Posts Tagged ‘Lord Alf Morris’

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – LORD ALF MORRIS – A PASSIONATE CARING MAN WITH A COMMITMENT

August 14, 2012

It was with much sadness that I received news of Lord Morris’ passing through the media today.

I held Lord Morris in very high esteem, and that was in no small part due to his un-erring ability to take time to speak with people whom he felt he could help.  It was in this connection that I developed an even greater respect for a man who was so instrumental in changing the face of the UK in its attitude to disabled people.  He was a true champion for Rights for Disabled People and a staunch supporter of campaigns by Thalidomide impaired people.

Those of you who have read my tribute to Lord Jack Ashley, will know that in 2008, I was commissioned by BBC Radio Wales to present a radio documentary on Thalidomide 50 years on.  As part of the documentary I was keen to speak with Lord Morris, and through his office in the House of Lords, suitable arrangements were made to meet with him.

You may recall I previously spoke of meeting Jack and of our “Abbey Road moment”.  That was in fact the same day as I met with Lord Morris (although we had met on a number of occasions in the early 1990s whilst campaigning for the rights for Disabled People).  However, unlike Lord Ashley, we did not zip around the corridors of power on scooters, but we were taken through those imposing corridors by Lord Morris to a Committee Room, where he gave a passionate interview about his involvement in the Thalidomide story.

Before we got to the Committee Room, we passed many eminent members of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  I was struck by the genuine sincerity with which Lord Morris was greeted.  If I were to try and paraphrase this, it would be that he was greeted with the affection afforded to the Headmasterly character “Mr. Chips”. 

Lord Morris was quietly spoken, but commanded an air of authority and respect that is virtually impossible to replicate in today’s political world.

Lord Morris will be remembered as a man of integrity, and man of honour.  Most of all he will be remembered as a man who, despite rising from abject poverty to the rank of Elder Statesman, never forgot his solid northern roots.  It is my genuine belief that his understanding of being “ordinary” allowed so many people to warm to such a fine and dignified man. 

Our current politicians have much to learn from people like Alf Morris, and his passing marks the end of an era – of caring and compassionate parliamentarians – that we should mourn alongside the passing of a fine orator, who was revered and respected for all his good works and commitment to social justice.

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – “The stairway to heaven will soon have a ramp”

July 7, 2012

In my last Blog post, I told of the memorial service to be held on the 2nd July 2012 for Lord Jack Ashley.

I was honoured to be asked to speak at the memorial service – which was secular in nature.  As well as  Jack’s three daughters and nine grandchildren, the speakers included many who had known Jack personally from his political and campaigning work, as well as those who (like me) had been touched by his humanitarian work.

In accordance with his daughters’ wishes, the service was very much a celebration of a great life, and the accolades which were paid through the 90 minute service were moving, emotional and humorous in equal measure.

Ed Milliband spoke of his close association with the Ashley family, before inviting Neil Kinnock (Lord Kinnock of Bedwelty) to address the congregation.  Neil clearly had enormous affection and respect for Jack Ashley.  He spoke of Jack’s political career, and the impact he had on how Parliament perceived and worked with disabled politicians.

I was asked to tell the audience of how Jack had helped the Thalidomide cause through the use of Parliamentary procedure, and recall one of the occasions on which we had met – my ‘Abby Road’ moment.  David Livermore (former Chair of the RNID and Deafness Research UK) spoke of Jack’s work on issues surrounding deafness.

Agnes Fletcher of Disability Rights UK (and a former researcher to the All Party Disability Group) spoke of how many people would quake when they knew (in her words) “That Bloody Jack Ashley” was on the warpath.

Lord Alf Morris, a lifelong friend and political ally, read the poem “Count the Day Lost” by George Elliot.  Then we were told of the good work which Lord Jack did in the House of Lords by Bernard Donoughue (Lord Donoughue of Ashton) who, at the end of his address was moved to tears, as were many of us. Music was provided through the haunting lyrics of Ave Maria, which filled the room as the pure soprano voice of a young choir boy undoubtedly stretched way beyond the room in which we were gathered.

Fittingly, the service was brought to a conclusion by David Milliband who read the anonymous poem “Not how did he die, But how did he live?”

For those who are interested, the family are planning to make the transcript of the Speakers tributes available on the Lord Jack Ashley website – www.lordjackashley.co.uk

When I started researching Jack’s involvement in the Thalidomide scandal for my contribution to the service, I felt it was important to read his autobiography Act of Defiance.  It was really the only true way to appreciate just how strongly he felt about the issue.

