, 'Mighty Reservoy', a new reservoir was built threateningly close to a village, whose keeper believed that an act of sacrifice was necessary to avert a tragedy. In 'Mooney and His Caravans' he concentrated the story on a married couple, Charley and Mave, who were so determined to escape city life that they are willing to submit themselves to repeated degradation in a rural trailer-park community run like a prison camp by the evil, cunning Mooney. Humiliated and stripped of all pretense, with Mave carrying Mooney's baby, the couple rediscover their love for each other and returned to the city. 

In 1965 he proved himself to be an accomplished adapter of the Potteries-born novelist, Arnold Bennett, whose short story 'Jock on the Go' gave him his first television credit which he shared with Peter Cheeseman in 1967. When the play was performed at the Victoria Theatre it was seen by  by Michael Croft, Founder-Director of the National Youth Theatre, who invited Peter to join him at the National. 

Peter was now forced to change his writing style because, while productions at the Victoria were small in scale and represented regional, rural interests, the London-based National Youth presented large, showy productions, staged by school children and young adults, and dealt with themes that appealed to urban youth. Here Peter would start with the basic outline of a play and, working with cast and director Croft, work out staging details and dialogue. in 1967 his approach created 'Zigger Zagger', a look at almost fanatical adoration of and identification with professional soccer teams as seen through the eyes of Harry Philton, a school dropout moving from job to job, falling into unhappy relationships and a dead-end career.

Harry's monologue describing the excitement of the day of the match provides a perfect example of Peter's flair for combining naturalism with unforced poetry : "Come Saturday the whole town comes alive. People are going one way from all the streets, they're going a one way. They're meeting and joining and going on, meeting more, till the trickle becomes a flood. And you come to the stadium and the hum comes from the bowl and the people inside seem to be saying : "Come on in. Come on in". And you jostle at the turnstile and the turnstile clicks and clicks and you push nearer and nearer, through the dark gap, then you're in. And the great stand at the City End, it's like an hall, a great hall. And you go on through the arch, till you see the pitch - green, new-shaven and watered. And the groundsman's made a white line, it's as straight as a ruler. And you find your place among the fans, the real fans, the singers and chanters and the rattle wavers. And a sheet of tobacco smoke hangs over the crowd and the crowd whistles salutes and the policeman circling the pitch look up and know they're in for a rough day of it".

It was the first play be commissioned by the National Youth Theatre and it prompted the 'Observer' to declare Peter 'a poet of the theatre'. In his lifetime, Peter saw it filmed twice by the BBC, the second time in three parts in 1975 and although a professional West End production folded after only five performances in 1968, when he was 85 in 2017, its 50th anniversary in was marked by a revival by the NYT at Wilton’s Music Hall.

Peter followed 'Zigger Zagger' at the National in 1969 with 'The Apprentices', in which the hopes and dreams of a working-class youth are stripped away, one by one, until he finds himself trapped in a colorless, meaningless world with no future. It was televised with the same cast on BBC TV the same year and earned plaudits : 'A worthy successor to 'Zigger Zagger' combining immense theatrical vigour with a wholly credible picture of life among the working-class young' from The Times and : 'The genuine tang of Now. They come at you fresh, authentic, and surprising, like a head-on collision with the actual world. It should be the most popular show the National Youth Theatre has ever done', from the Daily Mail.

It was at this point in 1968 that Peter took an unforeseen step. He was still working with Peter Cheeseman who recalled : "He disappeared one day and nobody knew where he was. It turned out he’d gone to live in Whitby. He’s a strange chap is Peter, but he got so unhappy and he wanted to move. I think he was feeling claustrophobic. He lived in Whitby for several years and we did a number of plays set in Whitby or inspired by Whitby, 'The 1861 Whitby Lifeboat Disaster' was one". 

The Whitby lifeboat crew launched five times to rescue stricken vessels, but on their sixth launch, tragedy struck. A freak wave hit the lifeboat, which capsized and all but one of the crew were lost. 

Cheeseman continued: "Peter was very much a man who writes about place, like a lot of writers do, but things that came out of the place. But he had to leave Whitby because of the stupidity of a young 'marketing director' we had, or 'publishing manager', who told the Daily Telegraph that the disaster in the play happened because the crew of the lifeboat were drunk and so Whitby erupted. Peter, who by then was a great mate of the lifeboat crew, was shunned and ostracised and it was a sort of national scandal - a 15 or 20 minute programme on the television news in May 1970".
In fact, Peter and the family were forced to pack their bags and leave the town and moved into residence on a canal boat in the Midlands.  

