FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES Every beginning has an end (Part One) … … A Memorable Journey
In a world of twenty four hour rolling news, and one story almost tripping over itself to make the headlines, it is sometimes really good when you hear a report about a finished project that meant something very special.
It is probably even more satisfying when the end to that particular project, took much longer to conclude than could ever have been imagined.
An example in point is the recently concluded Thalidomide Memorial project on which Steve, our good friend Ed Freeman and myself have worked for seven years.
It is fair to say that only the three of us know just how much work and time the memorial has taken, and now the dedication ceremony has taken place, the memorial website is up and running and it has been possible to archive a very large file of papers, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the story of how the memorial came to be.
Most people will agree, that the craziest ideas are usually devised over a bottle or two of wine, and this project was no different. I can tell you that the “birthday” of this project was the 7th July 2009. The significance of this date? … the day of the Michael Jackson Memorial Service.
Ed and Claire Elvins (Ed’s partner and now soon to be wife) had arranged to visit us for the afternoon, and surprisingly, the weather was pretty good – which makes a change here in South Wales. The television was chortling away in the background, and at about the time we were due to sit down for our meal, the Michael Jackson memorial service had started. Ed was due to drive home later in the day, and so it was left to Steve, Claire and I to polish off more than a couple of bottles of wine, and mull over what life had done to Michael Jackson, and how fitting (if just a little tacky) the memorial service was for an icon who had played such a great part in our musical “life”. We reminisced over the cute kid who was part of the Jackson 5 … Steve and Ed yearned for the kipper ties and concord collars that were the hallmark of 1970’s photographs, and as the memorial service came to an end, we started talking about how our lives would be marked in the future.
Ed and I have taken part in a number of TV documentaries over the years, and whilst these do stand as a form of memorial to what we ‘Thalidomiders’ have achieved, they are transient to the extent that unless constructive steps are taken to preserve these records, they will inevitably end up on a dusty shelf in the vaults of the commissioning television production company.
We could have mused that it would be interesting to put some artificial limbs into a Blue Peter style time capsule and bury it somewhere – and then, in the next millennium, it would have been unearthed by Martians – who enjoyed Cadburys Smash Potatoes! But, no we didn’t. We turned our thoughts to an attempt made, some years previously, by the British Thalidomide Society to secure a memorial in London to make the contribution we, and our families, had made to life in the baby-boomer years.
Sadly, that attempt came to nothing, but even through the warm glow of a chilled bottle of Rosé, we knew that taking up this mantle again was a worthy project, which would be far better than our story being entombed in a time capsule, perhaps, never to be unearthed.
And that is where the Thalidomide Memorial – To Remember Is To Care had its origins.
In a somewhat beguiled way, we thought the whole idea would be met with near universal approval from all walks of life, not least, the “powers that be” in Government – whether local or national, and support for this final acknowledgment of what we “Thalidomide children” had achieved, would be forthcoming – rather like the rivers of Babylon. But never underestimate the layers of bureaucracy that form government … think of the whole process a being a bit like peeling an onion, and you will have some idea of what we were to come up against.
We devised an action plan that involved setting up a Thalidomide Memorial Facebook page, and then set about establishing a Memorial Petition on the Downing Street website. These steps were relatively easy. As many readers will know, the Facebook page still operates today, and has been used as a vehicle to keep our “friends” abreast of developments in the project. However, the petition on the Downing Street website did not fair so well. A certain general election, called in 2010, resulted in all existing petitions being closed; and after the election – in an attempt to reduce governmental costs – the new administration decided not to immediately re-establish the system of online petitions. Fortunately, in tandem with the online petition, we had also started to canvass support from people we knew had an interest in the Thalidomide story, via a paper petition.
As Ed and I were social media savvy, we took charge of the online strategy, and left Steve to do what he does best … Produce briefing documents that we could use to present our arguments to interested parties. We now have an extensive archive of papers that show the lengths we went to in order to bring the Memorial project to the attention of the right people. Parliamentarians from both Houses of Parliament, Royalty, business people and those in academic life were approached for support. Some responses defied belief; some were polite acknowledgments of the idea, with no further offer of help or assistance; but some were very positive.
As a starting point, we wanted the Memorial to be sited in London. After all, it is the country’s main capital city, where most of the media attention was directed during the height of the Thalidomide story. In addition, we genuinely felt that, as well as acknowledging the contribution which we (and our families) have made to a more inclusive society, it would also recognise the contribution made by the late Lady Mary Hoare, to the early years struggle that our parents had endured. The Mansion House was considered to be an ideal location, respecting the cause adopted by Lady Hoare when she was the Lady Mayoress of London during the 1961-62 Mayoral term.
Communication with three Lord Mayors from 2010 to 2013 fell on deaf ears. However, we had more success with the Mayor of London. Love him or loathe him, Boris Johnson had the good courtesy of arranging for us to meet with senior members of the London Mayoral administration with a view to establishing a Memorial in Jubilee Gardens London. As we perceived the position, it was probably the closest we were going to get to Westminster, and at least it was in sight of the City of London (even it was the other side the Thames). The sticking point here was the development of the area, which was being geared up to marking the 2012 Jubilee celebrations for HM Queen Elizabeth II. Despite a real genuine interest in the project, we came up against the “hot-potato” that is the Thalidomide story which, those in the corridors of power, still really have no wish to be associated with. I suppose it is little wonder, in light of Distillers’ history with Governments of differing persuasions, especially after the years following the Second World War.