It was on the 24th September 1972 that the Sunday Times published its front page lead headed “Our Thalidomide Children – A Cause for National Shame.”  The day of publication, was the day that Jack Ashley pledged his unequivocal support for our cause.  Working together with the Sunday Times team, Jack was able to use his knowledge of the Parliamentary system, and call upon friends and colleagues in the Palace of Westminster to seek to put the Thalidomide story firmly at the heart of British politics. 

Jack was more than well aware that if some action was not taken, the entrenched position adopted by Distillers would mean prolonged litigation – and this would only be to the detriment of Thalidomide children and their already hard pressed parents.

Jack was no stranger to negotiation, and he used his powers of persuasion to good effect.  On the 29th November 1972, he used time afforded to him by Harold Wilson, to address the House of Commons with a speech that resulted in his whole life being turned into a whirlwind of correspondence and interviews – raising the profile of the Thalidomide story to heights that our parents could only have dreamed of.

The help which Jack Ashley gave to Thalidomide children cannot be overstated.  Very few of us had the pleasure of meeting him, but we will be forever indebted to him for his commitment in righting one of the most unjustifiable wrongs in British legal history.

It was not until I finished reading Jack’s book that I realised how many parallels I enjoyed with such a fine family.  I share the same birthday as Jack – 6th December, we graduated from University at roughly the same age – He at 25 and I was 24.  Jack and Pauline raised a family of all girls; likewise, my parents raised an all-girl family.  Jack pledged his support for Thalidomide children on the 24th September 1972.  Sixteen years later on the 24th September 1988 I married my husband Stephen. And in 2003, Jack and his daughters lost a wonderful wife and mother in very similar and sudden circumstances to how I lost my mother in 1992.

Those parallels apart, there is one other strange coincidence which links Jack Ashley to the Thalidomide story, and goes further back than his great oration in 1972. 

During his early adult years, Jack was a furnace man at Bolton’s Copper Smelting Works in Widnes.  When Jack left his job to start on the long journey that would eventually lead him to Westminster, he would not have known the origins of Thalidomide.  Or that they would be so very close to his own industrial working class roots.  The town of Stolberg in Germany is well-known for its past history in smelting industries – including copper smelting.  It is, of course, also the town in which Chemie Grünenthal; the German manufacturers of Thalidomide were based, when Thalidomide wreaked so much havoc the world over.

In his autobiography, Jack talked candidly about what a profound effect the Thalidomide campaign had upon him.  It proved that disability was no disqualification to being a respected Parliamentarian, and that our plight had helped him cope with the loss of his hearing.

To Thalidomide impaired people in the UK, Jack Ashley was an icon of honesty and fairness, in a world where (even today) justice and decency are sometimes empty words. 

He will be remembered with great affection for his tireless work for Thalidomide-impaired people and their families throughout the country; as a fierce and effective champion of disability and human rights; and as a supporter of our aim to establish a lasting memorial to the Thalidomide story.

But above all, to us, Jack Ashley – Lord Jack Ashley – always was, and always will be, “A Man for all People.”

The final portion of the service was given over to Jack’s grandchildren, who read certain tributes which had been posted on the memorial site.  One of Jack’s young grandsons had the last word.  He spoke of one tribute that told of all the good work Jack had done for so many people.  The tribute concluded by saying that “the stairway to heaven will soon have a ramp!”   How fitting.  So my closing thought on this has to be … Let’s hope that Building Regulations at the Pearly Gates are not too strict, otherwise Part M may soon have some celestial input!

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – A JUBILEE CELEBRATION OF EPIC PROPORTIONS

June 7, 2012

It is rather a dismal wet day, and I have just finished watching the highlights of the Queens Diamond Jubilee – Digiboxes are such wonderful things – and what a celebration it was.

They demonstrated an outpouring of affection for Queen Elizabeth an icon of modern British history.  However, what many of the spectators in London over the last weekend will not have known is, that the weekend before, the Capital hosted another Jubilee celebration. 

At a hotel within the sight and sound of Big Ben, just close to Westminster Bridge and within shouting distance of Tower Bridge, an international gathering of Thalidomide people – the likes of which this country has not seen before, and is unlikely to see again – took place. 