For his 'The Affair at Bennett’s Hill', Peter drew on his knowledge of farm workers in the Vale of Evesham where he'd lived in his years as a teacher. One proposed scene, with two men ferreting for rabbits which involved the rabbits' faces being bitten by the ferrets, was deleted by the Censor. Peter Cheeseman recalled : "I asked to go down and see him with Peter to discuss this and it was one of the most amusing events I’ve ever taken part in". They travelled to London and met 'The Comptroller of the Chamberlain’s Office', Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Johnston"this very upper middle class army officer who was also the Keeper of the Queen’s Swans I think. But he said
"Oh, it’s not even good sportsmanship", he actually said that. And he also said "It’s people like you Mr Terson who are undermining the very foundations of British public life". So we discussed this and we rescued the scene".
They also persuaded him to allow the character Dezzel, to play on his percussion 'knackers' in the village pub. "I remember the door of his office as he graciously showed us off, after a fairly amiable encounter in the end. It wasn’t unpleasant, it was just culturally odd, and he said "I think we can admit knackers providing you make it clear it’s a north country term for a variety of castanets", which we tried to do".   

It was to be Peter's last collaboration with Cheeseman for many years who recalled : "He did an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin and I couldn’t direct it because I was working on a new theatre and it didn’t work out and Peter got very upset and we parted company. It took a long time for us to get together again. They’re tempestuous characters, these writers".

In 1971 Peter was commissioned by BBC Radio, to write 'The Fishing Party', in which a trio of coal miners, Art, Ern and Abve decide to leave their native Leeds, where they graft in the mines all week, and head to Whitby, where they intended to do a spot of cod fishing. To avoid staying in the docks where everyone reeked of fish, they sought digs at a hotel run by Audrey and her subservient husband Brian. Televised by the BBC as a 'Play for Today', Brian Glover played the party leader 'Art' and Jane Freeman played 'Audrey'. The play earned Peter a Writers' Guild Award.

It was was followed by the trio's second outing in 1973, 'Shakespeare or Bust', centred around a canal trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Antony and Cleopatra that ended up with 'Antony' played by Richard Johnson and 'Cleopatra' by Janet Suzman, meeting them, by accident, outside the theatre after the trio were unable to get tickets for the performance and joining them on the boat. The third play, 'Three for the Fancy', was set at a country livestock fair where they planned to exhibit, respectively, a rabbit, a mouse and a guinea pig at the Bradford Championship Show. 

In all three plays, Peter used his favourite device of taking characters outside their natural comfort zone and exploited the comic potential that this released. At the a seaside hotel they were 'a cut above' what they are used to and exposed to petty class prejudice enshrined in the rituals of the hotel and its formidable proprietor. On the canal trip to Stratford-upon- Avon, which Peter undertook himself and completed the script on the journey, the comedy was released when Art took his pals on his quest to see the Bard’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company. When they entered the obsessive world of champion livestock breeding, the trio never fully understood the reality around them and Peter was at his wryly observational best. Thirty years later, when Peter was 70, he saw his trilogy placed at the heart of a celebratory retrospective of his work at the British Film Institute in 2012. 

In 1973 Peter wrote 'The Ballard of Ben Bagot' for BBC TV based on 17 year-old Ben, played by Peter Firth, who had  thrown caution to the winds and left school behind, believing it to be inferior to his natural wit and intelligence and not before his English Lit teacher, played by Jack Shepherd despaired of his charge. 'Bags' sets fire to his school uniform and yearns for a freedom where he can be a pop star or a great business brain. Prone to fantasy, he cannot see the true reality of his situation, trapped as he is by marriage and his wife’s pregnancy. Director Ronald Smedley recalled his unease at receiving Peter's script which was simply poetry which he had to shape into a narrative and work on the music and locations. 

In 1976, with Paul Joyce, he provided a script 'The Jolly Swagman' for the Granada TV 'Crown Court' Series which involved Leavis and Lovelace working together as jobbing builders and a pub comedy act. They now shared the dock, accused of disguising themselves, tricking their way into the homes of two old aged pensioners and then robbing them. 

