Monthly Archives: January 2015

Lord Ashley

Jack Ashley was born in 1922 in Widnes, Lancashire.

He left school at fourteen to work as an unskilled factory labourer. In 1946 he was awarded a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford and later to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he became President of the Union.

He spent fifteen years as a BBC radio and television producer before entering Parliament as the Labour member for Stoke-on-Trent South in 1966 where he remained until 1992 when he was made a life peer. He was president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and published two volumes of autobiography: Journey into Silence (1973) and Acts of Defiance (1992).

He died in April 2012 at the age of eighty-nine. I interviewed him in January 2000.

You grew up in considerable poverty in the town of Widnes, but as you say in your autobiography this all seemed ‘part of the natural order of things’. When did it strike you that poverty could be alleviated, that people’s lives could be improved? 

It was in my teens when I began to kick against living and working conditions very strongly indeed, though this was something that was not done at that time in Widnes. I’m not saying I was a splendid fellow doing that, just it seemed natural to act in this way. I started by complaining about the conditions in my own home and when the landlord reacted angrily, I began a campaign to try to improve conditions in other houses he owned. And as a trade unionist at the factory I did exactly the same.

There is still poverty in Britain today. How does it differ from the poverty you experienced, would you say? 

From what I read about some inner cities, it’s much the same as it was then – poor housing, inadequate income, bad health and in some cases bad health provision. All of these things seem to go hand in hand. After all this time there is absolutely no reason why anyone should be suffering the kind of gross poverty that is still prevalent in Britain today, but the basic issues are just not being tackled. Every government, including this Labour government, fears that there may be a reaction if they go too far too fast. In trying to eliminate poverty this government has done something very commendable in terms of income support and special payments. But if they go as far as to raise taxes to deal with poverty, they fear that there may be a backlash from what, for shorthand, I would call middle-class people. They are afraid they will not remain in power, and that, I think is deplorable. This is why I have reservations about commending the government wholeheartedly. I do support the Labour government, and I think they are doing a very good job, but they should go much further, and if it requires increased taxation, so be it.

Your father died when you were only five, and you lived in fear that your mother might also die and that you and your two sisters would be sent to an orphanage. Do you think that these early experiences strengthened your character, or did the sense of insecurity remain with you into adulthood? 

The sense of insecurity did remain, perhaps not into mature adulthood, but certainly for many years. My father’s death strengthened my character in the sense that I became the man of the house and I took on responsibilities, not just material but also physiological.

Reading your autobiography, I was struck by the fact that you were lifted up to look at the face of your dead father. Do you remember that clearly? In the years to come were you pleased to have seen your father after he died? 

I think so. It was something that struck me very forcibly at the time. I can remember it even now, not as vividly as when I was a child, but it was something I was rather glad I saw, full of regret though I was at the time.

Death seemed to be very much part of life in those days and it was quite normal for children to go and pray for the souls of the departed. Do you think this was preferable to what we do now, which is to hide death away from our children? 

I have to say it is preferable. There was a certain rawness about it and it brought the community together in a very strange and remarkable way. You empathized with people – you couldn’t walk into a house and see the body of a man or a woman or a child and then walk out unaffected by what you had seen. To that extent I think it was a good thing, but I cannot see people reverting to that kind of openness with death.

Would you say you were actually politicized by the experience of your childhood? 

You can’t go through the experience of being as poor as I was and working in such conditions without being politicized to some extent. The question then becomes: how do you react? In my own case I took on the landlord, got on to the council, became a shop steward and organized a trade union which then became a cohesive force seeking to improve conditions and wages. Not that we succeeded in all of these things, but at least we tried.

You left school aged fourteen to work as a factory labourer. Did that also seem part of the natural order of things at the time? 

It was certainly part of the natural order of things in Widnes because everybody left school at fourteen. I vividly remember going on the bus with my tea-can to the factory, feeling quite at home really, enjoying the banter and the friendliness and the all-in-it-together kind of feeling. Had it not seemed part of the natural order, one would have felt very apprehensive. I didn’t.

Didn’t you feel at the age of fourteen that you were missing out on childhood years? 

Not in the least. What could one miss out on in Widnes? If you didn’t have a job, you stood on a street corner. But as a young man with a job I was earning money and I could take home part of my wages and have a little pocket money. That was something positive and constructive.

Application to the local grammar school was out of the question because it was non-Catholic. Were you aware of being disadvantaged as a Catholic in this way? 

No, because I was never outstanding at school. I was always about tenth, maybe a bit higher or a bit lower, but I didn’t feel the grammar school applied to me. I was content to go with the gang.

You write in your autobiography of the power and authority of the priest, something which you seem to have resented from an early age. You describe, for example, the way in which the priest would call each week to collect money from your widowed mother. Why do you think you were unwilling to accept the authority of the priest like everyone else? So you remember your feelings about that? 

Yes I do, very vividly. My mother was dreadfully poor, and we scrimped and scraped all the time. The priest lived in quite a posh house – I can see it now – a fine high building with highly polished brasses and smelling of furniture polish. To see a well-fleshed man living there in those conditions and taking money from my mother who didn’t have two pennies to rub together – that stuck in my throat and I resented it.

You first became interested in trade unionism when you stoked furnaces at the copper factory. After an operation for appendicitis you asked for lighter work and were refused. I imagine you had a terrible sense of injustice… 

Yes, and what I found when I tried to organize a union was that practically everybody else had a sense of injustice. But it was a far more deferential society then that it is now, and people just did obey the authority figure, whether it was the priest, the policeman or the factory boss. The men were passive and submissive, and when I organized a union it was fertile ground for people wanting to object who hadn’t ever objected before. It became a kind of catharsis for people.

At the age of only twenty you were elected chairman of the shop stewards’ committee. Was it not a daunting responsibility for a young man without much formal education at the time? 

Indeed it was, and I remember being taken aback at the readiness of people to accept my leadership. I found it rather gratifying, but I was also anxious for a sense of responsibility to prevail, to make our objections disciplined. The easiest thing was to incite the men to violence. I remember when the secretary of the union in London addressed our meetings, he had a fine rhetorical line. He used to say: ‘We won’t have these employers dictate to us, we will tear this factory down brick by brick if they try to diminish us.’ And of course the workers loved the idea of tearing a factory down brick by brick, but it was the last thing I wanted.

To what extent would you say that the struggle you were engaged in on behalf of your fellow workers was a class struggle? 

I think it was finally a class struggle. We were the working class and the people we were opposed to were management who on the whole were middle class. There were one or two foremen who had been workers and they had just gone up a notch or two, but in the main they were middle class people. Even though it was a class struggle, however, we didn’t see it as that then. We saw it as a battle between us in our kind of job and them in their well-paid, cushy, collar-and-tie job. We had the tough jobs, loading furnaces, emptying wagons; we had the dirty clothes, the clogs, the scarves, the overalls. We saw it in black and white, not in political terms, more in material terms.

Do you think it will ever be possible to remove class from British society? 

I’m always suspicious of the term ‘classless society’. Early on at Ruskin College I decided that I was against the Communist Party because I didn’t like their idea of a classless society. To try and impose uniformity on people is silly and obnoxious. The objective should be to try and reduce the inequalities; I don’t think I would go further than that.

Your time as a shop steward was very much characterized by ‘them and us’ attitudes, the workers versus the management. Did you thrive on confrontation, or was it alien to your character really? 

This is slightly tricky. I think of myself as a mild man and yet the truth is I did thrive on confrontation. I wanted to please people, wanted them to be happy, but I recognized the need to press the case strongly and pinpoint weaknesses in the opponent’s case. And so I was forever confronting authority because my ultimate judgement is that if you don’t persist you don’t win. But it is a paradox in me.

You were completely dependent on your mother throughout your childhood. Were you acutely aware of the absence of a father figure, or do you think your mother did the work of two parents, so to speak? 

There’s no doubt that she did the work of two parents, and she was fantastically courageous in the way she brought up three children on her own in those days, because the poverty was absolutely devastating. Having said that, I was very aware of the lack of a father, though I didn’t talk about it very often with my sisters. Of course, the love for our mother was the most important thing, and it was a wonderfully intimate, close, warm relationship, but underlying it was the fear that if anything happened to her, we would be off to the orphanage.

You were seventeen when the war broke out, but after joining the army you were discharged after less than a year on health grounds, because of your increasing deafness. How much of a disappointment was it for you to not be able to fight for your country? 