It was 50 years ago on the 26th November 1961 that Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Limited withdrew the drug known the world over as Thalidomide.  It was another six months before the Government officially advised of the need to stop using Thalidomide.  That 50th anniversary passed during the weekend before the Diamond Jubilee, and was marked by a Convention which celebrated the achievements of Thalidomide people, and remembered those who did not survive what is undoubtedly the worse medical disaster of the 20th century.

I had wanted to describe this gathering as akin to a certain sporting event which is due to take place in the UK later this year.  Sadly copyright laws will prevent me from doing so, but let me just say this.  The coloured rings, which form the emblem to which I am referring, encompass continents around the world, and we were honoured to be part of another international event which (like that soon-to-be sporting spectacle) saw people from all corners of the globe descend on London for this unique occasion.

Unlike the Jubilee weekend, for our event, London was basking in the best temperatures of the year so far. The love, warmth and affection which was so apparent in that central London location, raised the temperature even further, and was an occasion that I would not have missed for the world.

Some of the delegates put us “Brits” to shame with their command of the English language, but the one single link which all Thalidomiders have, transcends language and cultural barriers.  I have no doubt it was probably as strange for our Japanese friends to meet European Thalidomiders as it was for us to see Thalidomide impaired people of far eastern origin.

It is almost impossible to describe how our international family interact.  However, if you just think of a relative or good friend, someone who you may not meet regularly, but when you do, you are able to take up where you left off, then that is just how it is.

It must have been very strange for the other guests in the hotel to see such a “motley” crew in various shapes and sizes arriving in at intervals throughout the first day, but if they were, there was no outward sign of curiosity.  We all met up for a drink and chat on Friday evening and then trundled off to bed – some of us earlier than others (!) in anticipation of a very full day of presentations due to start at 9.15am prompt the following day.

In our bedroom, getting up in time for breakfast and registration, was rather like school sports day.  Here’s a little run through …

On your marks, get set …

  • School bell, or rather a VERY loud alarm sounded at 4am.
  • Sack race – with a difference … Steve trying to extricate himself from his duvet, in darkness.
  • Obstacle race … Bed to bathroom.  Trying to avoid a pair of artificial legs strategically placed at the bottom of the bed, and then CRASH straight into the bathroom door.
  • 10 minute swim in the shower and slalom onto the shower seat, finishing with a mountain decent onto the loo.
  • Sprint to the finishing line with the classic two pronged attack on the opposition – one involves a shave and the other … well, let’s just say the activity beings with an “s” !
  • Onto the relay.  The bathroom baton needed to be passed to a rather bleary eyed female competitor who needed more than just words of encouragement to get started.  I’m sure many of you can remember your childhood seaside holidays, and the infamous donkey ride. Remember when the donkey never did what it was supposed to do until you prodded it with something sharp.  The sharp object in this instance was a chubby little finger that eventually had the desired effect, of stirring me from my less than athletic slumber.
  • Next the Rosie Moriarty-Simmonds triathlon … The three main events involved the bathroom event, dressage (actually dressing up) and hair!  I think it is fair to say I wasn’t in the market for breaking any world records that day, and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson’s title as wheelchair athletics supremo still remains safely intact!
  • We made the finishing line with a loved-up teenager in tow just as final orders for breakfast were being taken.

After breakfast, we then moved onto the more serious part of a marathon conference day.

The stage had been set during the previous evening.  Art and photographic displays had been erected, which provided an interesting and thoughtful backdrop to the coffee and pastries … Yummy, especially as the last drop of coffee at breakfast had been gulped down so fast I could have won the marathon dribbling competition hands down .. or even four fingers down!

Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds leading a tribute to the late Lord Jack Ashley

The first session of the day, involved a short tribute to Lord Jack Ashley, a champion of the cause of Thalidomide children in Parliament in the 1970’s.  Sadly Jack had succumbed to illness only a month before the event, and passed away surrounded by the family who so clearly loved him.  We were honoured to welcome Jack’s daughter Jane, to receive the gift which was to have been presented to Lord Ashley had he survived to join us.  I was honoured to have been asked to make the tribute and in describing Lord Ashley as “A man for all People” I presented Jane with a suitably inscribed gift.  In reply, Jane paid a moving tribute to her father, and it would have taken a hard-hearted person not to be moved by this opening to such a special event.

We were thereafter treated to differing presentations from many varied and diverse speakers. 

