In which The Author penetrates the corridors of power
As I noted in That Was The Month That Was, and also in my other blog Radio Free Aberdare, my old friend Martin H. is going through the National Health Service mill at the moment. This particular branch of the Circumlocution Office marked its 65th birthday on Friday. Whether by chance or design, that landmark anniversary coincided neatly with another important occasion.
Late last year, the Cynon Valley’s MP Ann Clwyd lost her husband Owen, who had been ‘treated’ (in a loose sense of the word) at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff. Ms Clwyd was shocked and disgusted by what she witnessed, and raised her concerns in the media. (Hill, 2012.) Soon afterwards, the Prime Minister asked to her to review the NHS complaints procedure in England. I encouraged Martin to contact her about his own case, and that led to a meeting with her constituency secretary, during which Martin outlined the history of the shoddy treatment he’s received at the hands of the medical profession.
I also contacted The Western Mail, and their chief reporter Martin Shipton published a full-page story about Martin in April. His case was gaining a high profile. Two weeks ago, a letter arrived from Ann Clwyd’s office inviting him to sit in on the first session of her review of the NHS complaints system. At first he wasn’t very keen (Martin’s a glass-three-quarters-empty kind of guy), but I managed to talk him round and he rang back to accept the invitation. Since they were prepared to reimburse his expenses, and also pay for someone to accompany him ‘in case he felt ill on the way’, I volunteered to travel up with him and started looking for the cheapest way to make the trip.
At this point, Huw F. entered the story. He’s recently taken redundancy from work, so he’s also at a loose end. He suggested paying for the three of us to go on the train; he could spend the day exploring, and then we’d meet up in the evening for a pint. We booked the tickets with some difficulty (see Meanwhile, in a Century Near You) last week, and everything was sorted. In the meantime, Martin had another meeting with Martin Shipton (see Capital Depreciation) to bring him up to speed. I spent a few hours going through Martin’s sheaf of handwritten notes, and eventually pieced together a timeline and summary of his complaint. On Tuesday afternoon, we spent ages phoning and emailing Ann Clwyd’s office to finalise the arrangements. A chap with the very unusual Welsh name Tweli rang Martin to say that there’d been a change of plan. The session had initially been intended to take place in Committee Room 8, in St Stephen’s House. Now, it had been relocated to the Clement Attlee Suite in Portcullis House. It sounded to us as though the campaign’s momentum was building up.
On Wednesday evening I decided to try and get hold of some broadcast journalists as well. Martin Shipton is firmly on the case, but his paper only circulates in Wales. I decided to get in touch the ITV Wales health correspondent, Rob Osborne, and also emailed copies of my document to the BBC and Sky News. After all, the parlous state of the NHS is a huge issue in the UK at the moment, and I thought Martin’s case would be a nice story for a keen investigative journalist. A few minutes later Rob Osborne emailed me back, saying that he was on holiday, but that he’d pass the details onto a colleague. That sounded encouraging, so I thanked him and gave him Martin’s number.
On Thursday I met Huw in Servini’s and we had a quick cuppa before collecting our tickets. We weren’t in a huge rush to get to London, as the meeting wasn’t starting until 2.30. Martin was meeting us on the train at 9.30 (Mountain Ash is three stops from Aberdare), so we strolled to the station and collected our tickets. Elaine in the booth gave Huw twelve pieces of card, and for a few moments he was flummoxed. I looked at them in more detail, and realised that we had three sets of paperwork: a pair of tickets each (out and back), and a pair of seat reservations each on the Intercity service. My recent practice playing Mahjong (see A Night on the Tiles) came in handy as I paired up the bits of card and doled them out. Martin Shipton rang me when we were on the way to Cardiff, to wish Martin good luck when we were there. So far, we hadn’t heard anything from ITV Wales or the BBC, but at least we knew one journalist was eager to cover the story.
In Cardiff we had half an hour to kill, so we had a cuppa and the boys had a smoke before the London train arrived. And the Goddess of Chaos stuck her oar in as usual. When Huw and I had been fucking around on the First Great Western website, we’d requested that our seats be ranged around a table. There’d been nothing to indicate that that would be a problem, but when we got to our reserved seats they were all forward-facing. Poor Huw ended up sitting behind Martin and me. Worse still, we were sitting directly next to the coachwork, so we couldn’t even get a decent view from the window. Huw checked the booking on his phone, and we were in the right seats. I can only assume that table seats get booked up early, and we’d missed the boat (to mix metaphors horribly!)