In a sense you are diminished by being categorized as unfit, and no one likes to be sent home. It was a great thing to be in the army with its wonderful sense of comradeship and esprit de corps, but you can’t argue with the medical men.

In 1946 you were awarded a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, a so-called ‘working man’s scholarship’. Was there a particular pride attached to going to Oxford as a ‘working man’ as opposed to, say, a public schoolboy? 

I suppose I would have felt that more if I had gone to a normal Oxford college; as it was, Ruskin catered for people like me, so it didn’t really arise. I was much more conscious of being a working man rather than a public schoolboy when I went to Cambridge. In fact – though I don’t say this in a hostile way – my room was shared with a pompous public schoolboy who was very cruel for the first few months. We gradually did become friends, but I was very much aware of that kind of snobbish attitude, though I did feel a certain pride in having got there on my own as it were, without the privilege of a public school.

You must have had mixed feelings going up to Oxford, leaving your beloved family behind, giving up your wage which was important for the family budget, and the contrast between Oxford and your home town must have been huge. Did you have any doubts about leaving all that was familiar behind? 

I had many doubts, but the main thing was the wage. I was so poor in Oxford that I went working part time for an old couple who had advertised for a girl to clean the house. They were astonished when I turned up but they gave me the job anyway. Another basic problem was having no educational background. Many of the students at Ruskin had been to night school or grammar school, and many of them were extraordinarily well read. I felt my lack of any formal education keenly. Happily, Ruskin was established in order to meet that kind of problem, and so it didn’t become a great drama, but I was not wholly comfortable.

Did you feel when you went to Cambridge that you were competing on a more equal basis with your fellow students? 

Yes, I think the two years at Ruskin really did make a difference to me. I learned how to read properly, how to handle books, how to listen to university lectures, and so on. I can’t define why exactly, but somehow going to Cambridge felt quite different. I felt happier, more confident, more at home.

In what ways did university change you? Did it distance you from the idea of the working man at all? 

No. One of the things I like to lay claim to, if I may, is having changed very little. This may not be a good thing, but it’s true. When I became the MP for Stoke-on-Trent I was as much at home meeting working men as I always had been. And going back to Widnes is like slipping into an old overcoat. My approach to people in high position and to working-class people is exactly the same as it always was. I’m less deferential now to toffs, so to speak, than I would have been in my younger days, but apart from that I see no significant difference.

At about the same time, according to your autobiography, you were questioning your religious beliefs ‘to the point of rejection’, and you refer in passing to your ‘loss of faith’. Loss of faith, particularly perhaps for a cradle Catholic, is usually traumatic. What happened in your case? 

What happened, I regret to day, was not traumatic – it would make a better story if it had been. I simply began to question the idea of a God and all the accompaniments, like the Resurrection, for example, or the idea that prayer could get you anything that you did not get if you didn’t pray. I began to reject, not only the whole concept of Catholicism, but religion generally.

What about heaven and hell? 

That’s a bit of nonsense to me. It’s just that anyone should go to hell for eternity for committing one mortal sin. In my day a mortal sin was missing mass on a Sunday, and though I was devout as a child, I cannot believe as a responsible adult that you could be condemned to hell for missing mass on a Sunday, and though I was devout as a child, I cannot believe as a responsible adult that you could be condemned to hell for missing mass on a Sunday, for maybe sleeping in for an hour. It’s preposterous. There are other matters too. The Catholic Church says you can’t have contraception, which in this age of AIDS is beyond belief to me. I also cannot accept the infallibility of the Pope. Of course, I’m well aware that there are millions of distinguished minds who are believers in Catholicism, and I respect that. I would never ever criticize anyone for religious beliefs; I say only that it’s not for me.

Has your religious faith ever been restored in any shape or form since? 

Not at all. In fact the older I get the stronger my lack of faith becomes.

At Cambridge you met Pauline, a Girton girl who became your wife and your steadfast and loyal companion through good times and bad. To what do you attribute the success of your long and happy marriage? Is it something that can be defined? 

It can be defined easily. Quite simply, Pauline is understanding and tolerant of my foibles. We have had an intellectual and physical marriage which has lasted forty-nine years now, and whenever there has been a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding she has always been able to say, let’s sort it out. I tend to stand on my dignity, which she thinks is silly, and she’s right, and she’s not as silly as I am. It is her rationality that is the key to the whole thing. I wish I were like that – it would make me get on better with other people – but I don’t have her capacity for tolerance and understanding.

There is a notoriously high rate of marriage breakdown among politicians, often attributed to the stress of the job and other related factors. You had the extra stress of disability to cope with. How did you manage to succeed where others failed? 

I don’t know. It’s a good question, because the stresses of total deafness were unbelievable, not only on me but on Pauline just as much. The burden on her was phenomenal. But somehow it brought us even closer together. She accompanied me to the constituency all the time and shared the work of all the campaigns. I couldn’t have continued to be an MP without Pauline – it was a fifty-fifty partnership. When I won the Campaigner of the Year Award I said it was half for Pauline, because she did as much campaigning as I did. It has been a fantastically successful duo.

When you became MP in 1966 you describe entering the House of Commons as ‘the stuff of dreams’. Was that your proudest moment? 

It certainly was a proud moment, but oddly enough, and this will sound bizarre, my actual proudest moment was becoming a councillor in Widnes. I remember very vividly when the town clerk read out my name in front of hundreds of people from my home. I thought, gosh, I’m on the council, now I can battle. That moment beat the House of Commons by a short head.

After the onset of total deafness you seriously considered resigning. Looking back, how much do you think that was an emotional reaction to the devastating change in your life, and how much was it a rational thought process? 

Very much the latter, because it seemed an impossibility to sit in the House of Commons, the greatest talking shop in the land, with no sound. Time and again I tried to talk to my colleagues; they would answer politely, but there was no way in. No, there was a certain emotion about my decisions, but basically it was a rational one given the bloody good reason that I couldn’t do the job.

You write with great candour, that your own attitude to disability for many years had been ‘casual indifference tinged with pity’, an attitude which you say characterized your generation. Is there any evidence, would you say, of a radical shift in attitude today? 

There is no doubt that there has been a definite shift in attitudes towards disability; there is more tolerance, more understanding. And there’s going to be another tremendous change now because of the law. The Disability Discrimination Act has now been passed and it is about to be fully implemented. This will mean that no service providers will be allowed to discriminate against disabled people, a radical piece of legislation which will make huge improvements in the provision for disabled people.

You write that failure to tackle disability is ‘a failure of democracy’. Can you elaborate on that? 

In so far as you leave people to their own devices, they do not on the whole help disabled people; indifference and neglect prevail. Admittedly when there is a blind person trying to cross the road some people will help and feel they’ve done their boy-scout thing for the day, but if you get someone in a wheelchair, someone who is deaf or someone who is mentally handicapped or has epilepsy – all the unfashionable disabilities, and they constitute the majority – people simply don’t want to know. When they manifest this indifference through the ballot box, governments react to their indifference and don’t do very much. Happily, as a result of our campaigning to amend the legislation, we are changing, not the public mind, but the government’s mind in order to lead the public. And that’s no bad thing in a democracy. When the Conservative government was in power and we demanded legislation, they killed the bill which I moved in 1982, saying what you need is education and persuasion, not legislation. But that has been tried for years and it has not worked. What you need is the full rigour of the law.

With your background in the unions and in working-class Lancashire, you can probably be described as Old Labour. Would you be happy with that designation? 

Yes. I think there is a lot to be proud of in Old Labour, though that does not mean opposition to New Labour. The two can go hand in hand, but there is a very clear difference of emphasis, I would go much further than Tony Blair and his colleagues do, but, having said that, I’m happy with the general direction the government is taking.

You say that you lost none of your friends when you became deaf, but that it was not until you were deaf that you knew who your friends were. It was obviously a severe test of real friendship. Were you surprised by those who passed the test and those who failed? 

I was not surprised by those who passed the test, I was surprised by those who failed. When you are an up-and-coming, successful MP on very good terms with many people, you can be naive enough to assume that these people are real friends. So it was a great shock to find that no matter how regretful they were, they nevertheless didn’t want to continue the relationship because it might mean speaking a bit more clearly. It was a stunning experience, almost a disorientating one. But I very quickly and realistically came to terms with it. Gradually, some of the old friends tried to come back a little bit, no more than a little bit, but as far as I was concerned the relationship was at an end.