Professor Janet McCredie explained how she had concluded that our damaged limbs and organs, were the result of Thalidomide damaging our nervous system.  So I am now quite pleased to liken myself to the little Star Wars robot C3PO.  From now on, I will be forever categorised as C5C6C7!

Then Lord Alf Morris spoke of his work with Jack Ashley.  He told how the issue of Thalidomide shaped much of the disability legislation we have in the UK today.  Some years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lord Morris for a BBC Radio Wales documentary.  The best way I can describe Alf Morris, is the epitome of a special Grandfather – Kindly, gently spoken, but even with advancing years, someone who can hold the authority of a conference room, just as he did in the House of Commons when he was an MP.

The mood was lightened, by our next speaker.  Sir Harold Evans – former editor of the Sunday Times.  He spoke with passion of how the Sunday Times had bucked the trend and brought the issue of Thalidomide to a wider audience, and effectively used the power of the press to shame Distillers into action when the ongoing litigation by parents, prevented the shameful immorality of Distillers actions being laid bare for the public to see.  With those twinkling blue eyes, and mischievous devil-may-care approach, it is not difficult to see how Sir Harry was able to garner such support for the Thalidomide story.

Sir Harold Evans and Rosie getting acquainted!

Our next speaker was Sue Kent.  Her father Peter Carter was one of the founders of our current Thalidomide Society.  In a moving historical tribute, she outlined how her father and others had worked during the austerity of the early 1960’s to establish a group that would eventually provide the framework for the Thalidomide Society of today.  Sue was able to show us images of parents at first meetings; examples of gala events – to which Lady Hoare had lent her support – in order to raise much needed funds to support our parents during the early years.  She paid tribute to many significant members of the Society who had steered our Organisation through changing times, and explained how the unifying force of our parents had worked locally and nationally to establish a network of support for Thalidomide families the length of the country.

It was now time for lunch, and so I will take you back to my sporting theme …

  • The first event was the classic game of how many people you can fit into a confined space.  The confined space is usually a Mini, but in this instance it was the lift.  I reckon four wheelchair users of varying sizes and three much squashed Thalidomiders was the record, but of course, that is unless you know better!
  • The main lunch time experience was how you fit three courses into a very small amount of time.  The sucking liquid through a straw incident produced some interesting results and the egg and spoon race has now been surpassed by a new event.  The Vol au vent circle chase is now a must for all Thalidomide related gatherings.  Why is it, when you chase a vol au vent around a plate, for some inexplicable reason of science, it always ends up at the furthest point away from the person with the shortest of short arms!  If the restaurant staff were perplexed by this new sporting activity, they were very discreet in their interest, which doubtless was a source of enormous humour in the staff room at the hotel.
  • The final round of coffee straw slurping and the 100 metre dash to the accessible loo, made a fitting end to another sporting extravaganza!

But enough joviality, the afternoon session was about to commence. 

The first speaker of the afternoon was Doctor Martin Johnson, Director of the Thalidomide Trust.  He spoke of the stark reality of how Thalidomide had taken (or potentially taken) the right to life.  Martin outlined how research had shown that many Thalidomide babies were left to die on the floor of hospital delivery rooms and relayed harrowing accounts of how Thalidomiders, both here in the UK and abroad, had been subject to untold horrors and abuse, simply because of their Thalidomide impairments.  Most of the stories had uplifting and happy endings but the reality nevertheless remained, that some of our number had suffered hardship, arising from Thalidomide, which, I hope in our modern world, no-one will ever have to witness again.  It is estimated that many thousands of babies were left to die – sometimes because of the panic that ensued after the delivery of the baby concerned.  It is my guess that we will never know the true extent of the Thalidomide tragedy, and that is why the issue of our Thalidomide Memorial is so important.

The next session of the afternoon, was a presentation of how it is proposed to develop an oral history of Thalidomide.  Anne Borsay from Swansea University and Ruth Blue from the Wellcome Trust, explained how the oral history would be documented.  We were then treated to two short films showing the “children” as were then, being fitted with those cumbersome artificial limbs that, as I have said in my book, were (for the majority of us) completely useless.  In one of the films, a little boy was fitted with gas powered arms, just like mine.  His well-meaning parents encouraged him to use the limbs.  However, when he was playing with his trike, and needed to make an adjustment to the pedals, what did he do?  Yes, you guessed it … he used his feet!  Need I say more?  The second film was narrated by Brigadier George Chatterton.  What a hoot … we saw friends that we haven’t seen for years.  I’d like to say we haven’t changed a bit, but that really would be stretching things!  The film showed a group of little kids just having fun, doing kiddy things in childlike ways.  One little chap sang a song whilst balancing on a gym bench.  I’m not sure if he went on to become an opera singer, but that nostalgic trip down memory lane was a real tonic.

