Archive for November, 2007

Those Oxford dinners

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Reuters fellows who remember the dinner seminars will remember the man who cooked them. I really don’t think this could happen to a nicer person.

Just after the College kitchen had been refurbished Jim took me to have a look. I was astonished to see the ceiling in the main kitchen and said ‘you’ve got a hammer beam roof Jim’

‘1437’ said Jim with a nonchalant pride before pointing out to me a picture of the definitely unrefurbed kitchen in about 1750 with the hunks of meat spit-roasting in the great fireplace where now a sophisticated range and extractor system were in place. Call me sentimental but I loved the fact of cooks producing food in that kitchen for over half a millennium. And I doubt it has always been as good as the food they enjoy now. I’m so glad that the current chef will be a permanent part of the history of the College.

Here’s a story

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

Picture: Student nurses with ward sister, St Thomas’ Hospital circa 1965

Here is quite a long story about the first journalist I ever met. It took place a long time ago in the middle of the night at St Thomas’s Hospital. I was, for the first time, the senior night nurse on duty which both excited and frightened me in equal measure. I was also on a ward where I had not worked before.

Opposite the desk where we put our sickest patients was a man who had returned from a long operation shortly before I arrived on duty. He was obviously very ill and in some pain. After taking the night report we checked his drips and drains and wounds. We sat him more comfortably in his bed, we gave him some analgesia and talked to him. As I turned to move on I heard him faintly speak and I leaned toward him to hear him whisper to me “thank you nurse.”

He was so ill, so weak and probably rather frightened but he still made that effort to thank me. At that moment I remember thinking that St Peter would have to wait because this one was mine for the time being.

That man was called Jack Marshall and over several long slow weeks he made a recovery. He was remarkable in several ways. Firstly, he had had a laryngectomy about 20 years before when his voice box had been removed to excise a cancer. He had been told that he would never speak again. But he did by inventing the system of speech known as oesophageal speech. This requires the speaker to swallow air and then force it back through the oesophagus. The speech is hoarse and whispered and also comes in short bursts of about five words.

He told me how it had come about. “Well, nurse – I used to drink whisky in those days – but after the operation – I took a lot of – soda in it. One day – I belched and -I just said pardon- out of habit – and the belch sounded – like the word. So nurse I practiced and – (triumphant smile ) I drank – a lot of whisky! He told me that he’d taught the actor, Jack Hawkins to use this form of speech (the only available to such people then) but that he was the most difficult pupil he’d every had probably because for an actor the loss of voice is such a profound loss.

And it was a loss for Jack too because he was working on the sports desk of the Daily Express and without a voice couldn’t use the phone or talk to other journalists or sports people. But with the use of much whisky -or so he said-he got back to the Express where, with the aid of a microphone attached to his telephone, he was back on the sports desk which is what he was doing when I walked him through the Valley of the Shadow and out the other side.

Later, he took me and several other nurses to the Express Building in Fleet Street one evening for a tour. He loved that paper and loved showing it off. And I doubt his reputation was damaged by being accompanied by half a dozen young women with very short skirts. We saw the news floors and the library and the canteen all busy and active as the first edition went to bed and then we went down Fleet Street to the Express pub. Jack bought me a whisky and introduced me to the political editor as ‘my nurse, she saved my life’. The political ed, digested this info and turned to me ‘so you saved his life?’ I smiled in what I hoped was a modest acknowledgement. ‘Don’t know why you bothered’, he said. Jack laughed, if not out loud, certainly enthusiastically. I thought it was hilarious and suitably deflating of any pomposity and it carried a degree of hospital-humour mordancy.

Whilst Jack was a patient of mine, he would greet me every morning and point out something or someone in the newspapers. He took the Express, of course, and the Times, both broadsheet. One day he called me over to show me a byline on the front page of the Times. ‘ That’s my daughter’. Rita Marshall, his daughter was the first woman to have a byline on the front page of Times and he was inordinately proud of her. One evening she came to me at the desk while I was doing the evening report and apologised for her father. I wasn’t certain what for but she said she was sure he must have been difficult so she’d thought it as well. I reassured her that we’d never seen anything but courtesy (although having pre-emptively apologised for my own father from time to time I did understand her motivation).

Jack died sometime in the later 70s and I haven’t come across Rita Marshall since. But I’ve never forgotten him (evidently) nor watching and hearing the presses roll under the magnificent old Express Building, or seeing the papers bound in batches loaded onto the vans to go to the stations and then on to the north. It seemed almost as exciting as my job. I realised that journalism didn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of time in Crewe recording weddings and garden fetes. And it was the first time I went home with a paper dated for a day that hadn’t actually arrived.

Men of Straw

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Talking of Leeds, where I was at the weekend, I noted the board in the student’s union where the names of the past presidents are noted and their year of service. Naturally, I looked for Jack Straw, the most famous of these. Somewhat depressingly his year, 1969 has a nasty scratched out blank next to it.

I can’t say I’ve been as keen on Jack of late as once I was. No longer the fiery rebel of yore, he seems to be determined that none of the senior women will get past him and that Harriet Harman won’t get much credit for beating him to the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. See Andrew Rawnsley in this week’s Observer.

‘There is a growing sense around Westminster and Whitehall that the great offices of state in the cabinet are not punching at their proper weight. Jacqui Smith has yet to deliver a big speech about the philosophy and values that guide her approach to her critical responsibilities. She allowed herself to be muscled out of the Home Secretary’s slot in the Queen’s Speech debates by Jack Straw. The wily Jack is manoeuvring himself into the position of deputy Prime Minister in all but title. We are still waiting for Alistair Darling to give the definitive statement of his approach to the economy. David Miliband, who does have the capacity to make speeches of a large scope, has been packed off round the world.’

But I don’t think it’s big or clever to remove the one big name that the country has heard of and deface a board in the process. Neither should a student body attempt to hide its history. So damned predictable. I expect I’d have done the same.

Up, up and not quite away

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Among the many irritating mysteries of my life is why, apparently, the rest of the world can find cheap flights on which they can circumnavigate the world whereas I cannot. Even if I think I’m there it always turns out that if I’d saved the time and gone straight to the carrier’s web site I could get the flight for about the same money.

I thought I’d cracked it this week. BA flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh (yes, I’m off north of the border again) was £139, but Flybe from Birmingham offered a flight out for £9.90 and a return for something in the £24.00 region. And the times were better so I got booking with a song in my heart. So how come I ended up paying £106? Well, firstly they charge extra for booking on line, then they charge extra for the airport and fuel taxes which is a whopping amount. Then, every checked in bag is charged for and so is booking and reserving a seat on-line. By the time I found out that I was only saving something in the region of £35 I was so far into the system that frankly Id almost given up the will to live, let alone fly.

I keep trying to find the elusive ‘cheap’ flights. There’s not a travel web site I don’t know. I just don’t know how to use them.

The daily news

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

I take press calls at the Institute where I work so I always listen to the early morning news and try to predict what the story of the day might be. I’m rather better at it than I am at chasing a cheap flight but not much. Yesterday I thought it might be about Yahoo giving information about Chinese bloggers to the government resulting in two journalists ending up in jail. In fact it was about Gordon Brown trying to bring the legendry clunking fist to bear on internet providers in order to limit terrorist communications. A few days previously it was the Finnish killer and then the terrible murder of Leeds Student, Meredith Kercher. As well as doing interviews for Sky TV our expert wrote about it in some depth. Horribly compelling.