You describe how some of your fellow MPs would refer to you in the Commons rather as Victorian men did to ladies, or would treat you a bit like ‘a courageous invalid’. This must have dismayed you, but did you never think that it was perhaps a question of ignorance – in other words, they simply did not know how else to behave? 

It was very definitely a question of ignorance, and although at first I was irritated by it, I gradually came to recognize that some people didn’t know how to handle it, and that they were in fact trying to be helpful and friendly. And so I would make a joke of it, and once it became a matter of humour and goodwill then the problem vanished.

One of the most telling passages in your book, it seems to me, is where you write, ‘I came to realize that the loss of some relationships, can be as useful to a man as shedding fat is to an athlete.’ Was this a painful lesson to learn, or was it perhaps invigorating? 

It was both really, though I wouldn’t like to exaggerate the extent to which it was invigorating. The fact that I had lost some of my friends meant that I paid more attention to those I had, and in that respect it was invigorating. Perhaps the word ‘invigorating’ is slightly overegging the pudding…I think I could say it was stimulating.

You seem to have spent quite a lot of your life being angry, mostly on behalf of others, I should say. Or perhaps you don’t see it like that… 

It’s a fair point really. But to be successful advocate you have to really feel things. You’re right, I do often get very upset and very angry with injustice, particularly where disabled people are concerned, but I think it’s no bad thing to articulate it. In the early days I used to try to be polite all the time, but now I believe there’s nothing wrong with expressing your anger, especially if a minister is prevaricating or refusing to help people who can be helped. If you don’t, you will be brushed aside, and by being brushed aside you’re letting down the very people who are looking to you to champion their cause.

You say that you never became reconciled to your deafness. How best would you describe your attitude to it? 

To me deafness is appalling, dreadful, a truly wretched thing. And I also had tinnitus, a screeching roaring in the head, so I couldn’t even have silence when I wanted it. Fortunately, there are now cochlear implants which can help people who have been afflicted by total deafness in later life, and also children up to the age of ten who have been born deaf. Sadly, there is conflict in the deaf community about these implants. Some people, mainly those who have been born deaf and who say they are proud to be deaf, oppose them. They want to keep their deaf culture and their sign language and to have more interpreters – I’ve even fought for this in Parliament – but I find the opposition to cochlear implant bizarre. To me it’s a miracle to be rescued from the appalling world of total silence, a real miracle. I bless it every day. I myself can now walk in the park and listen to the birds. And I sing with them.

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Doctors Dissected

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and book lovers, please lend me your ears…

We are in congregation here to celebrate the publication of a book by Jane Haynes and Martin Scurr, which Hilary Mantel described as ‘a provocative insight into bodies and souls’.

Hilary should know, for she herself through her own work never shies away from expressing her own thoughts – however much these may cause controversy in certain quarters of the literary world and beyond.

I expect the world of medicine has its own pioneers as well, who are not afraid to delve more into the psyches of their patients and exchange concerns as these often help recovery and promote a better understanding of the roots of the problem.

When Judy Daish, the illustrious agent, rang me about the manuscript and told me briefly about its contents I was curious and intrigued, as the world of medicine is not in my view a subject which is an entertaining read likely to turn into a commercial success.

But I was infinitely wrong, for having begun to read it I found myself hooked and could not put it down.

Moreover, I learnt a great deal about doctors who are vulnerable to the many things their patients feel.

It is a book that, according to Dr Thomas Stuttaford, ‘dissects medical lives and minds with the dedication of a pathologist performing an autopsy’.

In brief, this is a ‘story’ book about medicine, body, mind, doctors and caprices of human nature written by a well-known doctor, Martin Scurr, who has seen every untidy vagary of disease, and a best-selling author and psychotherapist, Jane Haynes, who has listened to personal narratives that rival the visceral emotions of King Lear. Doctors – who at their most profound are mercurial messengers between life and death, and who at a more comedic level must suffer our jiggling body parts – are also ordinary men and women struggling to make sense of their existence.

I could carry on talking about this remarkable book for a long time, but brevity in this case is the better option.

The book must be read in its totality to give the reader its proper impact.

My role as the publisher is simply to convince you that Doctors Dissected is a book you should devour, so to speak, in a colloquial manner, for you will acquire a rare knowledge almost impulsively lacking in most of us and somehow feel the better for it.

So I urge all you assembled here tonight to buy a copy of the book and, if you can afford it, perhaps more than one to give to a friend. The best accolade authors can have is to see their book flying off the shelves. Let us witness this happening this evening in order to foresee further triumphs in the marketplace.

Succès de Scandale Encore…

Michel Houellebecq, the well-known French author who never fails to cause controversy in his books, has now set France aflame with his erotic novel Soumission about a world where Muslim fundamentalists rule France.

The book has shot to the top of the country’s best-seller lists with a first week’s sales of more than 100,000 copies.

Published on 7th January, the story takes place in 2022 at which time France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected President. On the evening of 5th June, in a second general election – the first having been annulled after widespread voter fraud – Mohammed Ben Abbes beats Marine Le Pen with support from both the Socialists and the Right.

The next day women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers and, encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In former rough neighbourhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

This is the world imagined by Houellebecq in his sixth novel, which created a scandal in France even before its publication – let alone the aftermath that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack which rocked the very foundation of Frances’s political and cultural institutions.

But is France’s most celebrated, best-selling author offering a splenetic vision of the Muslim threat to Europe or a spineless submission to gradual Islamic takeover, as the Guardian newspaper ponders?

Houellebecq, whose book which talked of sex, mother hatred and Cloning – Atomised – was the French literary scandal of the 1990s, has now turned his attention to Islamisation that has in certain quarters provoked a flurry of accusations that he is pandering to the growing Islamophobia that is gripping France.

But Soumission is not primarily about politics at all, according to the Guardian. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictable manipulation and the venality and lustfulness of modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise.

The book, just published in Germany, is flying off the shelves there, with an initial print run of 100,000 copies already sold out.

The world is certainly in a great state of turmoil where cultures and religions are playing an integral role in a division which does not augur well, particularly in Europe.

The author, although a controversialist by nature, has a point worth delving into. The way things are going nothing, however remote, or unimaginable, is beyond the realm of possibility.

The New King of Saudi Arabia

The death of King Abdullah and the ascension of King Salman to the Saudi throne reminds me of a time, nearly forty years ago, when I had cause to negotiate a complicated and somewhat sensitive matter with the Saudi Royal House, and Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as he then was, in particular.

This is the account, which formed chapter eight of my memoir, Fulfilment & Betrayal.

In October 1980, I was proud to announce plans for a feature film on the life of King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The origin of the project went back to early 1976, when the director Michael Darlow arrived in my office bursting with enthusiasm at the idea of telling the story for television. At the time when Quartet published the book on Oman that he wrote with Richard Fawkes, The Last Corner of Arabia, Michael had read H. V. F. Winstone’s book Captain Shakespear, and been thoroughly fired up by the story of how an eccentric, old-school Englishman became friends with a heroic, young and forward-looking Arab leader at a certain moment in world history. From this there followed the events through which Ibn Saud built a stable country, based on traditions of honour and chivalry dating back to the time of the Prophet, out of a group of frequently warring sheikhdoms in one of the most climatically hostile and least accessible areas on earth. It was a highly appealing story which needed to be told if there was ever to be a deepening of the West’s understanding of Arabs and Arab culture.

I found Michael’s enthusiasm infectious and agreed, ‘Yes! We must find a way to do it,’ but it seemed to me at once that the subject was ripe for an epic film treatment in the cinema rather than even a large-scale television drama. Another three years or so went by before we had our title, The Desert King, taken from David Howarth’s successful book, considered to be the definitive account. All the elements were there for a great action film. There would be no need to sacrifice historical accuracy for arbitrary commercial considerations in this story of how a legendary warrior united the tribes of the region into nationhood to create what was financially one of the world’s most powerful nation states. We were aiming for a projected budget of seven million pounds. The script, based on David Howarth’s text, was in the hands of the famous Italian scriptwriter Franco Solinas, working with the celebrated translator of French literature, Barbara Bray. As soon as I received a copy I phoned Michael Darlow to tell him, ‘I think I’ve found a way of doing our story. We have the rights and a wonderful script. Do you still want to direct? Will you read the script?’