We left Cardiff on time and quickly headed towards England. We were about a mile from the Severn Tunnel when Martin’s phone rang. It was a chap named Phil from ITV, following up on the message Rob Osborne had left. With superb comic timing, just as Martin was starting to get to the gory details we plunged into the tunnel and lost the phone signal. It was typical of the weird love-hate the Goddess of Chaos and I have with technology.
When we emerged into England, Martin tried ringing Phil back. Once again, he’d only been on the phone a few moments when we entered the Patchway Tunnel and he got cut off again. After the Chipping Sodbury and Alderton Tunnels, we started to see the funny side of it, and decided to wait for Phil to ring us back. We gathered that he was hoping to grab a brief interview with Martin before we went in. I sent him a quick text with our ETA at Westminster, and told him that we’d see him there. We were only halfway to London and the day was already descending into chaos.
At Paddington, Huw went his own way and Martin and I jumped into a taxi. I’ve only been in a London taxi four times, I think. The first time was when Dad and I were heading to Les and Mary’s house in Acton, and we’d managed to get lost. The second and third occasions were heading back to Palmers Green with Sam H., when we were off the beaten track. The fourth time was Keri L.’s funeral, when London Paul ferried a party of mourners from the Conway to Llwydcoed Crematorium and back. It’s a good way to see London, as you’re at a fairly decent height and you can read the street signs and pub names easily. Mind you, the traditional chatty cabbie seems to have gone by the board. Ours didn’t say a word from the moment Martin told him our destination to the moment he paid our fare. £14.80 isn’t bad for a nice trip across Central London, passing Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner and Buckingham Palace on the way. When we’d left Wales it was grey and picking with rain. In the capital it was sunny and hot. London always looks far more appealing under a canopy of blue.
At Portcullis House we started looked around for Phil. There was a cameraman outside chatting to his colleagues, but they turned out not to be from ITV. We’d arrived a bit later than I’d estimated, and when Martin rang him the call went straight to voicemail. Martin had a smoke, and while we were lingering outside we were struck by the sight of two armed police officers flanking the entrance. It was oddly reassuring and unnerving at the same time.
The Metropolitan Police who manned the check-in desk were very friendly and helpful, even though I fell foul of the security arrangements. I had a very small penknife on my keyring, with only about a one-inch blade which I use for opening packages. I had to take it off and hand it in at the desk. It was hardly going to cause a major terror alert, but it demonstrated the diligent way in which the police carry out their duty. We were issued with our passes and made our way into the lobby. There was a fair crowd assembled there, and I’m sure I recognised some of them – maybe they were journalists or back-benchers. We went through double glass doors, up two flights of stairs, and emerged onto a mezzanine floor overlooking an impressive atrium. It’s obviously been designed with passive solar illumination in mind, and there’s a cafeteria there which MPs and their staff can patronise.
At the top of the stairs we were greeted by Tweli himself. He’s a very pleasant chap, and made us welcome immediately. He led us along the oak-panelled corridor, past a row of portraits (including a rather alarming one of Tony Blair), and into the Clement Attlee Suite. The doors are uniform with the walls, and the whole effect is one of grandeur and opulence. It’s only a decade or so old, but Portcullis House manages to combine ultra-modern design with classic style. It’s an extremely impressive building, worth a visit if you get the chance.
There were only a couple of people in the meeting room, seated on one side of a square of long tables, and Martin wondered we’d have a poor turn-out. He needn’t have worried – we’d got there quite early, and people started to drift in over the next quarter of an hour or so. There was a chap setting up a TV camera near the door, and a young man bustling about talking to some of the other invitees. He turned to be Nathan, whom Martin had originally spoken to when the invitation arrived. He had the look of someone who’s done his degree, become an ‘adviser’, and is probably setting his sights as a party candidate in a few years’ time. Only last week I caught part of a debate on Radio 4 about the way that Parliament is being filled with political geeks, with little experience of working in the real world. I hope I’m wrong, but Nathan gave me the impression of fitting that description admirably.
Martin asked Tweli if there was a smoking area, and the two of them decided to sneak out before the hearing commenced. I had a look at The Guardian crossword (someone had left an unstarted one on the train) until he got back. The room had started to fill up, and Ann Clwyd was chatting to some of the invitees. Martin started going through his notes, and was wondering which points needed to be highlighted if he was asked to speak. I could see he was nervous, so I gave him a few words of advice: keep calm; don’t ramble; stick to the point; don’t speculate about what might have happened; most importantly, be yourself. I don’t know where I’ve picked up these useful tips, but I suppose my encounters with journalists over the years must have rubbed off somehow. I promised I’d prompt him if he forgot anything vital, and he seemed a bit more relaxed. The chap with the camera and microphone turned out to be from the The World at One – the Radio 4 programme where Ms Clwyd had first spoken openly about the events surrounding her husband’s death. A couple of people didn’t want to be in his all-over shot, so they left while he filmed a brief introductory piece. When everyone was back in place, things got underway.
