Wednesday, 24 April 2013


"There are fates worse than death. Longevity drags if you have buried your children. Poverty, loneliness, incontinence, dependence, and dementia are some of the final rewards. Not everybody hopes for a long life followed by death from boredom. Plato in The Republic recalled the gymnastic teacher Herodicus whose skills enabled him to reach old age in a prolonged death struggle. Hesiod’s golden race died swiftly, as though in sleep; they had no old age. Why be afraid of sudden death from coronary heart disease if you cannot regret it the day after?"

Skrabanek, Petr. "Preventive medicine and morality." Lancet 1, no. 8473 (1986): 143.

Friday, 19 April 2013

the nineteenth of April

today is the day my brother died. we don't know when, exactly, but the landlord found his lifeless body in the communal hallway around half past ten. nobody knows what was going through his mind then. he didn't leave a note. just two empty vodka bottles and a body that ran out of breath.

i remember quite clearly the phone call. i was walking past Dream beds on Tottenham Court Road when the nightmare began. "the inevitable's happened. Paul's gone." i think i squeaked something out before a strange, impassive sense of calm descended on me.

i met my boyfriend at Warren Street and greeted him with the cold, hard words: "Paul's dead". we hugged for too long and then walked up Hampstead Road to get back home. past the old alcoholic's treatment centre, of all ironies. past flats full of alcoholics like Paul, i expect.

when i got home my housemates asked if everything was alright like they already knew it wasn't. i don't know if they did. i know i didn't want to upset them so i just said yes, with a fake cheerful smile that i stuck on my face over the coming black weeks. then i went home to my mum.

i don't remember anything of that weekend.

on Monday i called my boss into a meeting room and told her with what i thought was the appropriate tone of voice that my eldest brother had died last week and i would need exactly two days off for the funeral and no more because i was absolutely fine and i wouldn't need to take any more time off from work at all.

i don't remember anything of that week.

until the funeral. i wasn't sure whether to wear trousers or a skirt. but i couldn't ask my mum because my voice had disappeared. maybe it was visiting Paul's soul to say the last words i never got to say. i didn't visit his body.

Jason cried in the car park. it was the first expression of grief i'd seen. it just made me more like stone. i wasn't upset. i was relieved, and guilty that i was relieved, and angry about feeling guilty, and ashamed because i couldn't cry. my Dad did though.

i read a poem. well i tried. the congregation gasped as my shell-shocked vocal cords straining at the sounds a normal person would make. but i wasn't normal and i never will be again.

at the wake, Jonathan played Paul's music and distributed copies of his poems, "because they should be seen." shame no one saw that while he was alive. i was angry again, but only on the inside.

it took a long while for my anger and guilt and shame to reach the top of the bottomless pit of deep dark despair that i didn't know existed in a hole in my heart. once that happened i started leaking. it wouldn't stop.

it doesn't stop.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How the Wellcome Trust once thumbed their noses at Margaret Thatcher

On the day of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's funeral, it seems appropriate to flag up a wonderful story from the history of the Wellcome Trust. I first came across it while researching interesting aspects of Wellcome's history for their 75th anniversary project, when I was seconded to the public engagement team. My job was to tease out a dozen tales from Wellcome's history that demonstrated its impact, influence and achievement.

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher pulled funding from a survey run from UCL that would assess the state of the nation's sex lives and attitudes towards it. She believed the survey was "an invasion of people's privacy and did not want her government to be associated with it." Sir Donald Acheson, the Chief Medical Officer of the day, saw its importance and went to the then director of the Wellcome Trust, Peter Williams with a plea. Anne Johnson, lead investigator of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) sent her original grant application to Williams and nine days later Wellcome's scientific committee recommended to their Trustees that they provide the full funding for the survey: £900,000. The Trustees unaninmously agreed that same day.

Journalist Mike Durham with his Sunday Times story about Margaret Thatcher blocking NATSAL funding. 
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Some involved in the decision were concerned that Wellcome might appear to be "thumbing their noses" to the Prime Minister. Fortunately, they also believed that politicians should not have "a veto on a well-designed study that many saw as key to the tackling of a looming medical emergency."

And it seems Wellcome's scientific committee and its Trustees made the right decision. The rest of the story is published on the Wellcome Trust's website, as written by Nic Fleming following mine and Benjamin Thompson's initial research.

Monday, 15 April 2013

And The Winner Is...

Early morning, never sleep
Enough to have a dream.
Dreads bathing mother, fears
That no-one will be
Her selfless friend
When the time draws near
That is misnamed 'the end'.

The postman nearly visits,
On the mat a letter
Sealed in dumb reply
To her only ever
Rush of madness -
"Why you should have a holiday
In twenty words or less."

Excitement lasts a gulp
Then stood one foot upon
The pristine pedal of the bin
The thought that if she'd won......
If frightens her to laugh;
The unopened letter gets dropped in
And she goes to run the bath.

Paul Maddocks (1969-2007)