It went round to him in a taxi, and that night he sat up in bed excitedly reading out passages to his wife. ‘In Franco and Barbara’s hands,’ he wrote later, ‘my original idea had been developed into something more exciting, ambitious and beautiful than I could have dared to imagine.’ With Michael lined up for the director’s chair we could go forward with confidence. His previous credits included the television productions Suez ’56 and Crime and Punishment.

A few months of intensive activity followed. A London production office was opened and a team began to be recruited, starting with an experienced line producer, Otto Plaschkes, who had come to Britain from Austria in 1938 as a Jewish refugee from Hitler. He was followed by Clive Reed as associate producer, Bert Batt as first assistant director and Harry Pottle as designer. Other appointments included David Watkins as cinematographer and Julie Harris as costume designer, as well as a film editor, a casting director, a battle arranger and stunt team, and various animal trainers. The team was rich in experience, for many of them had worked on the James Bond movies, with luminaries such as John Huston and on the films of David Lean, including Lawrence of Arabia. From a background of major international productions around the world, they had amassed an awe-inspiring collection of awards, including Oscars and BAFTAs. Then, as the casting began, many of Britain’s most highly regarded younger actors were provisionally engaged, though filling the pivotal role of Ibn Saud was more problematic. We had decided to look for an unknown – a potential future star rather than someone whose face and screen persona were already known to the public. Dozens of young actors were interviewed and screen tests were conducted in both London and Hollywood.

Michael Darlow managed to wangle himself a short-term appointment at Dhahran University to get a feel for Saudi Arabia at first hand, but then practical difficulties began to emerge over shooting the film in Saudi Arabia and we decided to make it in Morocco instead. Other major productions had been shot in Morocco in the recent past, so the country already had a basic film infrastructure and key local personnel who were familiar with working with English-speaking crews on large-scale movies. The Moroccan government readily offered its full assistance and by the summer of 1980 a production base had been established in Marrakesh and the team was scouting for locations. For the crucial battle scene, which would require the deployment of three thousand men together with hundreds of horses and camels, the Moroccan army agreed to the use of one of its battle-training areas a few miles outside Marrakesh.

Construction started nearby on the film’s largest set, a reconstruction of part of Riyadh as it was around 1900. Work began at the same time on converting part of the small town of Essaouria, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, to represent late-nineteenth-century Kuwait.

Locations for other scenes were found in the desert south-east of Ouarzazate, a small oasis town near Zagora. The animal wranglers, trainers and stunt men set off to scour the country for suitable horses and camels. These were brought back to the base outside Marrakesh and their training began. Elsewhere, in the city itself, a team of seamstresses began work on thousands of costumes. Shooting was due to begin in the spring of 1981 and detailed shooting schedules were put together in readiness. Dozens of pieces of lighting, camera, sound and special-effects equipment were booked and had already been transported to Morocco.

At this point murmurs of dissent about the project began to be heard from the heirs and descendants of King Abdul Aziz. Overnight it became extremely difficult to proceed with completing the remaining part of the finance. Neither the banks which had been involved in coming up with the first tranche of the investment nor the individual investors were happy about continuing unless the objections from the heirs were withdrawn. Simultaneously the Moroccan authorities began to show signs of unease at the rumours of opposition to the film from the Saudi royal family. They sent word to the effect that unless we could manage to sort out the difficulties, they would have no alternative but to withdraw our licence to shoot the film in Morocco. As they went to some pains to explain, they could ill-afford to upset the Saudi rulers, with whom they had close ties.

This unexpected twist in events froze any further work on the film and put everything on hold. Only a speedy solution could help the situation, with the crews operating on pay. I found myself facing an impasse that was potentially ruinous. Then out of the blue there came a phone call from an eminent Arab friend based in London. As a result I had a meeting with Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, who was staying at the Dorchester Hotel and had asked the friend to contact me. The meeting was perfectly courteous, but the thrust of the whole conversation was the reluctance of the Prince to give his blessing to a film about his father’s life. In his view the project would be premature, so relatively soon after his father’s death, and therefore not in the interests of the family as a whole. I introduced the counter-argument, rather convincingly I felt, that a film about someone so much larger than life and colourful as his father could not possibly do harm to the royal family. On the contrary, it would help to raise the profile of Saudi Arabia in the eyes of people around the world, and especially in the targeted market of the United States, whose populace was sadly lacking in its knowledge of foreign countries, especially those of the Middle East.

To bring the meeting to a close the Prince suggested that, rather than having to listen to him labour his point of view, I ought to visit Saudi Arabia myself to put my case directly to the minister of culture. In the words of the Prince the minister was a man of high intellect and academic qualification, who would, he added graciously, listen carefully to anything I had to say. If I managed to convince him of the merits of the film, I would need look no further for the rest of the finance. He, Prince Salman, would personally see to its provision. The only request I then put to him was that Barbara Bray should accompany me to Saudi Arabia, and this he readily agreed to. My gut feeling was that as matters stood the prospects of completing the film were far from good and I must do everything I could to retrieve the situation. If the worst came to the worst, I would need to find a way of extricating myself from the liabilities already incurred. The money advanced for the film by the investors would have to be paid back. There were various contracts I had signed agreeing the fees of the producer and director as well as key members of the crew. And the adverse publicity that was bound to result from the cancellation of the film was hardly a minor consideration. The trip to Saudi Arabia was going to be make or break in every sense.

All went smoothly with the journey. We were met at Riyadh airport and whisked to our hotel in great style. There was an hour in hand to freshen up before being escorted to meet the minister of culture. He greeted me warmly and listened attentively, nodding his head in agreement from time to time. Even so, I felt a decision had already been taken to withhold approval for the reasons expressed by Prince Salman in London; indeed, after two hours of talking I was inclined to have a more sympathetic understanding of their concerns that the film, for all its good intentions, might provoke controversy within the kingdom through a premature chronicling of the life of its founder.

It was a point of view that deserved respect, and no amount of pleading (which I refrained from in any case) was going to alter the situation. I could only face the fact that my ambitions to make the film had been thwarted and my morale badly dented. However, I would have to salvage what I could from the wreckage.

Next day I saw Prince Salman to report the gist of my conversation with the minister. I made the point that if we abandoned the film, then the onus of responsibility must rest with the objectors. I had a duty and a moral obligation to pay off all those who had collaborated on the project. If I failed to honour their contracts, my reputation within the film industry would suffer. The Prince was receptive and sympathetic.

He agreed to appoint a small committee to look into the problems and try to work out a deal satisfactory to both sides. A great amount of haggling followed over whether it was reasonable for the payments to reflect the full extent of the contracts when the assignment had not been completed. On my side I argued that collapse of the project had nothing to do with the individuals concerned, because they were still obliged to carry through their contractual commitments. In the end, common sense and goodwill prevailed. I made a point of insisting that any payments made to me should be structured by a commercial company in Saudi Arabia, which would acquire the film rights to The Desert King against the outlay. This would be a simple commercial transaction, and in this way the idea for the film could be kept alive for revival if not immediately then in the foreseeable future.

This face-saving formula diffused the pressure on all the parties involved. There was general disappointment that work on The Desert King was being wound up, but relief and gratitude that everyone would be paid in full. It was an unusual situation in the generally remorseless world of the movie industry, where the sudden abandonment of a feature film often means that those who have invested their time will be lucky to receive adequate compensation. Repercussions in the press were mostly along the lines of regret for the loss of opportunity it represented for the British film industry, rather than implying criticism of the circumstances surrounding its cessation.

The intervention of the Royal House of Saud that led to the abandonment of the film, on the grounds that the making of it so soon after the death of its hero might have a destabilizing effect on the hard-won unity among the country’s tribal factions, was in itself a highly sensitive issue in which to involve the British film industry. Any interference with the process of film-making is likely to be interpreted as a kind of censorship, and should never be allowed to succeed. The diehard elements within the industry could have made a song and dance about the whole affair, which the press would then have seized upon to the detriment of everyone caught up in the politics of the story. For this reason it was imperative that the abandonment of the film should be seen as ultimately resting on my inability to raise the remaining finance, handicapped, perhaps, by the perfect right of the Saudi Arabians to withhold their cooperation. It was as simple as that; there were no other sinister reasons.

