FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – “The stairway to heaven will soon have a ramp”
In my last Blog post, I told of the memorial service to be held on the 2nd July 2012 for Lord Jack Ashley.
I was honoured to be asked to speak at the memorial service – which was secular in nature. As well as Jack’s three daughters and nine grandchildren, the speakers included many who had known Jack personally from his political and campaigning work, as well as those who (like me) had been touched by his humanitarian work.
In accordance with his daughters’ wishes, the service was very much a celebration of a great life, and the accolades which were paid through the 90 minute service were moving, emotional and humorous in equal measure.
Ed Milliband spoke of his close association with the Ashley family, before inviting Neil Kinnock (Lord Kinnock of Bedwelty) to address the congregation. Neil clearly had enormous affection and respect for Jack Ashley. He spoke of Jack’s political career, and the impact he had on how Parliament perceived and worked with disabled politicians.
I was asked to tell the audience of how Jack had helped the Thalidomide cause through the use of Parliamentary procedure, and recall one of the occasions on which we had met – my ‘Abby Road’ moment. David Livermore (former Chair of the RNID and Deafness Research UK) spoke of Jack’s work on issues surrounding deafness.
Agnes Fletcher of Disability Rights UK (and a former researcher to the All Party Disability Group) spoke of how many people would quake when they knew (in her words) “That Bloody Jack Ashley” was on the warpath.
Lord Alf Morris, a lifelong friend and political ally, read the poem “Count the Day Lost” by George Elliot. Then we were told of the good work which Lord Jack did in the House of Lords by Bernard Donoughue (Lord Donoughue of Ashton) who, at the end of his address was moved to tears, as were many of us. Music was provided through the haunting lyrics of Ave Maria, which filled the room as the pure soprano voice of a young choir boy undoubtedly stretched way beyond the room in which we were gathered.
Fittingly, the service was brought to a conclusion by David Milliband who read the anonymous poem “Not how did he die, But how did he live?”
For those who are interested, the family are planning to make the transcript of the Speakers tributes available on the Lord Jack Ashley website – www.lordjackashley.co.uk
When I started researching Jack’s involvement in the Thalidomide scandal for my contribution to the service, I felt it was important to read his autobiography Act of Defiance. It was really the only true way to appreciate just how strongly he felt about the issue.
It was on the 24th September 1972 that the Sunday Times published its front page lead headed “Our Thalidomide Children – A Cause for National Shame.” The day of publication, was the day that Jack Ashley pledged his unequivocal support for our cause. Working together with the Sunday Times team, Jack was able to use his knowledge of the Parliamentary system, and call upon friends and colleagues in the Palace of Westminster to seek to put the Thalidomide story firmly at the heart of British politics.
Jack was more than well aware that if some action was not taken, the entrenched position adopted by Distillers would mean prolonged litigation – and this would only be to the detriment of Thalidomide children and their already hard pressed parents.
Jack was no stranger to negotiation, and he used his powers of persuasion to good effect. On the 29th November 1972, he used time afforded to him by Harold Wilson, to address the House of Commons with a speech that resulted in his whole life being turned into a whirlwind of correspondence and interviews – raising the profile of the Thalidomide story to heights that our parents could only have dreamed of.
The help which Jack Ashley gave to Thalidomide children cannot be overstated. Very few of us had the pleasure of meeting him, but we will be forever indebted to him for his commitment in righting one of the most unjustifiable wrongs in British legal history.
It was not until I finished reading Jack’s book that I realised how many parallels I enjoyed with such a fine family. I share the same birthday as Jack – 6th December, we graduated from University at roughly the same age – He at 25 and I was 24. Jack and Pauline raised a family of all girls; likewise, my parents raised an all-girl family. Jack pledged his support for Thalidomide children on the 24th September 1972. Sixteen years later on the 24th September 1988 I married my husband Stephen. And in 2003, Jack and his daughters lost a wonderful wife and mother in very similar and sudden circumstances to how I lost my mother in 1992.
Those parallels apart, there is one other strange coincidence which links Jack Ashley to the Thalidomide story, and goes further back than his great oration in 1972.
During his early adult years, Jack was a furnace man at Bolton’s Copper Smelting Works in Widnes. When Jack left his job to start on the long journey that would eventually lead him to Westminster, he would not have known the origins of Thalidomide. Or that they would be so very close to his own industrial working class roots. The town of Stolberg in Germany is well-known for its past history in smelting industries – including copper smelting. It is, of course, also the town in which Chemie Grünenthal; the German manufacturers of Thalidomide were based, when Thalidomide wreaked so much havoc the world over.
In his autobiography, Jack talked candidly about what a profound effect the Thalidomide campaign had upon him. It proved that disability was no disqualification to being a respected Parliamentarian, and that our plight had helped him cope with the loss of his hearing.
To Thalidomide impaired people in the UK, Jack Ashley was an icon of honesty and fairness, in a world where (even today) justice and decency are sometimes empty words.
He will be remembered with great affection for his tireless work for Thalidomide-impaired people and their families throughout the country; as a fierce and effective champion of disability and human rights; and as a supporter of our aim to establish a lasting memorial to the Thalidomide story.
But above all, to us, Jack Ashley – Lord Jack Ashley – always was, and always will be, “A Man for all People.”
The final portion of the service was given over to Jack’s grandchildren, who read certain tributes which had been posted on the memorial site. One of Jack’s young grandsons had the last word. He spoke of one tribute that told of all the good work Jack had done for so many people. The tribute concluded by saying that “the stairway to heaven will soon have a ramp!” How fitting. So my closing thought on this has to be … Let’s hope that Building Regulations at the Pearly Gates are not too strict, otherwise Part M may soon have some celestial input!