Ian Jack: How suffering became a public act

Kathleen Ferrier and Jade Goody: two celebrities who died young. And there the similarities end

King George VI was discovered dead in bed in the early morning of 6 February 1952. He was 56. A few hours later I was walking home at lunchtime with a few classmates from primary school. "Look at that flag!" one of them said, and we looked across the playing fields towards a cotton mill that had a flagpole on its roof. The flag was only halfway up the mast: "It means the king has died." This is my earliest memory of public death.

A period of severe public mourning followed. Cinemas and theatres closed, BBC broadcasts were restricted to news bulletins and solemn music. It would be impossible to live in Britain then, even as a six-year-old, and not recognise that a serious mood had been imposed and was, for many people, being fretfully endured. For every one of us this week who couldn't bear to read or hear another word about Jade Goody - we were absolutely up to here (the gullet) with her and her alleged significance - there would be somebody in 1952 angrily wondering when Abbot and Costello would resume at the Odeon. The difference then was that the grievous instructions arrived from above, by fiat, and not, as now, through a media anxious to feed and develop what it sensed to be a public appetite.

As to what the king died of and why he died of it, these things to most people remained more or less unknown. The king had long been known to have "a lung condition". Like his brother, grandfather and younger daughter, he was a great smoker and by 1952 the link between smoking and lung cancer had already been established - but not until several decades later were "lung cancer" and "cigarettes" and "the king" connected in the same sentence. This can partly be explained by the respectful reticence once shown towards the royal family, but with that explanation comes a more general and now faded idea of good behaviour involving stoicism, privacy and never mentioning the most dreaded disease by name.

Consider this scene from July 1952. The new Queen is staying with her uncle, David Bowes-Lyon, and hears that Kathleen Ferrier, the celebrated contralto, is spending the weekend nearby. She has 15 more months to live. The Queen sends word inviting Ferrier to sing for her. Ferrier obliges. After the recital, the Queen sits next to her on a sofa and, in the words of Ferrier's sister "knowing the true nature of her illness", asks her how she is. "Just the odd ache, Ma'am", is the reply. "You have to expect these things."

The contrast between Ferrier and Goody in terms of talent and achievement needs no spelling out. The second was an awkward, graceless, shouty woman who liked appearing on TV. The first had one of the most beautiful voices among classical singers in the last century. The conductor Bruno Walter said that the two greatest musical experiences in his life had been knowing Ferrier and Mahler - "in that order" - while to the critic Neville Cardus not since Ellen Terry had any artist "been so universally loved"; by the time of her death aged 41 in 1953 she may well have been the most celebrated woman in Britain after the Queen.

But the more interesting contrast between Ferrier and Goody, and between then and now, is how the process of suffering has become a public act. Ferrier had feared cancer ever since childhood, when she saw a neighbour in Blackburn die slowly of it. Throughout the 1940s she'd worried about pains in her breasts. In July 1950, she went to a doctor and emerged shouting to her voice teacher, waiting outside, "Look, Prof! He's given me a clean bill of health." A wrong diagnosis, however. The next March she asked her assistant, who happened to be trained nurse, to have a look at a lump. A mastectomy followed. Ferrier wrote cheerfully to close friends about a "rather formidable op" to remove a "bump on mi busto", but then heavy doses of radium therapy began to exhaust her and in any event the cancer had already metastasised. She collapsed during a recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in Vienna. The femur in her left leg snapped during the second performance of Orpheus at Covent Garden in February 1953 - her last public appearance. She vomited in the wings, but with the aid of morphine took several curtain calls. She was dead seven months later.

And what did the public know of her disease during the years between diagnosis and death? Almost nothing. Ferrier spoke of her "rheumatics" and wrote to friends in America that they should ignore any "malicious rumours", behaviour probably motivated by a combination of subconscious denial and a fear for the truth's effect on her career. In May 1953, the Sunday Times wrote that during her last Covent Garden performance she had concealed from the audience "the fact that she was suffering most painfully from arthritis". It took death to prize out the forbidden word, and at first not extensively; "cancer" is hard to find in her anthology of tributes.

Her friends remembered, however, that she'd promised that when she recovered she would give a fundraising recital for the radiotherapy department at University College hospital, which had treated her kindly. A charity was established, the Kathleen Ferrier Cancer Research Fund. All kinds of people sent money; newspapers reported £5 notes in envelopes from pensioners in Huddersfield. Ferrier (like Goody) had touched the British public, but (unlike Goody) through her superb art rather than the depiction of her dying; through Blow the Wind Southerly and Gluck's What is Life? rather than a shaved head and a white wedding dress, though after her death those same songs took on a more resonant melancholy.

And yet in the end what does the difference matter? Ferrier was perhaps the first well-publicised female victim of cancer in this country. University College hospital now has both a Kathleen Ferrier professor and reader of Oncology. Thanks to Jade Goody, more young women are aware of cervical smear tests than ever before.

This week I tried to find the plaque to Ferrier that her biographers said had been placed in UCH's radiotherapy department - unsuccessfully because the hospital has been rebuilt. Watching people come and go through reception on those urgent errands that sooner or later we shall all be the object of, I thought of how many lives might have been prolonged, perhaps including Ferrier's, if so much earlier cancer had stopped being taken like a shaming secret to the grave.


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Max Clifford: the circus master

Stephen Moss talks to Max Clifford about Jade Goody, Alfie the 'baby-faced' dad, and an extraordinary career

Stephen Moss

21, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Please, Lord Justice Leveson – this weekly ordure is not OK! | Marina Hyde
Marina Hyde: Hello!, OK! and Heat editors all had to testify. So few, when so many celebrity magazines regularly splash dubious misery-porn

Marina Hyde

20, Jan, 2012 @10:00 PM

Article image
How do you deal with public disgrace? | Jonathan Aitken and Conrad Black

Ex-cons Conrad Black and Jonathan Aitken both know what it's like to fall from the pinnacle of the British establishment. Here they swap stories about life behind bars

Interview by Susanna Rustin

26, Oct, 2012 @5:30 PM

Ian Jack: When the English were the world's best swimmers

Ian Jack: Once the English were the world's best swimmers, and the nation swimming-mad

Ian Jack

22, Aug, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Repetition, not veracity, was my gripe with this week's Mandela mourning | Ian Jack
Ian Jack: My distrust of being told what to think and feel by the media has made the unrelenting Mandela fest hard to bear

Ian Jack

13, Dec, 2013 @6:30 PM

Madeleine Bunting: Jade Goody's story of sacrifice offers us the ultimate reality

Madeleine Bunting: Media coverage of the redemption of a dying mother taps into wider anxiety about the world we are all leaving behind

Madeleine Bunting

09, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Libby Brooks: This death in close-up offers more than crass reality telly

Libby Brooks: Beyond class snarkiness, Jade Goody's story is a testing event in a society that has lost so much of its sense of ritual

Libby Brooks

18, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
How often we bend true stories into the shapes of familiar fictions | Ian Jack

Ian Jack: The reporting of India's 'real-life Slumdog Millionaire' proves the appeal of making the truth fit the familiar fiction

Ian Jack

04, Nov, 2011 @8:00 PM

Article image
Asking business to reshape public services is not always mistaken | Ian Jack
Ian Jack: Fifty years ago Harold Macmillan's government paid Dick Beeching handsomely to tell it what parts of the railway it should cut or close

Ian Jack

23, Feb, 2013 @9:00 AM

Ian Jack: How the display cabinet killed Wedgwood

Ian Jack: The pottery's problem is that they made too much - who wants it once everyone can afford it?

Ian Jack

10, Jan, 2009 @12:01 AM