On that basis the industry was happy, and Otto Plaschkes wrote a letter to Screen International which stressed the positive side of the experience:

The cancellation of a film is always bad news – both for the people involved in the project and for the industry generally. It is indeed sad that the several million dollars that had already been spent on The Desert King did not lead on to better things. Nevertheless, a number of extraordinary factors did emerge: an extraordinary amount of goodwill from the financiers concerned, the unique talents of a new feature-director-to-be, the strong commitment and generosity of all the English artists and technicians and the dedication and efficiency of the Moroccan location personnel involved in the project. I would hope that, at the end of the day, the personal and political goodwill – if nothing else – that was forged over the past months will give rise to a more fruitful partnership.

I continue to feel that the time for the film was right, and am convinced that the subject matter would make it even more relevant today, given Saudi Arabia’s strategic alignment among the nations. The rise in the price of oil has generated fresh resentment in the West, unjustly placing the blame on leading oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia. This is partially because there is still in the West an unawareness of the workings of a tribal society that operates according to a code of conduct very different from its own. The systems of the West and the Saudis each have their merits but they have little in common. Even so, it is not inevitable that the disparity in cultures should mean a failure of communication. Many things in the future will depend on a higher level of mutual understanding. My ambition for the film of The Desert King is that it may yet be made and widely shown to help free the West from the clichés which it still believes are true of the Arab world.’

Quartet was to publish IBN SAUD The Desert Warrior and his Legacy by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray to considerable acclaim in 2012.

You still can’t see a movie but you can read the amazing tale of the creation of Saudi Arabia.

Thought for the Day

Why is it that Labour invariably shoot themselves in the foot by policies which have a lunatic fringe to them and which will no doubt lose them the prospect of becoming the next government?

It is their pursuit of vindictive ideology that will in reality hit the middle classes, particularly those who live in London, and compel them to leave their homes as they would never be able to afford to pay the mansion tax that Labour want to impose.

The result of all this will be the forced mass migration of true Londoners who have lived there all their lives and have then to seek new homes elsewhere, even to the extent perhaps of leaving the country altogether.

And London will become the enclave of rich foreign investors and will cease to be the effective abode of true Brits who take pride in their great metropolis.

What a national disgrace that would be.

But Labour have become the champion of those who live on social benefit instead of encouraging them to work their butts off like the rest of us.

And can you for a moment imagine Harriet Harman as the deputy prime minister spending her time rabbiting about the boring subject of her own peculiar brand of feminism? She should realise by now it is no longer an issue since women’s rights have in many ways exceeded those of men and hard working women are today in the forefront of our society, where their influence has mushroomed beyond anybody’s expectations.

But Labour have proved time and again to be their own worst enemy. Their latest foray into the imposition of mansion tax will be their undoing.

Even Lord Mandelson, the Labour grandee, has warned Ed Miliband that the tax is crude and would end up ‘clobbering people’.

Unless Labour abandons this poisonous levy their chances of winning the forthcoming election is slim, and rightly so.

The Tories must be laughing in their pants, for they believe that they can now sit tight and let Labour lose the election as opposed to their winning it.

‘Goodbye Ed’, the new number-one song expected to hit the charts in no time at all – so be prepared for a giggle or two.

Dame Cicely Saunders

Cicely Saunders was born in 1918 and educated at Roedean and St Anne’s College, Oxford where she read politics, philosophy and economics.

During the war she trained at St Thomas’s Hospital taking her BA in 1945 and MA in 1958. After working as a medical social worker she took her MB and after junior appointments at St Thomas’s and the Royal Waterloo Hospital, she moved to St Mary’s to take up a clinical research fellowship.

She’s the English founder of the modern hospice movement and was medical director of St Christopher’s Hospice in London from when it opened in 1967 until the mid 1980s.

She has received many awards for her pioneering work including the Templeton Prize (1981) and the BMA gold medal (1987). Her publications include The Management of Terminal Disease (1978), The Living Idea (1981) and Living with Dying (1983). She was awarded the OBE in 1967.

Saunders died of cancer at the age of eighty-seven in 2005 at St Christopher’s Hospice, the hospice she herself had founded. I interviewed her in 1992.

You have tended to describe your childhood as unhappy. Was the unhappiness a feeling which consciously registered at the time or was it something you became aware of in retrospect, as it were? 

I certainly knew that I was unhappy at school, and that was fairly early. I was then sent to boarding school at the age of ten, and I knew that I was not happy there. My unhappiness at home was very much a feeling that at the beginning of the holidays everything I did was right and at the end of the holidays everything I did was wrong, and I didn’t quite know why. On the other hand my parents both tried in their very different ways to help but found it difficult to do so, and part of the problem was that they weren’t getting on with each other.

Your father was very ambitious for you. Was that a mixed blessing? 

No. I’m very glad he was, because if you have a discontent with the way things are you can either retreat or go on to attack life, and his influence had the second effect. I was determined to do something with life, though I didn’t know what, and although I didn’t like the difficulties at the time, I’m very glad it all happened the way it did because nothing has been wasted. An understanding of what it felt like to be unpopular and rejected was very important in the work I did later.

You didn’t like Roedean. Do you think that if things had been happier at home you might have been less miserable at school? 

I might have found it easier to make friends. At home I was made to feel I was difficult, and that did not help me make relationships easily which is what counts at school. But I came through and I finished up head of the house.

Do you think Roedean and Oxford prepared you well for the life that lay ahead? 

My housemistress at Roedean, who went on to run a girl’s borstal, and my very special tutor at Oxford, Miss Butler, with her tremendous social consciousness and her delightful humour, were both a very great influence on me. Anybody who met those two had touched absolute pure gold, and to have known them was enormously important and beneficial. The other thing about Oxford is that it made me work and sharpened my ability to think.

Your parents’ marriage was not a success. Opinions are very divided on the question of whether parents ought to stay together for the sake of the children. Given your own experience, where do you stand on that issue? 

I think parents should stay together but they should be more honest about what they are finding difficult and not try to hide it. To think of involving the children would often help. Children find divorce so harmful because they feel that somehow it is their fault, and to experience failure at a young age is a very difficult thing in life. When my parents actually separated I was torn between the two. I was very much on my father’s side since I found my mother extremely difficult but I also felt a degree of responsibility for her. It was all extremely difficult, but it’s a very long time ago now and the wounds have healed.

What was it that triggered your conversion to Christianity…was it a reaction against an atheistic upbringing perhaps? 

I had been searching for a real Christian meaning for several years and had been reading Archbishop Temple, Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, so I had come quite a way with the head. It was only when my parents finally separated, however, and I felt to a degree responsible for it, that I really reached the end of what I thought I could cope with. The trigger was essentially a sense of need. I also met some people who were much more straightforward about becoming Christians that any I’d met before, and although that is a version of Christianity that I have left behind, at the time it was simple and accompanied by a degree of mystical experience. I felt an absolute assurance that I had been turned around and told that all the work had been done and I only had to accept; and that instead of having the wind in my face I had it behind my back.

Your earliest participation in the Church was evangelical – prayer meetings, Bible study and so on. How do you look back on that period? Does it seem now to have been a rather immature approach to religion, or a substitute for something missing in your life perhaps? 

No, it was a good start. That way of taking a fairly cut-and-dried approach to religion is perhaps not very adult, but it suited me at the time since in many ways I probably wasn’t mature. I’m very glad I started that way, because to know the Bible well and to have it as a resource for the rest of your life is worth an enormous amount. I owe the people who helped me at that point a very great deal, but I had to move from the feeling that this was the only way into seeing a much broader perspective. That took quite a long time, but it happened from quite a solid foundation.

You founded St Christopher’s in 1967 – only twenty-five years ago – and yet the hospice movement is now almost universally accepted. Do you think it was an idea waiting to happen? 

Yes. I don’t think there are too many original ideas in the world, but what happens perhaps is that you respond to a need. I had done a lot of travelling, an enormous amount of reading, I had listened to a great many patients and what emerged was the need for pain control, for the whole breadth of pain – in body, mind, spirit and family – the need for home care, the need for solid research, for education. All these came in different ways, and it was like putting them into the kaleidoscope, giving it a shake, and watching the new pattern take shape in the form of modern research and the whole hospice idea. In general ideas find people, rather than people finding ideas; you just have to have your antennae up.

It’s only comparatively recently that we have focused our attention to any degree on the process of dying, the care of the patient and members of the family. Before the hospice movement people were simply expected to cope and on the whole one assumes that they did…or didn’t they? 

