Sunday, 20 May 2018

Britain is still a country, but should be no country, for old men 'fighting' cancer

It was 4 years ago that Dr Kate Granger published her article in the Guardian entitled :

Having cancer is not a fight or a battle
Why is military language used to describe cancer? These words are meant to help patients but can have the opposite effect

Kate, who was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumour, usually seen in teenagers, was 36 years old when she died 2 years ago.

She wrote :

* 'In my world, having cancer is not a fight at all. It is almost a symbiosis where I am forced to live with my disease day in, day out.'

* 'To fight it would be "waging a war" on myself. I have used chemotherapy on two occasions to bring the cancer back under control and alter the natural history of the disease. I submitted myself to this treatment gently, and somewhat reluctantly, taking whatever each day had to throw at me. I certainly didn't enter the process "with all guns blazing".'

* 'When I do die, I will have defied the prognosis for my type of cancer and achieved a great deal with my life. I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control. I refuse to believe my death will be because I didn't battle hard enough.'

* 'And that's the problem; in my view the language used around cancer seems to revolve around wartime rhetoric: battle, fight, warrior, beat. While I recognise that these violent words may help others on their journey with cancer, as someone who is never going to "win her battle" with this disease, I find them uncomfortable and frustrating to hear.'

* '"She lost her brave fight." If anyone mutters those words after my death, wherever I am, I will curse them. I would like to be remembered for the positive impact I have made on the world, for fun times and for my relationships with others, not as a loser. I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control.'

* 'I do understand why this military language has penetrated the media, charities and everyday life. It is meant to evoke positivity at an unimaginably difficult time in someone's life. But I think it can have the opposite effect and we need to challenge it and to break away from how we have been conditioned to think and speak about a disease that will affect one third of us at some point.'

Kate's words resonate with me because, having been diagnosed with bladder cancer at the beginning of 2016 and then, after a course of eight doses of chemotherapy (it would nave been nine, but my white blood cell count was too low), I submitted myself to a surgical cystectomy. In my five and half hour operation, my surgeon removed not only my bladder and prostate, but also my appendix and a dozen lymph nodes and, in a masterpiece of new plumbing, constructed an ileal conduit out of a section of my colon which allows me to live without a bladder.

And here we are 4 years after Kate's article and Macmillan Cancer Support has just published its report 'Missed Opportunities', in which it makes the point that fighting talk' can leave cancer patients unable to talk about death and dying.

Given the fact that British culture that men show fortitude in the face of adversity and given the fact old men are statistically more like to experience some form of cancer than young men, it is probably true to say that it is still to be regretted that old men are still caught up in the business of fighting their cancer.

Owen Jones said recently in the Guardian about the death of his father from prostate cancer : 'Our culture poorly equips us to deal with grief, a combination of death being treated as a macabre taboo subject and a particularly English awkwardness with raw emotions. It’s also – and let’s be honest about it – that the expression of emotion is portrayed as weakness in a patriarchal society.'

Adrienne Betteley, Specialist Advisor for End of Life Care, at Macmillan Cancer Support has said :

* 'We know that ‘battling’ against cancer can help some people remain upbeat about their disease, but for others the effort of keeping up a brave face is exhausting and unhelpful in the long-term.'

*  'We need to let people define their own experiences without using language that might create a barrier to vital conversations about dying. For health and social care professionals, there is often a fear that the person is not ready to talk about dying. We know, however, that making plans while receiving treatment allows people with cancer to retain a sense of control during an emotionally turbulent time.'

* 'Future planning before a person’s health deteriorates is also strongly associated with lower hospital death rates. When staff have a record of where someone would like to die, that person is almost twice as likely to die in the place of their choosing as well as have other care preferences met and fewer emergency admissions at the end of their life.'

It was Susan Sontag’s 1970s 'Illness as Metaphor' which argued that metaphors create moral judgments against patients and aren’t helpful.