Peter himself said : "I think anyone writing about my plays should see the paintings I do while I'm working on them. I just slosh the paint on, as boldly and simply as you and the subjects are all very simple and obvious : A Man, A Street, and so on. I don't know why I do them, and when I've done them I just chuck most of them away. I think my plays are very much like that. I suppose I must be some sort of crazy primitive or something". In an early letter to Peter Cheeseman, he wrote : 'Although, actually, tonight, I've started a play. Much against my will. It seems to force its way out like dry sweat. I might see the doctor rather than finish it. Oh, it's agony. I was up there in the Rec, rolling the pitch, when all of a sudden I went quiet and tense, and my arse was grapped in a knot, and then I knew my whole world was gone'. 

In 1983, typically, Peter prepared for his writing for the BBC Radio documentary play, 'The Romany Trip' by buying an authentic caravan, learning to harness a horse and setting out on the road. In addition, when a genuine Romany challenged him to a fight, he accepted and lost two front teeth and as a mark of pride, didn't have them replaced. The proficiency he gained at handling the horse and caravan meant that he knew what he was doing two years later when he made the charming, ten episode series, 'The Journey' for BBC Television. In his wagon with the reporter Dennis Skillicorn, he travelled the medieval pilgrim route route from Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral with a horse called Marcus and Toby the donkey. Peter clearly provided the know how and leadership for 'The Journey'. : (Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 5

In 'Atlantis', his BBC 'Play for Today' in 1983, he based his story around Goff and Lytton who have a dream - a canal boat of their own on which to cruise the inland waterways. The reality is the boatyard of Josh Adkins and a rusting hulk called 'Atlantis'. In his writing, Peter obviously drew on his own experience of living on a boat with his family after he left Whitby 13 years before.

In 1984, he focused in 'Strippers' on his home city of Newcastle and the unemployment created by the collapse of old industries and the housewives who bared all to make up for the pay packets their redundant men had lost. It centred around the lives of Wendy and Bernard, where she turned to stripping after he lost his job in the shipyards. Although he had quite happily watched 'exotic dancers' over a couple of pints at the club, when it came to his wife it was a different matter. On this occasion Peter prepared to write the script by acting as a taxi driver for three weeks, ferrying the women strippers he had met to the venues at working men's clubs, where they performed. First produced by then 'Tyne Wear Theatre Company', before transferring to London’s 'Phoenix Theatre', 'Strippers' was thought to have perfectly caught the desperation and resilience of communities ravaged by Thatcherite, Government policies. 

It was when he was in his sixties, in the 1990s, that saw Peter more fully committed to making his work more accessible to non-traditional theatre-going audiences and did this by writing large-scale community plays. Peter was attracted by people with stories with no way of telling them. He demonstrated his easy-going ability to get people to reveal their stories in his BBC TV Series, 'The Journey' in 1985. These were the years when every local person who wanted to be in the cast was found a part and the plays were often 'promenade theatre', performed in dockyard warehouses and derelict castles.

His interest in local history, which had been aroused when he'd worked over 20 years before at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, reasserted itself and found expression in his community-based plays in locations as varied as Poole, the Isle of Wight, Ottery St Mary in East Devon and the Hampshire village of Lockerley. His activity led the journalist and playwright Paul Allen to say of Peter : 'Possibly no writer has done more to democtatise drama in  Britain'.

These were the years in which he regularly worked with the artistic director Jon Oram at the then 'Colway Theatre Trust', now 'Claque Theatre' and included productions of  'Under the Fish and Over the Water' performed at  Bradford-on-Avon in 1990 and 'Sailor’s Horse', performed at Minehead in Somerset in 1999. In order to prepare for the script, Peter spent a weekend at Butlins in the town in which he followed a bluecoat for the day, played crazy golf, sang karaoke and joined a quiz team. In preparation for writing a play Jon said : 'There were no pretensions about Peter, finding the play he was diligent in his research and more significantly connecting with the community he was writing for; he steeped himself in their lives, lived among them, frequented their places of work, and leisure. He listened to people, picked up the rhythms and manner of their speech'.

Peter's plays, of which more than 80 were performed in his lifetime, were, in the opinion of Jon, always "works in progress" right up to the opening night and Peter recognised that in amateur productions the players always took decisions differently from professionals. Jon said that if they said 'the sense of a line' in their words rather than his, then Peter would shout out "that’s better" and "keep the words in”. Jon said : “He’d see something in someone and develop it in the script” and "He recognised it sat more comfortably with the actors vernacular and was therefore more truthful". Peter excelled in that creative environment of rehearsals where he rethought and rewrote phrases and typed away on his portable typewriter somewhere not far offstage, or talked it up afterwards with the actors at the local pub. This meant that the play which emerged at the end of a rehearsal period often bore little resemblance to the raw script with which the company started. 