There was a great deal of isolation, suffering and distress. One effect of medical advances was that there was a contradiction on cure, and symptoms were seen only as signposts along the road to a diagnosis which then might make cure possible. To deal with the signposts was considered to be very second-class medicine, but we now recognize that the need for control of symptoms, while the search for a basic cure proceeds, is very important. We have to concentrate on the old principles of care and caring, not in the sense of ‘tender loving care’, but in the sense of efficient, competent, but still concerned and loving care. It is not merely nursing; it involves a whole team – doctors, social workers, chaplains, therapists, all working together to enable patients to live as fully as they can until they die. We’re not just about peaceful dying; we’re about living until you die, completing your life, relating with your family, family living on afterwards. Living as well as dying.

It was your experience with a dying patient after the war – the first man you loved – that made you determined to start St Christopher’s. Did you interpret this as God moving in mysterious ways? 

I did at the time, yes, and I still do. It was very much a feeling that this was what was meant, but not in a way that I could sit back and let it happen, but by working as hard as possible.

Falling in love with a dying man must be very traumatic, because you know from the start that death will interrupt the normal process of consummation… 

I don’t think we’re very free about falling in love. I agree with Christopher Fry who says at the end of his play The Dark is Light Enough, ‘we’re elected into love’. It is something which happens, and the fascinating thing is that you still feel in a sense that it is one of the freest acts. (This is a very interesting comment on the idea of free will and the love of God, but that’s another matter.) I loved him, David he was called. It was very short, very simple, and I remember him with great fondness. He completely altered the course of my life, which was a wonderful thing to happen from one man alone. He gave us the whole hospice movement, and the phrase, ‘I’ll be a window in your home’. His was a commitment to openness, a commitment to everything we could bring together from the mind with the friendship of the heart. When he very quietly and privately returned to the faith of his forefathers – he was Jewish – without ever seeing a rabbi, he left me with the assurance that he’d found his own way, and that everybody in my care would in turn find theirs. In spite of the fact that at that point I was fairly evangelical Christian, I came to understand that patients must think in their own was as deeply as they can, and it matters not if it is different from my way. All that comes from David.

But to fall in love with a man who is dying is almost like a fusion of hope and despair… 

No…it didn’t feel like that at the time. There wasn’t really an alternative; it just happened. It was much the same when I fell in love with the second Polish man years later. It was the most intense and liberating experience. I was profoundly sad afterwards, but I wouldn’t have missed it.

After the death of the second man you loved there followed a period of what you describe as ‘pathological grieving’. How did you eventually come to terms with that? 

By an absolute assurance of his happiness – because I do believe in a life beyond this one – and my own gratefulness for what I had learned. And of course I met my third Pole in due course, and although we had to wait a very long time before we could marry, he is now nearly ninety-two and we’ve been enormously happy together.

But tell me, why do you always fall in love with Poles? 

I haven’t the faintest idea. I have really no answer other than to say that is what happened.

You have said you believe in an afterlife. Does that mean you expect to meet those you have loved after you die? 

I hope so.

You expect to meet all three men? 

That would not present a problem for me.

Do you now feel immune from the grieving process, or have you simply learned to manage it better? 

I’m quite frightened of how I will miss my husband. He is pretty frail and I have a certain amount of anxiety as to whether he will get through this winter. I know I shall miss him and grieve for him terribly, but I am more fulfilled person now because of being with him, and therefore I have a better chance of handling it. I have also learned to express grief and accept help, so although I don’t anticipate that it will be anything other than devastating, I shall survive.

The phrase ‘helping people to die’, suffers from a dangerous ambiguity. Hospice work involves control of pain by administering drugs, easing the path to inevitable death without actually promoting it. Isn’t the dividing line sometimes very thin? 

It depends on how you start your definition. Instead of helping people to die, I prefer to say helping people to live until they die. We concentrate on the quality of life left to them, and that may be weeks or months; we’re not here just for the last few days. There are many patients who come here and are discharged again; people tend to think there’s only one way out of a hospice, but that’s not true. People go out for weekends, they go out for holidays, they sometimes go out for good. The sooner you are in touch with a hospice, the more quality of life you will have, and with some people the whole trend changes and they have longer than they ever believed possible. We once had a girl of seventeen who was transferred to us from another hospital, and she lived eleven years, and although that is a rare occurrence, people living months longer than expected is not at all unusual. Living better, even for a short time, may make an enormous difference to the way they feel about themselves; it also helps their families find the strength they hardly realized they had, and the ability to carry on afterwards.

Nowadays ethical dilemmas present themselves on an ever-increasing scale. How best are these resolved – by government committees, by the Church, by philosophers…?

They are certainly not best resolved by having a private member’s bill through Parliament because that tends to produce a very emotive debate and the major issues are simply not addressed. The commission would have to include the Church, philosophers, the medical and legal professions, but the selection of people for the commission has to be given the most careful consideration, because it is easy to rig the results by selecting certain people. What is required is a debate of rather better quality than we usually have in the media where easy answers are aired, such as the suggestion that patients should be able to ask a doctor to end their lives if they feel their suffering is intolerable, without any consideration of the pressures on the rest of the community. This is a very unsatisfactory way of tackling these complex issues, but that’s what tends to happen at the moment. In the recent case of the doctor who gave a lethal injection to his patient there was no evidence that he had consulted experts in the field of terminal pain. You don’t have to kill the patient to kill the pain, even in those circumstances, and think there could have been another way out. It has made the public very afraid, and fear does not produce good laws. For example, whatever we may think about abortion, there is no doubt that when David Steele brought in his bill he did not intend there to be abortion on demand, but that is what happened. I am not anti-abortion in the way that a lot of pro-life people are – I think it is unfortunate but understandable. But what we don’t have is an adequate support system for the children who come forward for abortion. Similarly, we have to provide proper help and support for those who are dying. If we simply pass a law saying it is all right for physicians to assist suicide, to promote the right to a quick way out, it would have the same effect as the abortion bill. And there’s no way of pulling back once the flood gates are opened.

In one of your books you set out your views on euthanasia, quoting the Church’s position: ‘In order to permit euthanasia it would be necessary to show that a change would remove greater evils than it would cause.’ How can you be certain that these ‘greater evils’ would follow? 

In a sense, I can’t be certain, but neither can Ludovic Kennedy be certain that they won’t follow. There is some evidence in the Netherlands, a country which is tremendously pro-euthanasia, that elderly people feel a degree of pressure, and although the doctors reported to the Lancet giving the impression that everything was well in the Netherlands, they also pointed out that the guidelines are often not applied, and that patients are reported as having died a natural death when they haven’t. There was also a study showing that a great many elderly people were concerned about what was going to happen to them.

But the fact that something is open to abuse has never been a sufficient reason for banning it altogether – drinking alcohol, sex, ect. Why shouldn’t we grant a terminally-ill patient his wish to die sooner rather than later? 

It would pull the rug from under a whole lot of vulnerable people, and as was said in the House of Lords when Baroness Wootton’s bill was discussed, the right the die could all too soon become a duty to die. I don’t believe ours is a society in which that would not happen. People don’t awfully like the old, they don’t like looking after dependants, they don’t like thinking that somebody is in pain, they find it unpleasant and disagreeable. To cut it all short seems like the answer, but I take Churchill’s view: people who have simple answers to complicated problems are usually wrong.

Is it ever a greater evil not to allow a person his wish to die? 

You have to be very careful and tease out what that person is saying. If he is saying, let me die, he is usually actually saying don’t do every last treatment to prolong my life, and if you reassure him that you will not do that, that you will help him with his individual needs, that you will not abandon him, he will usually stop saying, let me die. When people say that it is usually as a result of unrelieved pain and poor communication, both of which we can do something about. There are very few who actually say, kill me, and mean it. It is mostly people who are perfectly fit and healthy who say that they would not wasn’t to be kept alive with Alzheimer’s Disease, or to be in a state of dependence on others. But if you have good friends, if people are good neighbours, if you have competent care, dependence can have good qualities. I remember a long time ago a young man with progressive paralysis looking at another patient, and saying that if his illness ever deteriorated to the same extent, he would want to take his own life. But when he did get to that stage he felt quite differently about it, and I remember him saying to me, ‘I can’t see round the next bend but I know it will be alright.’ The situation can seem very different once you’re in it. This is not to deny that we have lonely people, people with unrelieved pain and inappropriate treatment, unsatisfactory nursing homes and shortage of money, but if people go on wanting to die, it is society’s failure.