Some organizations have now turned towards more neutral terminology.and instead of “fighting” cancer, people “undergo” treatment for cancer; “cancer-free” is preferred to “cancer survivor” and, as for a disability, it’s something you “live with,” rather than “conquer.” The most common substitute for a battle is "a journey" which is a good fit, because we’re already used to the concept of life as a journey. It also encompasses the idea of companions and of people with earlier diagnoses’ acting as guides.

When the DJ Danny Baker was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 53 in 2010 he said :

"I’m just the battlefield, science is doing the fighting and of course the wonderful docs and nurses of the brilliant NHS" 

Like Danny, I was not the one doing the fighting, rather it was the brilliant Urology team at my local hospital who were fighting the bad guys, by proxy, on my behalf.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Britain is no country for old men with prostate cancer

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Brexit Britain is no country and a country for an old lord called Arthur Wellesley : His Grace, the Ninth Duke of Wellington

"Men, we must never be beaten ! Stand firm. What will they say of this in England ?"
Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The 72 year old Arthur Charles Valerian Wellesley is the 9th Duke of Wellington and took his seat in the House of Lords as an 'elected hereditary peer' in 2015. This means he was chosen by the other 42 Conservative hereditary peers and took his place alongside the other 91 hereditary lords and ladies who, in turn, sit alongside the other 530, the 'life peers', who are appointees of variable merit, ranging from those who have distinguished themselves in other walks of life, to those who have distinguished themselves by being long-pocketed donors to political parties.

On the face of it, the fact that, that in the 21st Century, the Duke of Wellington can have a say in the legislation which governs Britain is a scarcely believable anachronism. As Andrew Rawnsley said in the Observer today : 'On this we can agree. In a less absurd world, the 9th Duke of Wellington wouldn’t be sitting in Parliament. It is beyond ridiculous and all the stations to absolutely ludicrous that you get to occupy a seat in one half of our legislature because of the military feats performed by an ancestor more than two centuries ago. You wouldn’t trust your brain to a neurosurgeon whose only qualification for the title was that his great-great-great-grandfather was a neurosurgeon. Yet Britain’s uniquely comical set-up still reserves seats in its parliament for hereditary legislators.'

It is with supreme irony that lords like the Duke are putting a break on the proposed Brexit legislation the Conservative Government is trying to force through Parliament. His contribution was to table a successful amendment that removes the March 2019 deadline for Britain's departure from the EU which is not such an unreasonable idea given the mountain of work which still need to be done before Britain's departure from the EU. It has earned him the particular ire of the leading Brexiteers.

In fact, altogether, the Lords have made 14 amendments to the withdrawal legislation and as a result Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin rages against the House of Lords for its “defiance”. Self-appointed Brexiteer-in-Chief, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has threatened : “It is not a loved institution… It raises the issues of reform.”

The Sunday Express newspaper attacked the good Duke, who receives EU subsidies to maintain his landed estates with the headline :

On Wednesday, Martin Kettle wrote in the Guardian : 'Suddenly, soft Brexit can happen. Thank the Lords' and 'The assault on the Brexit Bill – inspired by the Duke of Wellington – has emboldened Tory moderates. This could be their moment.' As Mrs Thatcher said : "It's a funny old world" - the more so that the hero of the Remainers has manifested himself in the shape of an old lord who has no real right to be there in the first place.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Britain, already no country for old men with prostate cancer, is now confirmed as no country for old ladies with breast cancer

We know that Britain is no country for old men with prostate cancer and Jeremy Hunt, the Government Health Secretary, came to Parliament on Wednesday to confess that up to 450,000 older women in England may have somehow fallen off the breast cancer screening system, thanks to a computer glitch. He said it was likely there were women who “would have been alive today if this had not happened” and that up to 270 lives may have been shortened.

This is explained, but not excused, by a faulty computer algorithm and a glitch that wrongly cancelled some women’s scans and crept in accidentally in 2009, during the setting up of a pilot project. However, as Gaby Hinsliff said in the Guardian : 'Nonetheless, eight years is a hell of a long time for nobody to notice. Older women – that perennially invisible group – can be forgiven for wondering whether it would have happened to anyone else.' 