The theatre critic John Elsom said Peter had often been referred to as a writer as a 'primitive talent' a term was "intended to mean that his technique is artless, his observation fresh and original, and his naturally prolific talent untainted by too much sophistication. This somewhat backhanded tribute belittles his ability." He said that in Peter's heyday, the theatre establishment had a difficulty fully accepting his work because it did not include either "popular West End comedies" or "middle-class families in the grip of emotional dilemmas". Instead, Peter wrote about "problems which seem to him more important. He is a highly skilled writer with a particular insight into Northern working-class societies and whose plays have, at best, a richness of imagination and an infectious humour". His plays : "have a much greater variety and range than is often supposed. His influence in British regional theatre has been considerable, and more than any other contemporary dramatist he carries forward the ideas of social drama".

When the BFI staged a tribute to his work in 'Peter Terson: The Artisan Playwright TV season at BFI Southbank in May 2012' the curator said : "Peter Terson wrote some of the most deeply human and talked-about dramas of the 1960s and 1970s, displaying an unparalleled ear for natural dialogue and a trademark humour. This season explores the range and depth of this enigmatic playwright". Peter himself had not seen most of his work which was being shown, for nearly 40 years. He told the Ross Gazette, with perfect understatement, that when the BFI contacted him : "I was amazed really. I would never have rated myself that highly" and "I just write about things that I noticed. Writing just kind of flowed out of me."  He claimed never to have really wanted to be a writer. "It was a way of escaping from teaching".

Seven years later in 2019, when he was 87 and Parkinson Disease had robbed him of his ability to write, he received the news that theatregoers in New York were applauding an operatic adaption of his play 'Aesop's Fables'. Unbeknownst to Peter, it had been adapted by its original director, Mark Dornford-May for his company, 'Isango Ensemble' to perform at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. Peter said : "I hadn't spoken to Mark for a long time, then I got a phone call saying : "We're on in New York", which was quite a surprise".

Peter once said : 

"Since working on community plays, I have found that many people have stories to tell but are unable to do so. Up to now I have written plays with Jon Hurley, a wine specialist; Doug and Carol Braddy, social workers; Didi Lodge, a farmer's wife; and Dick Parker, a retired doctor. All of these add a new dimension and a new depth to my work". 

Thursday 15 April 2021

Britain is no country for an old Scientific Advisor called Sir David King who believes that, by stealth, its NHS is being sold off and Voice of Dissent silenced

David, who is 81 years old, moved to Britain in 1963 when he was 24 and forged a brilliant scientific career which took him to the University of Liverpool as Professor of Physical Chemistry in 1974 then Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge in 1988. In 2000 he became the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and Head of the 'Government Office for Science' and served for seven years under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. 

David has 'gravitas' in the scientific community. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision makers during emergencies and in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, David formed and led 'Independent SAGE', a committee of unpaid experts which acts as a 'shadow' of the Government's SAGE group to address concerns of political influence on that body.

Now David has spoken out against the Boris Johnson-led Government.

He said : “I am extremely worried about the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, about the processes by which public money has been distributed to private sector companies without due process. It really smells of corruption”. In particular, he had in mind those private companies brought in and then mishandled the coronavirus test-and-trace operation. He contrasted the success of the vaccination programme, carried out by the National Health Service, with this failure of the Government’s test-and-trace operation contracted out to private companies. David said : “The operation to roll out vaccination has been extremely successful. It was driven through entirely by our truly national health service and GP service - just amazing. Yet we have persisted with this money for test and trace, given without competition, without due process. I am really worried about democratic processes being ignored. This is a so-called 'Chumocracy', that has been a phrase used, and that is what it looks like I’m afraid : it is a 'Chumocracy'”.

Paul rejected the argument that the Government had to act quickly to counter the pandemic and had been forced to ignore normal processes in doing so. “People say it’s a crisis. I say the Government is using a crisis to privatise sections of the healthcare system in a way that is completely wrong. A fraction of this money going to public services would have been far better results”.

Paul accused the Government of acting deliberately to carry out ideological aims of privatising the NHS. “It is slipping this through in the name of a pandemic. Effectively, to privatise the NHS by stealth. I’m quite sure this has not been an accident, I’m quite sure this has been the plan, there has been clarity in this process. The audacity has been amazing”.

