‘I took my appeal for help to the Observer... where words become actions’

The John’s Campaign founder tells how the Observer supported her fight for better dementia care, joining a long list of campaigns fought by the paper
• Click here for more on the Observer at 225

On 26 November 2014, I wrote an email to a couple of trusted colleagues at the Observer. I said that there was a piece that I wanted – needed – to write about the slow, sad dying of my father. He had lived well with dementia for 10 years or more, but a five-week stay in hospital had caused a shocking and irreversible deterioration, so that although he came home and lived for a further nine months, he was a ghost of himself.

In the same email, I wrote that I knew his story was not unique but horribly familiar, and that hundreds and thousands of men and women up and down the country had the same story. Hospital is a hazardous place for those who are vulnerable and confused, and doubly so when their loved ones are not welcome to stay with them. I said that I was intending to start a campaign, which would insist, very simply, that the carers of those with dementia have the same rights as parents of sick children to accompany them when in hospital.

I took my forlorn appeal for help to the safest place, where honourable journalism flourishes alongside a liberal, humane agenda; where a voice can be given to the voiceless and where words can become actions. The Observer published my article a few days later, and John’s Campaign was launched – it’s a campaign that began with two women in a kitchen and quickly became a national movement for more compassionate care for those who most need it, one which is supported by policy makers, charities, nurses, doctors, carers and, above all, by people living with dementia.

But we would have got nowhere without this newspaper, which gave us a foundation and a platform; carried regular stories (my own and others); kept the subject of dementia care on the agenda; dedicated a page of its website to the campaign, including the growing list of hospitals that had signed up to the principle of welcoming carers; was patient, steadfast, swift to help, flexible and encouraging. It became the hub for change and for hope; it remains the hub.

The Observer has a long and honourable tradition of campaigning, and although the causes that it has chosen to champion have been diverse, there is a thread that runs through them: to stand up for justice, to be on the side of those who are powerless, to bring about change through collective, democratic endeavour. Although I wasn’t aware of it two years ago, it came as a happy if unsurprising discovery to find that in the early 1960s, after research by the influential psychologist John Bowlby into “separation anxiety”, it was the Observer who supported the campaign for unrestricted visiting of children by their parents in hospital.

It was under David Astor’s trailblazing leadership that the Observer campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment, in 1956 serialising Arthur Koestler’s anti-death-penalty book, Reflections on Hanging. Koestler had been imprisoned and sentenced to death during the Spanish civil war: his accounts of men and women being put to death by the state were grim, specific, bodily and terrifying. He described the case of one sick woman of 28, whose “insides fell out” before she disappeared through the trap; he said that women were forced to change into canvas underwear on the day of their death. And he quoted the gaolers who said that Edith Thompson – hanged in 1923 – “disintegrated” as a “human creature” while waiting for her hanging, contrasting this with the impersonal, bureaucratic, mechanistic process: “the brisk, business-like opening of the door, the pinioning of the hands behind the back and the walking or dragging… in solemn procession to the execution shed and on to the white chalk mark on top of the trap”.

Hanging, a crowd
Police hold back a crowd of sightseers outside Strangeways in Manchester, before the execution of Dr Buck Ruxton for the murder of his wife and her maid, 1936. The death penalty was abolished in 1965. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

But the campaign took years to succeed, often in the teeth of popular opinion: it wasn’t until 9 November 1965 that capital punishment was abolished in the UK. The Observer acclaimed the vote as a “resounding condemnation of an odious practice”.

The unflagging support for abolition of the death penalty was part of the Observer’s more general interest in prison reform and its central role in the birth of a great and enduring movement: Amnesty International. In 1960, Peter Benenson – a barrister and a recent convert to Catholicism – was sitting on the underground train reading a report on two Portuguese students who had been sentenced to gaol for having made a toast to liberty in a Lisbon cafe. He got out of the train, went at once to the church of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and “pondered on the situation… What about a World Year against political imprisonment?” In May 1961, Benenson’s full-page article in the Observer, The Forgotten Prisoners, launched an appeal for amnesty that resonated round the country and the world. Amnesty International came into being during a brief window in the cold war. Within two years, one of the most successful campaigning voluntary organisations had been conceived, formed and achieved an institutional maturity. It now has over 7 million members and supporters round the world.

Amnesty campaigns against the abuse of human rights; Index on Censorship for the freedom of expression. It was founded in 1972 by the poet Stephen Spender, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, the Soviet Union expert Edward Crankshaw – and, yes, Observer editor David Astor. The founding editor was the critic and translator Michael Scammell. The inspiration came from Soviet dissidents, but its reach was wide: right-wing dictatorships, military regimes, religious extremism of all forms.

What these campaigns have in common – along with the World Wildlife Fund, founded after the Observer carried three powerfully eloquent articles by Julian Huxley in 1960 – is that they endure. Often started by individuals who believed they could change the world, often going against the tide of public opinion, yet their roots go deep, tapping into people’s better selves. Peter Benenson died in 2005, David Astor in 2001, but the campaign against the abuse of human rights, for the abolition of the death penalty around the world, the campaign for more compassionate care for those with dementia, these continue.

For many decades, the Observer has embodied a kind of liberalism that believes that, at certain times, it is not enough just to report and comment on the world. Sometimes you have to change it.

Contributor

Nicci Gerrard

The GuardianTramp

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