The women in question would have been in their late 60s when their scans were cancelled and perhaps in their 70s when they started getting sick. They’re of the generation that waits to be served, doesn’t like to bother anyone and trusts the people in charge to know what they’re doing. When the letters stopped coming, they must have just assumed they’d had their quota from the National Health Service and they were of an age when old ladies, as well as old men, get used to dropping off people’s radar. But isn't it to avoid such human blind spots, that algorithms are used by our public services exist in the first place? Aren't machines meant to excel at routine tasks like churning out appointments and not make emotional judgements about what you can expect at your age ?

You might expect that :

Jeremy Hunt would have seen to it that the 450,000 unscreened women, no doubt, some of them very worried indeed that they might be suffering from undiagnosed cancer, would be treated to a Rolls-Royce of a help-line to provide them with information from trained clinicians and allay their fears. A Public Health England spokesperson indicated that would be the case and said : “We are committed to ensuring that affected women and their families receive all the support they need. We are aware that the helpline is busy, particularly at peak times. We have built additional resilience into the system to ensure that as many people are able to receive support as possible.”

In fact, in the event, that was not the case because :

* the contract to run the help-line was given to Serco, a multinational outsourcing company that runs government services, including prisons, and call-handlers were told about the news at noon on the day Hunt revealed the issue in the House of Commons and training in how to handle calls was delivered two hours later with the helpline up and running by 4pm.

* as one handler said : "We found out at noon and were delivered training at 2.30pm. We were then taking taking calls live at 4pm. Normally we get two weeks training and this was one hour and a half It is ridiculous, there’s no way we could take in all that information in that amount of time.”

* in the event, call-handlers with no medical experience had only one hour’s training relied on a cheat sheet of symptoms with one, who contacted the Guardian, saying the sheet was “all over the place and hard to understand. It looked like it had been typed up and sent out as soon as possible.”

* handlers were given a booklet which included a page that listed symptoms of breast cancer, which they were supposed to go through, if need be, with the callers,

* as one handler said : “I felt ashamed knowing what had happened to these women, taking these calls when I am not medically trained, have no counselling background and am in no position to help them. Other people I work with feel the same. A girl who was working yesterday said taking calls was horrendous as people were getting really upset. People also cannot deal with the volume of calls coming through. We are not trained to be dealing with those type of things.”

* the three call centres in Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle were inundated with 5,000 on Wednesday, rising to 10,000 on Friday.

Not unsurprisingly, Jonathan Ashworth MP, the Shadow Health Secretary, said : "It seems the outsourcing firm Serco is running the hotline with staff who have no medical background or training in counselling, responding to women on these calls. There are of course huge questions that remain unanswered about this tragic scandal but the government’s priority must also be to ensure adequate resources are in place to give women the help they need.”       

The rushed response to setting up the helpline is even more inexcusable when one realises that the Government had known about the screening error since January.

The late Rita Towsey and Trixie Gough, their story :                                                                                         

Monday, 30 April 2018

Britain is a country which should be no country for the thousands of old men who abuse their wives and partners

'Cathy' is 68 years old and shortly before she reached retirement age, her husband of 40 years, had a stroke. After a week in intensive care, he was moved to a care home to speed his recuperation and then, in order that he didn’t have to go permanently into care, she agreed to leave her job two years early and become his full-time carer. At that point the problems in their relationship began to manifest themselves.

He husband would pore over bank statements, demand she hand over receipts for all expenditure and raise his voice if she couldn’t account for any small sums. Cathy said : “I paid for two cappuccinos, a juice and some cake in Starbucks, forgot to get a receipt and he accused me of lying. He was convinced I’d been meeting another man, not my daughter-in-law. When I texted her asking her to tell him it was true, he said I was trying to make him look mad.” 

His controlling behaviour escalated. Her trips outside of the home were timed and all but non-essential outings were banned. Barely a day went by without her husband shouting at her, complaining about her cooking, her spending, her appearance, her housekeeping and : “He even said my breathing was too loud and kept him awake, so I slept on the sofa.”

Up to that point Cathy had considered domestic abuse to be something that happened to younger women, often with dependent children. Her three sons were all in their 40s and had their own families, and only one lived nearby.