Have you a clearly developed view of what happens after death? 

No, I don’t think anybody could have. It remains a mystery. But I have seen many people whose spirits have become stronger as their bodies have become weaker, people who at the very end of their lives meet you at a depth which is quite difficult and frightening for those of us who are well to reach. I believe that the essential inner spirit of man survives. Why should the mind and spirit leave no trace? Even in life we have glimpses of mystery. For example, I happen to love singing in the midst of a good choir, it’s the most wonderful feeling; it matters what you do and yet you are unimportant. Some things are beyond ordinary understanding but none the less real.

St Christopher’s is a religious foundation but religious faith is not compulsory for those who work or are treated there. How in practice do patients respond to St. Christopher’s? 

They find it a good place, a welcoming place, a place without pressure. There are very simple prayers morning and evening in the wars but you don’t have to listen. There is chapel, but you certainly don’t have to go. Many of our staff don’t have that sort of commitment because what we are concerned with is the whole spiritual side of life which is much wider than the strictly religious. We are very conscious of the contribution of people of many faiths or none. Those who come to us are often searching for answers. What has my life meant? Those who are able to say, as someone said not long ago, ‘I feel as if I’m a person again’, are reaching the stage in which they will perhaps be able to come to terms with their situation. If they can do that, if they can find some sort of meaning in life and it makes it easier for them to lay that life down, then we would be very happy for them. But that is said in spiritual rather than religious terms. If people choose never to say anything, that’s their freedom. We do a great deal of listening, but we don’t do any converting as such.

How do you steer a path between the certainty of faith and the flexibility of tolerance? 

By concern for people which rings through both the Old and the New Testaments, and which I believe is found in all religions. There is certainly a great deal to learn from other faiths. What convinces and enables me is not necessarily the same as convinces me and enables somebody else, and that’s a position I am comfortable with. I am not comfortable with people who think there’s only one way.

You once said you were certain about what you consider to be ‘a good death’. Can you enlarge on that? 

I don’t remember saying I was very certain, and if I did I was probably wrong. It has to be the death that is good for that person. There isn’t just one, there is one for every individual.

Is it part of your experience that those with faith meet a more peaceful end than those without? 

It depends what sort of faith they have. If it is a faith that God will not let bad things happen, that doesn’t last very long. But if it is a faith which includes the possibility of bad things happening with the notion that God will see you through, then that can be a great support. It’s also very much a question of people’s personalities and of what’s happened to them in life. You cannot make it a cut-and-dried matter. Anybody who makes dogmatic statements about those with faith dying well are on dangerous ground. It’s an area where it is as well not to be dogmatic, but there are certainly people who make something completely creative out of dying, and in my experience those who have usually been people who have had a matures tested faith throughout their lives.

Part of the hospice philosophy is to tell the truth to patients about their illness. What happens to those who are quite unwilling or unable to face the truth? 

We don’t tell people who don’t ask. The hospice philosophy is not that people must know, but that we must answer whatever questions are put to us. Most people do know inside themselves but they may not necessarily want to share it, so we have to wait.

Britain is becoming increasingly secular. Isn’t there a problem that the sort of ethos within which the hospice movement is contained is simply not available to a large number of people? 

There are several secular hospices, there are lots of secular people working in hospices. We’re not all religious by any manner of means; what we share is a concern for people. Many of us do have a religious motivation in our concern, but we are not here as a religious enclave into which people have to fit. This is an image which tends to be put upon us rather than the other way round. In my experience there are a great many people in this country who have a large unformed faith – we are not quite such an irreligious society as is commonly supposed. Those who work for us do not necessarily have to have a vocation as is sometimes thought; what they do have is a concern for others and a longing to help people do well at the end of their lives. A great many of our staff are here for only a couple of years before moving on, but they will take a lot of what they have learned about people into other fields, and that is very important.

Have you ever come across hospice workers who are not as kind to patients as you would like them to be? 

Once or twice staff have been short with patients, and we have had to understand that they are under a lot of stress, and have given them counselling or extra time off, but generally people who are likely to be unkind don’t come into hospice work. This is sadly not always true in some nursing homes – old people can be terribly maddening, and almost ask to be bullied, and there are people who just don’t resist the temptation. Hospices, like the people who work in them, are not perfect, and sadly we have pilfering here in just the same way as in every hospital in the country, but on the whole the ethos is of kindness and concern those qualities do gather in the right group of people. Everybody is taken on a trial basis for three months and you can usually sort out those who are unsuitable at that stage, but they are very few. 

Some years ago you wrote in one of your books: ‘We have reached a place in hospice work where there are a lot of inbred beliefs that have become sacred cows. The most constructive thing I could do to improve hospice work would be to conduct a sacred cow shoot.’ What lay behind that remark, and did you ever conduct your shoot? 

That goes back to a conference in the Royal Society of Medicine when people were talking in a rather unrealistic way about hospice work. I’m afraid I was speaking as something of a sacred cow myself at that time, but what I had in mind were the rather idealized notions such as everybody must have faith, everybody must have a good death, everybody must be peaceful and smiling all the time, nobody must show anger, and all the staff must be perfect and never lose their tempers. It was also the idea that such and such a drug was always the perfect answer. Did I every conduct my shoot? Well, a great deal has happened in St Christopher’s over the years, and we continue to ask questions, which is as it should be. I would much prefer that that we should be referred to not as a centre of excellence but a centre of enquiry.

You are reported to have said in anger on one occasion, ‘I’m not a cult figure.’ What prompted the remark and what occasioned the anger? 

Americans have a tendency to make cult figures out of people like me which is why I feel very fortunate that I didn’t work in America. The remark was occasioned by somebody in America coming up to me and asking, almost literally, ‘Can I touch you?’ So I said, ‘I bite.’

Your biographer describes your relationships with the first two men you loved as ‘unconsummated, unfulfilled, unresolved’ and yet you have not been inclined to offer your thoughts on these obviously profound relationships. Is that because you dare not, or does it come from an urge to be private? 

An urge to be private. The relationships belong to them as well as to me.

You finally married in your fifties. Did marriage alter the order of priorities in your life? 

Yes. My husband’s priority was to his art, and mine was to St Christopher’s, and it took us a certain amount of time to sort out our priorities to each other. At first when he was fit enough he had and he needed his independence, and I had a degree of freedom, even to travel to America once or twice, but once he became less well and had to give up his London studio he became my top priority. My work as medical director at St Christopher’s was handed over to Dr West and I assumed more the role of elder statesman. My husband is still committed to his art, and I am still committed to St Christopher’s, but he takes priority. I have many invitations to go and give talks but I refuse because I won’t leave him. He’s now very frail and dependent on me.

Does he still paint? 

Yes, he is still doing portraits. His eyes and his hands are as good as ever, and his portraits are some of the best he’s ever done.

You often said that you felt a great need to be married. Why was that, do you think? 

I think most people do. I don’t think there’s anything peculiar about that.

Did you ever want children? 

Not so much as to be married. The work took over that need, but the need for companionship and, well, love, was much stronger than the need to have a family. I’ve been completely fulfilled in the work that I’ve done and I’m very glad I waited to be married to Marian. He’s worth everything.

Many people comment that you became a much happier person after marriage. Were you conscious of a sadness before that time? 

I was conscious of a loneliness, yes.

Those who maintain that we do not fall in love by accident, might suggest that in your life, love and death are inextricably linked – or is that too Freudian an analysis? 

A bit, yes. Maybe it was with the first two, but after all Marian is now nearly ninety-two and it’s living together, not dying together, that’s been important. The fact that I did fall in love with people who were dying gave an emphasis to how important people are at this time in their lives, and although I would never have consciously chosen it, I think it gave an impetus which wouldn’t otherwise have been there.

Do you view your own death with equanimity? 

If I thought I was going to die before my husband I would be in a great state, because he is so dependent on me. Dying with unfulfilled responsibilities – something I have witnessed many times among many patients – is a very difficult thing to do. Dying when your responsibilities are fulfilled is easier, just as a full life is easier to leave than an empty one – feeling that you have made no impact on the world and that nobody is going to miss you is terrible. As far as my own death is concerned, I don’t know if I have complete confidence in myself, but I certainly have confidence in the people around me and I do hold on to a certainty that God is there, and that I wouldn’t ever be alone since He who Himself shares the dying of all his children.