Ann Clwyd told us that she’d had over 2,500 letters and emails in the wake of her interviews with the media. Together with Professor Tricia Hart, she’d been asked to conduct a thorough review of the complaints procedure, of which formed the first stage. Although her brief extended only to England (Health is devolved to the Welsh Government), about half the people present were from Wales. After her introduction, there was an open forum where everyone had a chance to relate their experiences with the NHS. We heard a catalogue of horror stories about institutionalised bullying from consultants; nurses being too busy on administrative tasks to carry out basic care; dirty and unsanitary conditions on wards; mis-diagnoses and clinical errors; and a general culture where staff member were afraid to speak out for fear of being victimised.
Listening to some of these highly upsetting personal accounts, Martin and I were shocked to learn that the situation he’s encountered is endemic across the country as a whole. It was hard to believe that over twenty years have passed since Graham Pink was fired from his job as a nurse for raising his concerns over poor standards of care.
The meeting wound up at about 4.30, and refreshments were served in an ante-room, by a cheerful chap in an immaculate uniform. I took a couple of photos of the room, while Martin chatted to some of the other witnesses and they exchanged notes.
We left the meeting at about 4.45. Martin had missed a few calls from Phil, and tried to call him back. Meanwhile I decided to take a closer look at the portraits lining the wood panels of the corridor. The one of Tony Blair was even more frightening the second time I looked at it. By contrast, the one of Michael Howard made him look extremely approachable and charming. Considering that Anne Widdicombe once described him as having ‘something of the night about him’, there was certainly no sign of that quality in the painting. There’s a fantastic painting of Tony Benn as well, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of it:
Martin was chatting to another couple of invitees while I got talking to one of the security guards about the building itself. He seemed to have landed himself a fairly cushy number – after all, the extensive precautions at the entrance would filter out pretty much anything other than an airborne nuclear attack or an alien invasion. I took a few more photos until I bumped into a maintenance guy, who told me that strictly speaking I was breaching the rules. He warned me not to get stopped by the security staff. It was a bit late for that; while the security guard and I were chatting, I’d been taking photos of the portrait right next to his seat. The whole atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed and friendly, which I thought reflected nicely on the state of our country. In spite of frequent terrorist threats, and mounting opposition to our Government’s dubious policies at home and abroad, it was lovely to be able to stroll around the corridors of power and feel perfectly at home.
We left the building just before 5.00, and almost immediately Martin Shipton rang me to see how things had gone. I gave the phone to Martin and lined up a couple of photos of the Palace of Westminster while he was recounting his afternoon.
As soon as the Martins stopped talking, Phil rang to say he’d missed his deadline for the evening bulletin; he said one of his colleagues would ring Martin in the morning. I took another couple of photos before Huw rang me. He was in Trafalgar Square, only a five minute stroll from where we were standing overlooking the Thames, taking in the amazing view of the bridges, the stunning skyline to the south of the river, and the frequent river traffic. I told him we’d meet him there, and we made our way through the hordes of workers, tourists, joggers and cyclists who thronged the north bank. We passed a wedding party who had obviously decided to have their photos taken with the London Eye as a backdrop. If there’s a more spectacular setting in this country, I haven’t seen it.
In Trafalgar Square I texted Huw to tell him we’d arrived, and we had a look in Waterstone’s on the corner of The Strand. As I’d found in Cardiff the week before, the range available seems to be increasingly limited. There was still no sign of Christopher Priest’s new novel, but they did at least have the second volume of J.G. Ballard’s Complete Short Stories amongst fewer than half a dozen of his books. I figured that it would keep me going for a few months, so I treated myself and we headed back out into the sunshine. Huw hadn’t texted or rung me, so I texted to tell him we were heading for The Coach and Horses in Soho, and we’d meet him there.
We headed up past St Martin’s Church and I was struck immediately by the ornate frontage of the Coliseum Theatre:
Just beside the theatre, Martin realised that there was something he wanted to show me. There was a gap, only three feet or so wide, between two buildings. If I’d passed it on my own, I’d have assumed it was somewhere for the tenants to put their rubbish in time for the refuse collection. I’d have been very wrong.
It broadened out (slightly) to reveal Brydges Place, home to one of London’s exclusive drinking clubs. Martin had been there once before when he was working in London in the mid-80s, to meet a high-powered music business guy. He’d told me about it, and now we were standing in it. I’ve been a big fan of Michael Moorcock’s books for many years, and somehow I got the feeling (as I often do, wandering around the city) that there was a strange and mysterious history to be discovered there. Indeed, were Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Grainger to embark on a post-Hogwarts, pre-university pub crawl, I’m pretty sure they’d end up somewhere like Brydges Place.