Often, as in Cathy's case, the abuse only begins when the couple have retired and are spending much more time together alone at home. The problem is compounded by the fact that older victims are less likely to leave abusive relationships than younger ones. Whereas more than two-thirds of younger women victims, aged under 60, left their abuser in the year before seeking help, barely a quarter of older women did. In addition, one in three victims over 60 were still living with their abuser while seeking help, compared with just one in ten of younger victims.

Cathy's situation is mirrored in 'Do You See Her', a film produced by 'Women’s Aid'. Featuring Anne-Marie Duff as the daughter, Phil Davis as the abusing husband and Tessa Peake-Jones as his abused wife, it depicts this older couple hosting a happy family meal and goes on to show the abuse that happens when their children and grandchildren aren’t present.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of 'Women’s Aid', said : “We need to challenge the perceptions about who abuse happens to. The film is a stark reminder that even those closest to a woman who is being abused may not know what is going on behind closed doors. Any woman, of any age, can be forced to live in the invisible prison of domestic abuse – including those with adult children and grandchildren. We want to send a clear message to all older women experiencing abuse that you are not alone, we’re here for you. It is clear that older women are experiencing domestic abuse, often for years or even decades, yet they are the age group least likely to access support. That’s why we have pioneered our 'Change that Lasts' Project', working with frontline professionals in health and social care to help them identify and understand domestic abuse and feel confident enough to offer support and a helpful response to older survivors.”

Suzanne Jacob, Chief Executive of  the domestic abuse charity, 'SafeLives' said : “Our research found that older people are much more likely than younger people to be abused by a family member. Because this abuse doesn’t fit the image of what most people think of when they hear domestic abuse, older people can often be hidden from services. Generational attitudes can also mean that, sadly, people can have been living with abuse for decades without ever being able to name it as abuse.” She wants to see more targeted publicity in places like GP surgeries and bus stops. “No one should live in fear, whatever their age.”

Cathy began to realise that what she was experiencing was abuse when she saw her GP about panic attacks and saw a poster on the door of the surgery’s toilet listing abusive patterns of behaviour. She was encouraged to mention her situation to her GP responded by giving her appointment slips, which meant she could leave the house and phone a helpline without arousing suspicion.

She spoke to someone at 'Women’s Aid' who confirmed that her situation was abusive and that the abuse was not her fault. She was told that if she wanted to remain at home, she could look into legal avenues to have her husband evicted. But, she was afraid to seek practical help. “There was no way I could leave without a legal battle over the house, and my sons loved their father, the grandchildren loved him, everyone in my life knew him as well. I didn’t think I could start a whole new life, he’d always be in my life. And I was his carer. If I left, who would look after him every day? I didn’t want to live this way, but I didn’t want him to suffer.” 

After five years of abuse, Cathy's husband suffered a second stroke and died a day later.

Cathy isn't alone. According to the 2016 report : 'SafeLives’ 2016 survey of Independent
Domestic Violence Advisor provision in England & Wales', an estimated 
120,000 women over 65 had experienced at least one form of abuse 
and the lion's share of this is meted out by the old men with whom they spend their lives and is a problem which receives little or no public attention.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Britain is a country which once made and is now diminished by the loss of Paul Younger, its Giant of a Hydrogeology and Environmental Engineering

Paul, whose brilliant mind transported him from his working-class, Geordie roots, growing up on the banks of the Tyne in the 1960s, to professorships at Newcastle and Glasgow Universities and world-wide acclaim for his work on water remediation, has been taken from his family, his profession and Britain at the age of 55.

He described himself on Facebook as : 'Geordie, gadgee, gangrel; Geologist, gaitero, GĂ idheal; Grateful, God-lover. Gorrit.?' and was one of those rare individuals who filled the room with sun and relished life, as witnessed when he seized the opportunity to break into song in gaelic :

Ben Cruachan. Ben Cruachan. Ben Cruachan.
I take great pleasure in you,
Ben Cruachan, beyond a fells
with every burn running through your dells.