When he worked as Scientific Advisor to the British Government he was outspoken on the subject of climate change and said : "I see climate change as the greatest challenges facing Britain and the World in the 21st century" and "climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today – more serious even than the threat of terrorism".

He has continued to make the climate crisis one of his key areas of focus, is concerned about the proposed change in the law in the 'Police and Crime bill, which would give police the powers to shut down protests regarded as a 'nuisance'. He said: “It’s extremely worrying, as we pride ourselves in Britain on having developed a true democracy. Any democracy needs to give voice to dissent. There’s a real danger that we’re going down a pathway that leads away from democracy.”

Paul recently signed a letter calling on the Supreme Court to reconsider its pursuit of Tim Crosland, a campaigner against the third runway at Heathrow, for contempt of court. “I think he is being set up as an example to others. It shows the Government’s churlish attitude towards people campaigning”.

Sunday 11 April 2021

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to its Brave and Brilliant, Prince of Public Health, Paul Cosford

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Paul, who has died at the age of 57, had worked for Public Health England from its inception in 2012 and was familiar as its public face as Director for Health Protection until 2019, when he was forced to stand down after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer two years before. He was born the son of Judith and Brian, in the Spring of 1963 in the market town of Thornbury in Gloucestershire as it emerged from the 'Big Freeze' of the winter of 1962-63. His secondary school was Exeter School, which had been founded and endowed as a grammar school for boys by wealthy Exeter merchants in the 1630s and was given the motto 'ΧΡΥΣΟΣ ΑΡΕΤΗΣ ΟΥΚ ΑΝΤΑΞΙΟΣ '- 'Gold is not worth more than virtue'. By the time Paul attended in 1974, the school was co-educational, direct-grant grammar school with most students paying fees.

He obviously excelled in his 'A' Level sciences and at the age of 18 in 1981 took himself off to St Mary's Hospital Medical School, Imperial College, London. In 2017 he told the pupils in his old school : "I chose to enter medicine because I wanted to help others and make a positive contribution to society" and of his career in public health he said : "Although I have not dealt with patients for 25 year, I take great pride in knowing the work we do is saving lives". Clearly, a brilliant student, he graduated after 6 years study with the joint degree of MBBS as a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1987.

As Dr Cosford he now followed a career in mental health, working with adults and those with severe mental illness in North West London in the poorer districts of Camden and Islington, which included children, families and people with learning disability. For the first time in his life it brought him into
contact with the realities of working class life and those with extreme social circumstances and to his credit, he continued to work on the health needs of London homeless to the end of his professional career. 

In 1990, at the age of 27, he became a Lecturer in Psychiatry at St Mary's Hospital Medical School. He stopped dealing with patients directly in 1992 and in his early thirties he was promoted to leadership and management roles in the NHS where he led programmes dealing with the problems of hospital infection and reducing the country's cases of TB. 
In 2006, at the age of 43 he began to increase his experience at the regional level as Medical Director of the East of England Strategic Health Authority (1), followed by the Regional Director of Public Health for the East of England. Here he developed successful strategies for reducing health inequalities and harm from tobacco and obesity. Then, in 2010, he moved to the national arena when he began working for the Health Protection Agency and then its successor, Public Health England.

Paul considered the biggest challenge in his career was dealing with the crisis caused by the 2014-16 outbreak of Ebola and in this he played a leading role in the response in Britain and West Africa. He said : "We closely followed the outbreak in West Africa and led the work to identify any cases and avoid the spread in Britain. In a separate UK emergency, we had to deal with an outbreak of poisoning of premature babies in maternity wards. Within 24 hours, we found the source of the poison, isolated it and treated the infected babies". He saw his role was to "consider the size and scientific aspects of the outbreak and ensure that the response was significant enough to maintain public and political confidence, without unduly alarming the public and causing panic".

In post as Director for Health Protection at Public Health England in 2018, he led its protection and emergency response to the Salisbury Novichok poisonings and advised the Government. In the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, he became a familiar public voice until his medical condition forced him to shield while infection rates were high. He found this hard, since he loved his job and wanted to continue to play his part. He said : "The strength of my reaction caught me by surprise – I was deeply upset. I have always considered myself fit and healthy. My way of responding to having an incurable cancer with a much-reduced life expectancy has largely been to keep calm and carry on, to live life as normally as possible including working, staying as physically active and mentally positive as I can, and spending time with those important to me, especially my family".