Because of the area in which you work, there is a temptation to see you as a latter-day Florence Nightingale, but in order to achieve what you have achieved you must have had to be very tough, perhaps even hard-headed? 

You certainly have to be very determined and single-minded, and that can mean being tough with some of the people along the way. Patients matter more than anything and if you expect other people to work as hard as you do they may find that a bit much.

You have been described as a very forthright character. Some who have worked with you have even described you as autocratic and imperious. Do you think there is any truth in that? 

I think there might have been in the past, but not now. A pioneer is apt to be that way, but there comes a time when you have to hand over. But in fact I was always able to delegate. For example, the sister and the doctor who developed our home care were given a completely free hand. That was in 1969, so even in my more dogmatic times I could still delegate, but I’ve certainly mellowed since then. After all, as things become established and more secure, you don’t have to fight so hard.

How has the hospice movement faced up to the challenge of patients dying from Aids? 

When we started there was a tendency for the Department of Health to look at the situation in very simplest terms: Aids patients die, hospices look after dying patients, therefore hospices will look after Aids patients. We had to remind them that all our cancer patients weren’t going to disappear, and that we did not necessarily have the expertise to deal with Aids patients. Special centres were then set up – the London Lighthouse, the Mildmay Mission – and we learned from them. Once we established that there was something we could offer, we made ourselves available as did other hospices. At the same time I don’t think you can expect hospices to take on everything. It was only because we focused on patients with cancer and motor neuron disease that we were able to do soundly based research and make an impact in the field of medicine. If we hadn’t done that, if we’d said instead that we would take in everybody who was dying, we would never have been taken seriously, we would never have been able to speak from a position of strength.

In 1987 you said, ‘We are worried that we will have to displace cancer patients if we take Aids sufferers…units such as St Christopher’s were pledged to offer places only to cancer patients.’ 

We were pledged to give mainly to cancer patients with a limited number of longer-stay patients, but there is an escalating demand on our home care and our beds, very much greater than it was five years ago, and we haven’t worked ourselves out of a job yet. We simply don’t have the resources to take on a new job, but we are now working more and more in the community where a lot of people with Aids will want to be, and so we may become more involved. Don’t forget that a great deal of the money given to us to build and to carry on the hospice movement is given in memory of patients who have died of cancer, so we do have a commitment, though not an exclusive commitment.

Weren’t you worried that such a statement might be misinterpreted? 

No, because you don’t expect everybody to do everything. You don’t expect an orthopaedic centre to take in patients with broken limbs in a time of frost. People have their own commitments, and that is a perfectly reasonable state of affairs.

I think I’m right in saying that the hospice movement was criticized by the Royal College of Nursing which claimed that hospices were refusing to treat Aids patients for fear of losing private donations. 

That was an article in The Times based on a report from one member of the Royal College of Nursing. I don’t think we need take that particularly seriously. That was in isolation.

How do those who work constantly with the terminally ill cope with the immense burden of death? 

By working together as a team and by being aware of their achievements. It is draining, but it is not depressing. When you see patients and their families come in with pain and conflict all over their faces, and then within two or three weeks you see a resolution, that is a very rewarding experience. To be able to take away pain and to help a family find their own strengths, and to know you have made a difference, all that is deeply satisfying. And of course many of our people have a Christian belief that death is not the end, and that not only do we not have to worry about patients after they die, but they’ve set out on a good journey.

Few people can have been so involved with death and dying as you. Has it taken its toll, do you think? 

You would perhaps have to ask other people. It may have taken a toll, but it has also opened up exciting possibilities. It had made me move from a traditional, perhaps rather limited, faith into an exploration of meaning. I feel I am learning all the time. 

Don’t you think it a cruel paradox that so much should be invested in the death of one person when death occurs across the globe often on a massive scale because of starvation, war and so on? 

Concentration on a limited number of people has over and over again been shown to tease out general principles which can then be applied across the board. You can be overwhelmed by death on a global scale, but when you are committed to a small area, you can then examine how it can be made relevant on a wider scale. The hospice movement spans sixty countries, including places like Swaziland where there is major trouble but where the attitude of caring for people who are dying in the community still obtains. That would not have been possible if the pioneers of hospices in this country had not laid very sure foundations; and to do that you have to concentrate.

The hospice movement promotes ‘death with dignity’. Can you sum up for me what you understand by that phrase? Do you think it means the same to all people? 

I wouldn’t agree that that’s our major commitment. The hospice movement is committed to living until you die. Death with dignity means different things to different people; it has come to mean direct euthanasia to some people, switching off machines to others, or simply good palliative care. It is therefore a fairly unhelpful term. I would much prefer to say ‘dying with a sense of personal worth’. That’s what hospice is about.

You have often described death as an ‘outrage’, and indeed you must have seen its terrible effects countless times. Do you ever have difficulty in reconciling a particularly harrowing or poignant death with the idea of a benevolent and merciful God? 

When I describe death as an outrage I am thinking in particular of the way in which we spend all our lives learning to love, and death is about parting from those we love; that is the really outrageous thing about it. But I also think a loving and merciful God gave away an enormous amount of what one might see as omnipotent power in making a free world and therefore a flexible and dangerous world in which men and women can use their freedom wrongly. I certainly don’t think that God picks out people for this and that disaster; but I am certain that he always shares it. God is within his creation in a way which means that he suffers when we suffer, and that is a burden beyond anything we can possibly imagine.

But do you think without faith you would have been able to do the job as well as you have done it? 

I know there are some people who do an excellent job in this field without faith. I personally couldn’t.

Does death still seem awesome and mysterious to you? Does it hold any terrors? 

If you don’t feel a measure of awe and fear, then I think you’re not looking very clearly. But you have to go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That is a very anthropomorphic way of talking about God, but I still think it’s a helpful phrase.

A life devoted to death is by any standards an unusual life and one which is likely to remain mysterious and paradoxical to most observers. Is it something you understand fully yourself? 

It all seemed very clear at the time. I asked what I should do. I believed I was told what I should do, and I got on and did it. It was as simple as that.

If you were to turn the clock back, would you have done things differently? 

You can always look back and think of mistakes…you can wish you had been kinder, or more understanding, or learned something more quickly. But I’m very grateful to have been able to do the things I have done. And I wouldn’t want to start all over again, I must confess. I feel much too tired.

Is there anything left that you feel you have to do? 

I want to tidy up all the archives. But first I want to see my husband safely away, not in the sense of wishing him away, but wanting him to go peacefully and happily. My prayer is for him to be able to die quietly at home with me.

You have obviously been very happy with your husband. Do you love him as much now as when you first met him? 

Oh, infinitely more. This is one of the very exciting things in life: you feel that it’s as good as it can be, and then come the next few days and it’s better still. It’s been a wonderful mature growing together. He has an enormous regard for me and thinks I’m splendid. With his pupils he was always a little inclined to regard all his geese and swans. And so with me. I am his swan, and that’s a very nice thing to be, especially when I spent a large part of my early life thinking I was rather an ugly duckling.

Has the Sun Lost its Head?

The decision of the Sun newspaper to discontinue its Page 3 semi-clad babes is hardly the triumph the feminist lobby claim to have achieved.

Harriet Harman, the staunch killjoy politician whose numerous campaigns to rob women of their femininity is cock-a-hoop that the Sun has joined the ranks of castrated press tools whose fear of a bunch of strident disenchanted women has led them to scrap Page 3, without which its circulation will certainly take a dive.

Why else would anyone buy the Sun newspaper? Is it perhaps for their high standard of reporting, or for their command of the English language where students would benefit from reading its pages?

Page 3, when you analyse its contents, is rather tame by the standards of today when you see celebrities and the young generation often semi-naked and displaying debauchery in public places where no one bats an eyelid let alone shows concern about their behaviour on the grounds that this is what we call sexual liberation.

The hypocrisy of it all makes nonsense of this double standard we seem to adopt in order to throttle a free press by a group of people vengeful, no doubt, and unable to enjoy life by letting their true emotions surface instead of their self-imposed frustration likely to turn them into zombies.

For heaven’s sake, our best asset is surely our sense of humour – which is the envy of the world. Let us not lose it to please a minority determined to orchestrate our lives to suit their miserable goal.