He was a deeply spiritual man who took his Christianity very seriously, carried out a daily spiritual exercise and kept a spiritual journal, which in 2016, when he was 53, recorded his 'relentless grappling with life’s darkest challenges.' He recalled that the first wedding of one of his three sons he closed his 'journal entry for 30 January 2016 with this question : 'What are you preparing me for, Lord? No answer was immediately forthcoming, but the uninvited meditations on suffering and death persisted unabated. Then suddenly, six months later, I got an unequivocal answer.' 

The answer was his experience of his loss of speech,'expressive dysphasia,' which was caused by a brain tumour. Specifically, he recalled : 'The type of cancer they found (glioblastoma multiforme, GBM) is of ‘Grade 4’—the most aggressive category—and would therefore be expected to recur. GBM is regarded as incurable and terminal.' He was told that he probably had 15 months to live. In the event, buoyed up by the love of family and friends and his religious faith, Paul lived another 19 months.

Paul was born in 1963 in Hebburn, County Durham, a small town situated on the south bank of the River Tyne in North East England, sandwiched between the towns of Jarrow and Gateshead and was raised in a shipyard house on the banks of the River. He grew up, with his three siblings, in the shadow of the last of the big ships constructed in the yards, where his father worked as a ship welder and member of 'shell squad', the select group, who worked with such precision, that they were chosen to work on the outside of the ship.

He was proud of his working class roots : Grandad Younger was a miner at Dunston and his mother's family were Irish immigrants who worked in the shipyards. It was from her that he got his Roman Catholic religion, which dictated that he attended St Aloysius Primary School in Hebburn. He also inherited her love of music. She was an accomplished singer and pianist and the whole family would gather to sing traditional Geordie and Irish songs.

He remembered childhood summer days spent with friends hitching the ferry across the River to Wallsend and back for free, sitting on the roof and ringing the bell when it reached its destination or playing on the man-made hills next to his house which they scrambled up and slid down.
In 2015 he was the guest on BBC Radio 4's 'The Life Scientific' and recalled that it was only later that : "I finally learnt that they were ballast hills and they were piles of muck basically that had been dredged up by the collier boats from the bed of the River Thames. When they off-loaded the coal to get the balance of the ship right to come back of the ship right to come back to the Tyne they'd just dredge up some sediment. The Thames is predominantly flint that's been eroded out the chalk and I didn't know any of this when I first used to slide down this ballast hill in me cowboy suit but I would pick up these flints and take them back to the back lane with me friends who quickly showed me you could make sparks with them on the kerb and on each other and I just loved the shape of them. They're really weird-looking things flints, they're strange bulbous shapes. I still find them fascinating. I still have one that keeps me office door open to this present day."

The River dominated their lives :"In those days, the 1960s, it was always so busy and noisy," but the sharp decline in the shipbuilding industry meant "by the time you got to the 70s the wheels started coming off.”  His Father was made redundant three times, money was tight and his Mother had to go out to work to support the family. Paul remembered the skillful way his Father slipped a thin welding rod into the envelope containing his pay packet and winding a pound note tightly around it so as to be able to pull it out without breaking the seal and incurring the wrath of his Mother - “her indoors”.

In search of work, his father moved the family to Jarrow and Paul went to St Matthew’s Junior School and then, in 1974, St Joseph’s Grammar Technical School with its motto, 'The Love of Christ Spurs Us On'. On his own admission, Paul wasn’t as good at science at school as he was at English and humanities, but signed up for Science 'A' levels on the basis that he could keep abreast of literature and languages in his spare time and in 1980 secured a grant and took himself off to Newcastle University to study for a degree in Geology. It was, however, towards the end of his time as an undergraduate, in 1984, that he left behind his teenage ambition to enter the priesthood having fallen "head over heels in love with a woman.”

The object of his affection was an American student he had met on her gap year at Newcastle and as a result he followed her to the States, having won a scholarship to study for a master's degree at Oklahoma State University. The fact that she gave him the elbow after just a couple of weeks saw him throw himself into with vigour and he found he loved it. It was his first real taste of the importance of water and in studying groundwater, he made friends with members of native American tribes such as the Cherokee and Navajo and did voluntary work helping remote indigenous communities to get access to reliable water supplies.