For Paul there was : "Nothing more fascinating than taking scientific advice, converting it into practical action and encouraging the public to understand and support the action". Nevertheless, he admitted : "I could no longer do justice to the intensity of work needed during major national incidents such as coronavirus. Nevertheless I feel privileged to be involved still through an emeritus role and able to help wherever I can as the nation responds to the present crisis".

In 2019 Paul was able to delivered a lecture at Chester University on the subject of 'The future of Infectious Diseases'.

He was both philosophical and courageous as he faced death in his country home with his wife and fellow doctor, Gillian. He said : "Perhaps it is the same for us all, whatever our age—if we know that we are approaching the end of our life, it is helpful to have a place of contemplation. I walk from the back door, along an old track and across the field that is the home of two familiar chestnut coloured horses. They raise their heads as I pass, and a poorly constructed wooden bench sits in the field beyond. It is perfectly situated for the view, which appears just as the path starts to descend a sandy ridge. Two rough planks, one to sit on, one for leaning, are fixed to the two decaying tree stumps that form its legs. It wobbles slightly but is strong enough for me to rest and ponder".

"I am not an old man, but like the bench I won’t last long, but I don’t rail against the world as I sit on the bench. I’ve seen enough people die younger and in worse circumstances for that. I do watch the world go through its familiar cycles, knowing that I won’t see many more. The inquisitive lambs of spring, full of life then suddenly disappearing as their short lives end in the abattoir. The crops, subtly changing colour through hues of verdant green, then replaced by the bare soil of the ploughed fields after harvest".

Last December, the broadcaster, Pru Leith invited Paul as a guest on the BBC Radio Today Programme, where she was acting as 'Guest Editor' and started the interview at 2m 15s into the programme :  She asked him about the bench and he revealed that it was a place to "think about some of the things that seem particularly important". He said that one of the things he had "spent time contemplating, is how you actually die and it seems to be the worry more than the fact that I'm going to die. We know, all of us, that we are going to die at some point, but the actual way that you die is quite scary and quite difficult to think through".

Paul said that he liked "the idea that I could have an extra phial of morphine in the fridge so that if everything just becomes too much and the symptoms can't be controlled, I'd have an option to use that in the last few days of life and accelerate things if that was the only way of getting things under control and maintaining any sense of life that I do have, as a reasonable quality. But that's not available within the law at the moment".

In lending his support to an 'Assisted Dying Inquiry' he said : "What I think we do need to do is to have a really clear view of what the problems are that people face as they come to the end of life and what people, who are dying, facing the end of life, actually want to happen. So I think it is important to have an 'information gathering'. What are the views of the palliative care geriatricians and other specialists ? What are the views of doctors as a whole ? Certainly, from my understanding, 80% of the public think this needs to be looked at and quite possibly a law change".

He went on "The dangers that people are worried about, it seems to me, come in 3 different ways. One is that because its legal it becomes an expectation that people have an assisted death. The second is that staff involved, the palliative care physicians involved might feel compelled to participate in assist dying when have a deeply personal view that this is the wrong thing to do. And the third is that peoples lives are sometimes different from the norm, whether its because of a disability or some other issue, that their life becomes devalued in some way".

He concluded "My view is that we need to do that information gathering, then we need a group of people who are expert in medicine, in the legal profession, in public opinion and so on to look at what the potential solutions are, to look at the experience in other countries Oregon, the Netherland and elsewhere and come up with a carefully thought through set of changes. I think its complicated, but I think its not beyond us to sort this out".

Writing in the blog, 'The Hippocratic Post', Paul said : "I was in a bookshop last month and my eye was caught by a book of poems. I am not an avid reader of poetry and haven’t written any since being at school. However, there was something about the style of writing that made me wonder if I could express a little of how it feels in a poem. With apologies to those of you who are experts in poetry, here is what I came up with. As with all poems it is best read slowly, and aloud to yourself if you can do so without looking too foolish".

Paul called his poem 'Scanxiety' and ended with : 

'So how to approach the coming three months                                                                                       Till time brings along the next scan?                                                                                               Honesty tells me I don’t have a clue                                                                                                          I guess I’ll just: keep calm, carry on.'

The poem perfectly expressed the philosophy he had now adopted and he said : "The longer I live with a “treatable but not curable” cancer the more I realise how much good there is in life that I can focus on today, this week, this month. The uncertainty that treatments might work for much longer than expected helps me to keep that focus. It allows me to keep calm and carry on".

