At a party to mark their diamond wedding anniversary last summer, Rodney told the story of how he met Eileen.
Rodney Turner had been brought up in Albury Rd, Jesmond and attended the Royal Grammar School. He was evacuated to Penrith during the war and remembers the air raids in Keyes Gardens and Matthew Bank, a few streets away, when he was at home during the holidays.
He was a newly qualified doctor at the RVI in 1951 when he noticed an attractive young nurse on the children ward who was always kind and gave a clear account about her patients during the ward rounds. He decided to ask Nurse Wade out for a date only to find that she had gone to London to train as a midwife.
In days when such things could happen, Rodney obtained Eileen’s home address in Darlington and wrote to her on 16th October 1951. At a gathering to mark Rodney’s passing a few weeks ago, his daughter Margaret read out the letter her father had written to her mother 65 years ago. It was polite and proper, for Rodney was a shy man, but with clear purpose.
Eileen replied and only then did Rodney learn her first name. A correspondence ensued until they finally met in Durham on 15th May 1952. It was a warm sunny day, according to Rodney’s memoir of these years. They walked by the river and had tea in a riverside café. They sat on a bench as it grew dark and then walked arm in arm back to the bus station where they parted.
Rodney said that, on the bus home, he knew “something profoundly important had happened.. a new dimension had suddenly been added to my life and altered my vison of the future”.
Rodney was called up for national service in August 1952 and posted to Bermuda. Eileen was promoted to become a ward sister back at the RVI and when Rodney was on leave the following June, they became engaged. After national service, Rodney wanted to settle down and found a position as “an assistant with a view” to becoming a partner in a general practice in Alnwick in June 1955. They married in Darlington the following month.
Rodney often spoke of how much he enjoyed his work as a family doctor in Alnwick but there were not any opportunities for advancement and, to everyone’s surprise, he uprooted the family and moved to London in 1970 .
Rodney was persuaded by the Professor of General Practice at Guys Hospital to join him as the founding partner in a new health centre on the Thamesmead estate, which was to train medical students and undertake research. Thamesmead was a space age concrete jungle which became famous as the location for the futuristic film Clockwork Orange.
The family moved into a council house on the estate living amongst families decanted from inner London. It may have appealed to Rodney’s socialist principles.There was a great esprit de corps among the first doctors, social workers and clergy in Thamesmead. I joined as a young social worker a few years later and was roped in.
It was total medicine that went far beyond aches and pains and extended to every aspect of the patient’s life. The families moving to Thamesmead were isolated in strange surroundings – all the living quarters were one storey up in case the Thames flooded – and without the support of their extended family and friends.
Every lunchtime after surgery, there were meetings about marriage guidance, community development and goodness knows what else. Rodney was at the heart of a burgeoning community practice, working longer than everyone else and holding everything together. He co authored research papers and even wrote a textbook. Eileen worked as research assistant.
A few ago, Rodney lent me a book he had written of anonymous case studies of his patients from Alnwick and Thamesmead. He wrote eloquently and precisely in a manner that reminded me of the great neurologist Oliver Sacks.
The common theme was that the doctor is but a bystander in the great wonders of life. His intervention makes little difference. It seemed to Rodney that patients got better or worse, largely irrespective of his efforts. It was a self-deprecating account but, although he is long since retired, I hear that the patients in the Thamesmead health centre still talk about Dr Turner.
The health centre won architectural awards in its day but the practice has outgrown the building and it will shortly be demolished. The whole estate is to be refashioned to do away with living in the sky but, as I remember it, they were brave and wonderful days when we felt the world might change for the better.
The Turners retired to Morpeth where Rodney was again evacuated in the wake of the floods in 2008. His son Neil followed him into medicine and quoted John Berger’s description of the family doctor as ‘a fortunate man’ when we gathered with Eileen to celebrate Rodney’s life. His daughter Ruth talked about his passion for playing the piano and its influence on her.
But I was left thinking of Rodney’s good fortune in his personal life, recorded like a case note without sentimentality; meeting Eileen in such a romantic way and spending over sixty years happily together.
Published in Newcastle Journal on 28th June