In 1986, after the completion of his masters degree, he returned to Britain and began looking for research posts at universities, eventually ending up back in Newcastle and for his PhD, looked at the interaction of groundwater and river water. After three years research he confessed that he was “totally sick of university, so I left vowing never to come back”. He had, however, met his future wife, Louise, at the University Catholic Society and they had married when he was 25 in 1988.

Paul confessed to the BBC : "To be perfectly frank, I went into hyhrogeology for purely mercenary reasons, really - that I wanted a job; that was a growth area at the time" and "water is about giving people clean water to drink, putting a safe distance between them and their waste and it's hard to argue with its social value." "It suited me, a lot, to do something that assuaged me social conscience, but used me geology. But to be honest when I went into it I was worried I would't like it enough as the pure geology, but actually, I loved it. Absolutely loved it and still do. I get so much pleasure now out of going and looking at a spring line or looking at a river and figuring out how its interacting with the water in the ground around it."

In his first job he worked for National Rivers Authority, where part of his time was spent drilling holes around Northumberland and helping to secure the water supply for Berwick. He confessed : “I still get quite a kick when I’m driving past Berwick and think ‘you’re all drinking water that we found’.” Then, utilising his fluent Spanish, it was South America, where he took up a post as a groundwater engineer in the Bolivian Altiplano doing the same for indigenous tribes there.

Back in Britain, at the age of 29 in 1992, he, despite his earlier pledge, once again found himself at Newcastle University and very much in need of a job after the birth of his twins, Callum and Dominic, who joined their two year old brother, Thomas. Not unsurprisingly, given his brilliance, he progressed from lecturer, to Professor of Hydrogeochemical Engineering, HSBC Professor of Energy and Environment, Director of the Sir Joseph Swan Institute for Energy Research, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Founder-Director of the Institute for Sustainability.

Often his work involved advising on the problems created by the groundwater pollution caused by old mining deposits : "In the North East, to make the historic coal mining industry here possible, the mines went deeper, deeper and deeper to find unmined seems of coal and as they went deeper they're ever further below the water table. And so vasts amount of water had to be pumped out of the mines, which is OK, but the problem comes precisely when you stop mining, because you've got 300 years of crud has accumulated in the ventilated part of the sub-surface that's been opened up with tunnels, none of which has ever been ever been flooded before. Then you suddenly flood the lot and all of that stuff goes into solution in a drastic hurry and you go from water that was relatively benign, during the actual mining operations, to extremely polluted water. So that issue came surging up, literally, as the waters are surging up underground it came surging up for me as a professional."

Paul worked for just under 20 years at Newcastle University and in 2012 he moved north of the border to occupy Glasgow University’s prestigious Rankine Chair of Engineering and was also  Professor of Energy Engineering. At his inaugural Rankine Chair lecture he began by breaking into song in gaelic after he had been introduced (6 minutes into the lecture). In the same vein, he had, on occasion, livened up proceedings at the University Adam Smith Club by singing the minutes.

Paul said, with perfect self-effacement : “I am grateful for the gifts I have, but none of them are down to me. They are things I’ve found I can do well and it’s not for me to sit and congratulate myself, but to see to what good I can put them. I want to help solve people’s problems, big social, cultural and economic problems. What I don’t want to be is an isolated superhero, it’s not realistic. The real saving the world is done in collaboration with others. So as far as I make any contribution to improving the world, I do it with others.”

He faced death with equanimity : 'While it is true that I cannot dictate what blessing God chooses to grant me, it is not only legitimate, but indeed incumbent upon me, to ask to remain able to pursue my vocation for my family, community and society. Yet I must accept that I cannot choose my own path' and 'I an a human being, loved by God and surrounded on all sides by love and care. The outcome is ultimately in God's hands.'

