Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: June, 2016

Rodney Turner: Love story of a fortunate man

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 



Along with Yanis, I’m sceptical but I’m In.

Yanis Varoufakis was famous for seven months. Whether he enjoyed his bruising  time as the Greek Finance Minister trying to negotiate a deal with the European Union, is not clear from his new book ‘And The Weak Suffer What They Must?  ‘

The title is a quotation from Thucydides  which Varoufakis  found, underlined  in the original Greek, in  John Maynard Keynes papers when  studying at Cambridge. Varoufakis is a serious economist in his own right catapulted into European politics when Syriza swept to power in 2015.

Keynes was smarting from the way the Americans  imposed a new world economic order after  the second world war at Bretton Woods . Keynes argued an alternative case and the strains of these long negotiations must have contributed to his early death.

IN his book Varoufakis explains that  the powerful Athenian generals explained to the helpless Melians why ‘rights’ are only pertinent ’between equals in power’ and, for this reason, they were about ‘to do as they pleased with them’. It was because ‘the strong actually do what they can and the weak must suffer what they must”  Mind you, the Athenians got their come upperance eventually.

Just as the Americans  imposed their solution on the European powers at Bretton Woods, so the Germans stitched up the Greeks in 2015, despite Varoufakis  best efforts . He infuriated Eurozone leaders by his confrontational manner and compared  them to terrorists. His most implacable opponent was the German Finance Minister  Wolfgang  Schäuble  who, in an article this weekend in Der Spiegel , poured scorn on the idea that the United Kingdom could enjoy free trade in Europe if it voted Brexit.  We may be next to suffer if we Brexit.

When the Greek Prime Minister acceded to the austerity demanded by the European Union, and so killed the Athens Spring,  Brussels let it be known that Varoufakis ‘absence’ would help the negotiations. He was disgusted with the climb down, retired from politics and went back to riding his  motorbike. He is now an unofficial advisor to Jeremy Corbyn.

I was therefore surprised to find  Varoufakis pleading  for Britain to  stay in what he describes as the “terrible EU”  and fight to make it a more democratic and effective body. Varoufakis believes that the EU could be reformed. His own plan for economic recovery draws heavily on the ideas put forward by Maynard Keynes at Bretton Woods.

“If Britain leaves” he argues, ”it may hasten the fragmentation of Europe bringing deflation and unemployment to the Protestant North and inflation and unemployment to the Latin south.” It also opens the door for others to follow.  I overheard a wise colleague in the City say sotto voce over a canape that it will all break up anyway and we are therefore better off out.

My astute brother in law also makes the case, mild mannered over the dinner table, to leave. Our destiny lies as an island state, he says, untrammelled by eurolaw and free to move at large in the world. I admire the way he strips the arguments back to basics.

But I am on the other side. I am not a great fan of the glorious imperial achievements of a nation state  whose time has passed. Our future lies in Europe wherein is the greatest hope of tackling the great problems of our day – migrants, climate change and world peace.

William Hague argued this week that you don’t move house just because you don’t get on with your neighbours. “You may not like them but you have to work with them for the common good.” Along with Hague and Varoufakis, I  may be sceptical but I have no doubt we should be in.

I actually enjoy following the  political  joustabout.   I cannot prove the increasingly preposterous claims either way.  My pension is now under threat? They all protest too much.

Should I be impressed, along with Guy Opperman who spoke eloquently at last weeks debate in Hexham,  ( which I chaired see picture) that all the acronymed  organisations have come out in favour of the economic benefits of staying in Europe. Should I dismiss the predictions of the self same economists and pundits who failed  to predict the financial crisis in 2008.

The Labour MEP, Jude Kirton Darling, speaking alongside Guy last week, made a powerful case that the North East has a consistent trade surplus with the EU which would be crippled if we opted out. The North East is the poorest region in England and a net beneficiary of European funds. Ordinary people, not well served by Westminster, would lose out. The weak will suffer.

But it now looks as if the people in places like Sunderland – working class and reportedly strongly leave, – will have the deciding say.  The tragedy of our times would be for voters so disenchanted with the political establishment to vote them down in the referendum.

I have licked the envelope on  my postal vote before setting off for a week walking  in the hills from which  vantage point,  Farage like with a pint  in my hand,  I will hear the result of a referendum that will determine  the rest of my life.

Published in Newcastle Journal 14th June 2016


Hustings gig