We were on the lower part of Charing Cross Road when we spotted Huw on the other side of the road, heading for Trafalgar Square. His Smartphone’s satnav had drowned in the city centre’s electromagnetic soup, and he’d been relying on dead reckoning to get to Soho. My own dead reckoning, based on many hours of studying maps of the centre, had managed to outdo his technology. We caught up with him and together we struck out towards Seven Dials. From there, we crossed by the Palace Theatre and headed into Soho.
Martin and I were on fairly familiar ground now, and we made a beeline for Old Compton Street. It’s the gravitational centre of London’s clubbing/gay scene, and there was already a great party atmosphere. It was US Independence Day, and it seemed that London’s wealth of pubs and clubs would be marking the occasion in style. Soho has become filled with coffee shops and takeaways (like everywhere else), but we were highly amused by the name of an as-yet-unopened sausage shop: The Wurst Is Yet To Come. We headed for Greek Street, and then to the corner of Romilly Street and another London legend:
Private Eye readers, theatre fans, and lovers of old-school pub culture will recognise the name of the Coach and Horses, even if they’ve never been there. Formerly run by ‘London’s rudest landlord’ Norman Balon, the Coach is the setting for Keith Waterhouse’s play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, and while it’s changed dramatically since Norman retired in 2006, it’s still a mecca for bohemians and tourists from across the world. We chatted briefly to two charming Japanese girls who were sitting outside. ‘Norman’s’, as the strapline to the original sign now reads, now serves food, and even bills itself as ‘London’s first vegetarian pub.’ I’m not sure what the great man would have said to someone asking for a vegeburger back in the day, mind you. Probably, ‘No, you can’t have a fucking vegeburger, you fucking hippy! You’re fucking barred!’
[A digression: When we were working on the Cynon Valley Profile back in 1986-7, Ross, Hilary, Kathleen and I once spent several hours driving around the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, trying in vain to find the standing stones Maen Llia and Maen Madoc. We admitted defeat and headed back to Penderyn for a late lunch. We called into the Red Lion, where we ordered drinks and enquired about bar snacks. The landlady offered us a choice of pies or pasties. Kathleen asked if they had anything else, because (as she explained) she didn’t eat meat. Without batting an eyelid, the landlady replied, ‘Have a pastie, love – there’s not much meat in those.’]
Fed and watered, we had a wander through the side streets of Soho. Martin used to spend a lot of time there when he was working, as the place was home to numerous recording studios and TV production companies. We stopped outside a little newsagent’s shop, and once again the frontage looked like something from a fantasy version of London, where past and present have collided on some sort of Time Rift.
From here, Martin led us into an undistinguished side alley called St Anne’s Court, where he pointed out just one of the legendary names of the music scene:
We walked through Soho Square, where a large section of road was cordoned off while it was being dug up. It wasn’t any old construction site, however; Soho Square lies above the route for the Crossrail project. It never ceases to amaze me that, even though subterranean London is riddled with sewers, water mains, gas mains, electricity cables, telephone wires, the Underground itself, and Goddess only knows whatever else, there’s still room for new railway tunnels. (One day, I fear that the whole city will collapse in under its weight, like the town in Paint Your Wagon.)
We headed back onto Oxford Street, and once again I was struck by the fantastic shop fronts that line the road. Not the ones at ground level, of course – they’re the same whichever Clone Town you live in (see Location, Location, Location.) I’m talking about the architecture from the first floor up, like this building:
I used the zoom lens to get up close to the roof line. This graffiti must have been executed by Spiderman himself:
A little bit further along, we caught a fantastic view of the BT tower, and then yet more architectural vandalism on the front of the Swarovski shop:
From here, we dived into Oxford Circus station and bought our tickets to Paddington. I know it’s been a long time since I first explored the London Underground (see London Orbital), but I was horrified to find that a single one-zone journey on the Tube costs a whopping £4.50. Suddenly, £1.25 from Aberdare to my house on the bus seemed fairly reasonable. We reached Paddington just after eight o’clock, and were on the 2015 train to Cardiff with time to spare.
ITV Wales finally caught up with Martin on Friday morning, and featured his story on the evening news bulletin. His brushes with the press seems to have settled his nerves, and he came across really well on the air. Of course, it remains to be seen whether his case will be resolved quickly (or, indeed, at all), but we decided yesterday that if he’s invited to make a return trip, we’re definitely in!