Professor John Marsh said of Paul : "Working with him was a delight, he was a true polymath, whose professional interests encompassed all the engineering disciplines and beyond, and whose personal interests included languages, music and hill walking. Above all, his passion was for people, demonstrated by his love and care of individuals, his appreciation of diverse cultures, his sense of justice, and his determination that developments in technology should lead to a better society. His influence was felt around the world, particularly in South America and Africa where he had several major collaborations. He will be greatly missed."

Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President of Newcastle University, said : “It is impossible to sum up Paul in a few sentences – he was a giant of a man in every way and his warmth, enthusiasm and fierce sense of justice permeated everything he did."

 In 2016, just before he received his terminal diagnosis, he delivered his 'What Coal Mining Hydrogeology tells us about the Real Risks of Fracking'

In parallel with his mainstream academic work, Paul founded and directed four companies in the water and energy sectors and authored more than 400 items in the international literature, including the well-received books : 'Mine Water: Hydrology, pollution, remediation' in 2002, 'Groundwater in the Environment : An Introduction' in 2007, 'Water: all that matters' in 2012 and 'Energy: all that matters in 2014.

"Water is life."

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Britain : to this day and after 25 years, still no country for an old father called Neville Lawrence seeking justice for a murdered son

Neville, who is 76, was 51 years old when, on 22 April 1993, he was told, along with his wife Doreen, that his son, Stephen had been stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack by a gang of white youths as he waited at a bus stop with his friend Duwayne Brooks in Eltham, South-East London, Unbeknown to them, over the days that followed, the police received several tipoffs and the sources pointed to the same suspects : brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson, and David Norris and despite having enough grounds to make arrests, the police decided instead, to begin surveillance of the suspects’ homes.

On the 4th May, Neville and Doreen held a press conference and aired their frustrations that not enough was being done to catch the killers and two days later, they met Nelson Mandela in London. Twenty-five years later Neville recalled : "I remember the door opened and I saw this tall, elegant-looking man come in and I remember thinking : 'I'm in a dream.'" Needleass to say, police action swiftly followed after Mr Mandela's visit : the Acourt brothers and Dobson and Norris were arrested and Duwayne Brooks identified Neil Acourt and Knight from an ID parade and the pair were charged with murder, but denied all allegations.

In July they saw the charges against Neil Acourt and Knight dropped when the Crown Prosecution Service said the evidence from Duyanne was 'unreliable' and it wasn't until the following September that they started a private prosecution against Neil Acourt, Knight and Dobson.

By this time the strain was taking its toll on Neville who recalled : "I was told by my doctor to take a spell away. I'd been through three hard years of pain and suffering" and as a consequence he felt he "couldn't take any more." "I couldn't go to another court thing and I stayed in Jamaica until it finished."

The relationship between Doreen and Neville also suffered. He said : "We never talked about what each other was going through. We were never able to sit down and discuss with each other or with anybody what was happening. It was never done. Never been able to talk about how much pain each of us was going through."

Doreen said : "I noticed, more or less from the same night that Stephen was killed, how things was changed, just like that. People say it either makes you stronger together or it tears you apart. I had to keep it together for everybody and I expected some support from him and it wasn't there. It was as if the tragedy only happened to him and the rest of us wasn't going through anything."

Neville said : "It was like I was in a different country or different space. I was totally consumed with grief."

Neville wasn't there to witness their private prosecution against Neil Acourt, Knight and Dobson at the Old Bailey collapse after Mr Justice Curtis ruled that identification evidence from Duyanne as 'inadmissible' and the were three acquitted. He knew that the 'not guilty' verdicts and the double jeopardy rule meant they couldn't be tried for the murder of Stephen again.

Neville was 55 when the Coroner’s Inquest resumed in 1997 and he heard the verdict of 'unlawful killing in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths'. He and Doreen formally complained to the Police Complaints Authority about the police’s handling of the investigation. On 14 February, he saw the Daily Mail front page, display the names and photographs of the Acourt brothers, Norris, Knight, and Dobson under the headline : 'Murderers' and read the paper's accusation of their killing of Stephen and challenge to sue for libel.