I was asked to speak again at the final session.  My presentation was all about our Thalidomide Memorial Campaign.  We have titled the Memorial Campaign “To Remember is to Care” and that is exactly what we did.  As my presentation drew to a close, the audience was invited to observe a two minute silence, to remember those who did not survive this dreadful medical atrocity, and to remember parents, partners and children who have played such a pivotal role in our story.  As one of the other members of the campaign team, Steve had written a poem which was screened during the silence.  I have, with Steve’s permission, reprinted it here:

TO REMEMBER IS TO CARE

A time of greed,

No thought for the unborn child,

Came abhorrent pharmacists

With evil, impossible to hide.

 

A tiny pill, lives broken and shattered,

Hearts and emotions, broken and battered.

A twist of fate, of which no-one could foretell,

For so many, a vast living hell.

 

So came those babies;

Helpless, destined to confound.

To differing families,

In wealth and status, no limits were found.

 

Their lives, so varied, diverse and proud,

The children of Thalidomide,

Their determination?

Unbowed.

 

Over the years

Life takes its toll.

Tragedy and sadness

Are bound to unfold.

 

The loss of a loved one,

Is the hardest to bear.

We remember our parents

For their help, love and care.

 

Remember a brother, sister, daughter and son,

With the finest of memories, each and every one.

Remember a partner, soul mate and a child’s parent,

Times of happiness, frustration, despair and contentment.

 

For the children whose passing

Was hardly acknowledged,

We remember them all

And give them this promise.

 

So may dim the memory,

In that marching passage of time,

But now in this gathering and beyond, they

In our thoughts and prayers will remain.

 

We remember with pride,

Achievements gained against the tide,

But will not forget those

Who have struggled with life’s ride.

 

And when we encounter

People who still stand and stare,

Think of those who have left us.

Be proud.

 

To Remember is to Care.

Ó Stephen Simmonds 2012

[Please note that this poem was written specifically for the UK Thalidomide Memorial Campaign.  If for some reason you should reprint the poem, post it in an article, newsletter, journal, blog or web page, please do not forget to credit the original source ‘© Stephen Simmonds’ and its relation to our campaign! Thank you. Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds.]

Fittingly, the final moment of the event went to Louise Medus-Mansell, who with her husband Darren and a small committee (ably supported by the Thalidomide Society) had organised the day.  Rightly, Louise received an ovation from the audience, and the day’s events concluded to the classic Queen anthem “We are the Champions”.  And indeed we are.

But there was one final sporting event for which we had to prepare.  A sumptuous candle lit gala dinner, with entertainment provided by the Bootleg Beatles.  Having poured me into my evening dress, and carried out a make-up job that the producers of Pimp My Ride UK would be proud of, my lovely husband, and James (my Spencer – Made in Chelsea look-a-like son) all trundled off to the drinks reception.  We mingled with friends from all over the world, and marvelled at the artwork and photographs that showed just how far we have come in 50 years.

The Bootleg Beatles did a session which took us all back to wonky fringes and hand knitted cardigans!  But I have to leave you with one final story from the night.  When the original “Fab four” appeared at the Royal Variety performance, John Lennon famously suggested that the attendees in the expensive seats rattle their jewellery and those in the cheap seats clap their hands.  Well, in the true spirit of Beatlism, our Bootleg fab four tried to urge the revellers on the dance floor to “clap their hands” … I think the absence of clapping probably should have told them something … But still, the pun was “armless enough”!  I guess if they ever play a gig with over 200 Thalidomiders again, they may just change the script, and ask the audience to “flap their pandies”.  Let’s hope so!

From a Man for all People, to Remembering that Caring is a vital quality in life, and everything in between, our weekend had it all.  

Both our Jubilee event and the royal spectacle were special in their own way.  Rather like Her Majesty, the memories of both events will stay with me for many years.  But the memories and friendships which were forged during our international event mean these three words – Swifter, Higher, Stronger – will have a special and deep significance long after the world’s greatest sporting event has left our shores …

Those three words aptly summarise the strength of our unique international family, and for as long as we are able, we owe it those who cannot, to carry the torch of our significant story into the future – and long may we do so.