"I have found it is empowering when you face death head on. It means you focus your attention on the really important things and it makes me appreciate this life more than ever. When people complain about growing old, as I used to as well, I reply that growing old is a privilege and one that I wish now I could have".

In the event, we must assume that at the end of his life Paul did not have that extra phial of morphine in his fridge to be used by him to alleviate his pain. Much of what he has said about his condition and treatment with its CT scans struck a chord with me. Having been diagnosed with bladder cancer, I underwent a course of chemotherapy and than had a cystectomy to remove my bladder along with a dozen lymph nodes, my prostate and appendix. At the same time the surgeon removed a short length of my colon to create my new ileal conduit. That was 5 years ago. I was lucky. Unlike Paul, my cancer hadn't metastasized and travelled to other parts of my body, like my liver.

Paul, enacted, in his professional life and as a force for good, his advice to others :       

"If you want to make a difference in life, influence those who are                                             around you"                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Wednesday 7 April 2021

Why Britain is no country for a brilliant old Brain Surgeon called Henry Marsh who wants to choose his time to die

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Henry, who is 71 years old and is one of Britain's leading brain surgeons and a bestselling author, has called for an urgent inquiry into assisted dying after revealing he has advanced prostate cancer which is probably going to kill him. He said dying of cancer could be “a very horrible business” but the law “insists I must suffer”.

If Henry had been Spanish, he wouldn't have a problem, because last month, Spain became the latest European country to approve legislation giving patients with incurable diseases or unbearable conditions the right to choose to end their lives with the assistance of a doctor. The same would apply if he was a citizen of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand and in the USA, a citizen in California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon or Vermont. 

Henry's call for an inquiry is backed by more than 50 MPs and peers from different political parties, some of whom have previously voted against changing the law. Their letter to Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, argues that Britain has now fallen behind many other countries on the issue of assisted dying.

At present, under the 1961 Suicide Act, if someone helped Henry end his life, they would be committing a criminal and face a  potential prison sentence of 14 years. The British Parliament last voted on the issue in 2015, rejecting by 330 to 118 a Private Member’s Bill to allow assisted dying for people with a terminal illness who are likely to die within six months. Yet an opinion poll two years ago found that about nine in 10 people believed assisted dying was acceptable in some situations and survey of doctors carried out by the British Medical Association last year found that half believed there should be a change in the law to allow patients to be helped to die.

Henry, whose cancer was diagnosed six months ago, said : “Having spent a lifetime operating on people with cancer, the prospect of dying slowly from it myself fills me with dread. Despite the best efforts of palliative medicine, I know that dying from cancer can still be a very horrible business – for both patient and family, despite what the opponents of assisted dying claim. I fiercely believe that if people in my situation knew they had the ability to choose how, when and where they would die, it would greatly reduce their suffering. Knowing that I had this choice, if life became unbearable, would certainly give me much greater confidence now in facing whatever the future might hold for me. But as the law stands, I am not allowed this comfort, and the law insists instead that I must suffer. Many politicians have shown a striking lack of compassion by ducking this issue for too long, and are inadvertently guilty of great cruelty”.

He continued: “Irrespective of your view on assisted dying, I would hope everyone could agree that our laws should be based on evidence and informed decisions, not alarmist, unfounded opposition that flies in the face of all the evidence from countries where assisted dying has been legalised. It’s time for all MPs to start taking this issue seriously and I urgently call upon them to undertake an inquiry into the law”.

Crispin Blunt, MP and Co-Chair of the 'All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group', said : “In the years since Parliament last scrutinised the law underpinning our ban on assisted dying, 250 million people worldwide have gained the option of a dignified death, new evidence has emerged demonstrating that respect for autonomy can be balanced alongside robust safeguards, and professional opinion has dramatically shifted towards a change in the law”.

The Chief Executive of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson said he was "deeply sorry" to hear about Henry's  diagnosis "The ability to choose how, where, and when we die is a fundamental freedom, which cuts across party political and ideological lines. In coming together to demand an inquiry, Henry and the lawmakers who have signed this letter have put the voices of the terminally ill and incurably suffering at the centre of the debate".

Henry, who is due to start radiotherapy treatment for his cancer in a few months' time has said :

"My own suspicion as to why the opponents to assisted dying oppose a public inquiry is they fear that actually the evidence is so strong that their hypothetical arguments against it don't hold       water, that they will lose the debate".