That summer they met the Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, after his Conservative predecessor, Michael Howard, had refused to see them and as a result they saw the Home Office announce a Judicial Inquiry would be held led by retired High Court Judge, Sir William Macpherson. Early that winter they read that the Complaints Authority Report on the original police investigation of Stephen's murder identified 'significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities', but said that there was no evidence of racist conduct by police.

Another year turned and Neville and Doreen called on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, to resign for police failings and received an unprecedented apology to them, saying : 'I am truly sorry that we let you down.'

Neville was in his 57th year when, in February 1999, he read the Macpherson Report found the police guilty of mistakes and 'institutional racism' and make 70 recommendations on changes to policing and wider public policy. He also read the report suggestion of a rethink of the principle of 'double jeopardy', to allow the retrial of acquitted defendants in exceptional circumstances if new evidence emerges of their guilt. In April, he and Doreen saw the five men arrested in 1993 deny involvement in the murder in a TV interview with Martin BashirPart One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four .

The strains in Neville's marriage led to their divorce in 1999 and at the end of 2000, in acknowledgement of their failings, the Metropolitan police paid him and Doreen £320,000 in damages. But it wasn't until he was 65 in 2005, that the double jeopardy legal principle, preventing suspects being tried twice for the same crime, was scrapped for certain offences when there is new evidence.

The following year he saw the BBC documentary based on claims from former detective Putnam the the criminal father of David Norris, Clifford Norris, may made payments to DS Davidson, who served on the first police investigation, allowing them to be kept one step ahead of the investigation

Eighteen years after Stephen's murder, Neville and Doreen saw the the Court of Appeal agree that Dobson’s 1996 acquittal for the murder could be quashed in the face of new forensic evidence and had some satisfaction in the fact that, in November 2011, the trial of Dobson and Norris for Stephen's murder began at the Old Bailey. They heard Mr Justice Treacy tell the jury they must disregard previous publicity and “start this case with a clean state.”

At the end of 2012 they witnessed the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris 'under joint enterprise' for the 1993 murder of Stephen, after new DNA evidence had shown a blood spot on Dobson’s jacket, with a one in a billion chance of the blood coming from anyone other than Stephen and two hairs belonging to Stephen found in an evidence bag recovered from Norris’s bedroom. Neville was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News before the verdict was announced. After the guilty verdict and the life sentences were given, Neville said, through his solicitor, that he was 'full of joy and relief” at the convictions.

That summer Neville learnt that The Guardian and Channel 4 Dispatches reveal claims by Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer-turned-whistleblower, that he was sent to spy on him and Doreen to find “dirt” on them, in the period shortly after the murder, in April 1993 and claimed that senior officers deliberately withheld this information from the Macpherson Inquiry.

This year, his 76th, Neville was told that Scotland Yard admits it has no new lines of enquiry in the investigation into Stephen's murder and is considering closing the case, but will wait until after the broadcast of a three-part BBC documentary, 'Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation', to see if any new leads come forward.

In that documentary they would have hear Neville say of Stephen's murder 25 years ago : "I still haven't accepted that I wasn't there. When you read the Bible it tells you in the day of Moses and the Pharaoh, one of the punishments that need to be dished out was that if you did something wrong, you lose your first born and so I'm thinking : 'Maybe I done something wrong."

Neville has said his decision to forgive the gang for the racist attack was the hardest one he would ever make, but that he was embracing his Christian faith, he is a Seventh Day Adventist, and planned to spend today, the anniversary of his son’s death in church.

“My family, especially me, I will never be the person I was before Stephen’s death. Maybe sometimes people think you can just brush things aside. You can never brush this aside, this is going to live with you for the rest of your life. This is a life sentence that you can’t finish. The only time my life sentence will be finished is when I’m in the ground.”

Neville's frank interview with the Daily Mail was published two days ago. He now spends the lion's share of his life in Jamaica and lives a short distance from Stephen's grave, but he doesn't want the case back in Britain closed completely and still, after all these years hopes for justice.

"My son is in the ground in Jamaica. The killers have walked around, some of them for 25 years, the only time I was able to see anything of my son was going to his grave. You do something, you should pay for it."