                                         To support Henry :

Friday 2 April 2021

Why Brexit Britain's old and quintessentially 'English' Master of Spy Fiction, John le Carré, died a Citizen of the Irish Republic

John, who died last December, at the age of 89 and crystallized his disillusion with Brexit Britain by adopting Irish citizenship and rejoining the European Union just before he died. He once described himself as "English to the core" and deplored what he saw as the aggressive nationalist sentiment behind Brexit. He published his 25th and last novel, 'Agent Running in the Field' in 2019. It has a plot line that was based covert collusion between Trump’s USA and the British Security Services with the aim of undermining the democratic institutions of the European Union.

Interviewed back in that summer he said : " I think it would be impossible to write at the moment without speaking from within the state of the nation. We are part of it. I'm part of it. I'm depressed by it. I'm ashamed of it and I think communicates itself in the book. inevitably. I'm disconcerted by sense of loyalty. I don't know where to place it. I am extremely concerned by the rise of nationalism which is quite different from patriotism. For nationalism you need enemies and for patriotism you need your one conviction and that's the difference".

His attitude to Brexit was expressed by one of the characters in the last novel who said : “It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none".

In the interview he said :"What really scares me about nostalgia is that it's become a political weapon. Politicians are creating a nostalgia for an England that never existed and seeing it as something we could return to. It's used in the rhetoric of the day, particularly on the Conservative side, I believe, as a polemical weapon - that we've got to go back to the good old days, which means restoring the dignity of the British labourer and patronising concepts of that sort, which are completely impractical in our industrial age".

"I saw the film 'Dunkirk'. I thought it was, consciously or otherwise, an offensive piece of propaganda. It excluded, for instance all the Lascars who went across in their boats and it pretended that the small boats rescued everybody from Dunkirk. It was itself a prize piece of reconstructive nostalgia and it did'nt quite happen that way".

"The rest is something I can hardly bear - the wallowing in the '39-'40 experience. We're back to the Blitz. For Heaven's sake, how long ago was that ? I just remember the Blitz. I'm 86 and it's somehow the notion that we were all behind it all the time; that we won single handed".

"Who remembered, watching all those D-Day celebrations, that 30 million Russians died; that the Russians got to Berlin before we did and that there was a Second Front, which coincided with D-Day, in Russia, launched by the Russians which was enormously successful and absorbed a huge amount of Nazi troops".

“The wonderful right wing military historian, Max Hastings, points out that we were bad fighters, that we were extremely badly organised, and our contribution in terms of blood and wealth and material was – I can’t say trivial, but tremendously small by comparison to the sacrifices of the other major powers. We were on the winning side by the end, but we were really quite minor players”.

Now John's son, Nicholas Cornwell, has revealed that : “He was, by the time he died, an Irish citizen. On his last birthday I gave him an Irish flag, and so one of the last photographs I have of him is him sitting wrapped in an Irish flag, grinning his head off”. Prior to adopting Irish citizenship he visited Cork, from whence his maternal grandmother, Olive Wolfe, came and researched his roots. 

When he was interviewed by the late Marian Finucane on her Irish RTÉ Radio 1 radio show in October 2019 he said : “I am indeed applying for an Irish passport. And it means a lot to me for two reasons: firstly, I want to remain in the EU and an Irish passport will enable me to do that; I am a European and I would like the passport of a European. Secondly, I have much to learn. I was completely enchanted by my journey to Ireland where I visited my grandmother’s birthplace in Inchinattin near Rosscarbery in Co Cork and that was where she grew up. And at the age of 16, from there, she went to England as a lady’s maid. That was in 1911 and a couple of years later all hell broke out in that region and there was a terrible religious war and carnage. And she escaped that, so I went and found this tiny little spot, Inchinattin near Rosscarbery. 

Afterwards I went to Skibbereen where there is a heritage centre and a wonderful lady called Margaret Murphy, an archivist, first of all looked rather sternly at her computer for a long while and then she turned up to me and with a beautiful smile said, "welcome home".

When she said this to him his son said : "It was vastly moving for him, a huge emotional shift, an awareness of history and self which had genuinely eluded him his whole life".

John maintained his belief that Brexit was : 

“Without doubt the greatest catastrophe and the greatest idiocy that Britain has perpetrated since the invasion of Suez. Nobody is to blame but the Brits themselves – not the Irish, not the Europeans”.