Undaunted, the project continued, but sometimes it was tempered with problems over balancing our work and family commitments, with making progress on a cause that was so important.
The paper petition resulted in support from all over the country, but as the financial crisis deepened, it became clear that priorities were changing, and so we decided to look closer to our regional bases to make a concerted effort to secure a proper and dignified home for the Memorial.
Having looked at a number of regions, it was clear that a considerable amount of regeneration was taking place in Cardiff. As the youngest of the four capital cities in the UK, Cardiff has an enviable reputation for inclusion and equality issues, which of course, worked well with this project. There was an ongoing development of a white-collar zone in and around the city centre, and having spoken with city planners we considered this might be a suitable location for the Memorial. There was one particular location close to the newly developed retail area that appeared especially suitable. It was accessible, there would be considerable footfall, and importantly, support for the idea of locating the Memorial in that area was very positive. It was considered best for us to wait until the development of the area had been completed, as this would give us a better indication of how the Memorial would fit. However, after the development had been completed, it became clear that, whilst initially, the site seemed to offer what was wanted, the Memorial would not have worked in that location.
It was at that point we revisited our original brief, which was the location of any Memorial had to be accessible to all, it had to transcend all social, religious, cultural and political barriers, and had to be a respectful Memorial to all those who had been, and continued to be affected by the Thalidomide tragedy.
Ultimately, with the help two former City Lord Mayors, we again approached the City Council with a proposal to site the Memorial at Alexandra Gardens in the heart of the city’s civic centre.
Armed with a re-drafted Memorial proposal, myself, Steve, Councillors Margaret Jones and Kate Lloyd met with the appropriate Council Officer, who considered the idea and location and felt it was a proposal that could be put to the relevant cabinet committee. That initial meeting took place on the 8th March 2016, and was one of the most constructive meetings we had been part of – for over six years of working on the project. We came away from the meeting with a renewed sense of purpose and with real optimism that finally, there was light at the end of what seemed to be a very long tunnel.
At the beginning of this blog, I likened tackling bureaucracy to peeling an onion … one layer leads to another, and then onto another …
In fairness to the City Council, being the proverbial onion, it has certain procedures and protocols which have to be cleared, and whilst it would have been great if someone could have waved a magic wand – and make everything happen in an instant, in my heart of hearts I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
By mid-April, we had amassed an extensive digital library of letters and emails in an attempt to keep the pressure on the relevant officials and Councillors, and eventually this gentle approach seemed to pay off. We were able to arrange a site meeting at Alexandra Gardens during the middle of May, and received final clearance for the project on the 27th May 2016. The Memorial dream was finally to become a reality.
However, as regular readers of my blogs will know, nothing ever seems to happen without some kind of drama, and the final preparations for the Memorial were no exception.
In the background, whilst we were quietly waiting for the wheels of local government to grind, we had to make provisional arrangements for the Memorial ceremony. In 2014, I had initially approached Dr. Peter Beck – as HM Lord Lieutenant for South Glamorgan – to ask if he would do us the honour of formally unveiling the Memorial. The urgency of the Memorial being complete sooner rather than later was never more prevalent than now, as Dr. Peter Beck was due to retire as Lord Lieutenant on 4 July 2016! Some weeks before the final go-ahead for the Memorial, I contacted him again to see if he was still available. A more generous man you will find it hard to meet,… with all the other official duties he already had diarised, he graciously agreed to attend the event.
The latest possible date that Dr. Beck could offer us before his retirement, was 30th June 2016, in the early afternoon, as he was engaged in a number of events on that day (and throughout the week) – including commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Invitations were issued through social media, post and personal contact to everyone we felt would be interested in the ceremony, and despite the disappointment of the non-attendance of senior officials from a high profile Thalidomide organisation and number of supporters, we were confident that those who attended, would do so through a very genuine desire to mark a significant event in our Thalidomide history. And, that was indeed the case.
Our proposal briefing document had contained some very specific detail about the nature of the Memorial. So we then had to set about sourcing a Memorial stone, which met our own criteria, but also that of the Local Authority, who had to approve the final design. We approached a local stone company – the Stone Sign Company in Cardiff – who went out of their way to help source an appropriate piece of Welsh stone. They worked closely with us on the design and wording, and took account of every issue on accessibility that we had raised with them. The stone was shipped from a North Wales quarry, and the design and build team at Stone Signs, worked to meet the deadline of installation by the 28th June.
Inevitability, with construction work, you turn to those you have engaged in the past, and so the foundation and groundwork was undertaken by Andrew Cunningham Plant Hire Limited, who have done work for us in the past. Andrew and his team also embraced the project with enthusiasm and respect. They too worked like trojans to complete the ground work on time.
The June days leading up to the Dedication ceremony were probably the wettest we have had in Cardiff for many summers, but the weather failed to prevent the installation of the stone on time – and we are very grateful to Angharad and Rob at Stone Signs, and Andrew and his team for their diligence and commitment to helping us conclude the Memorial project.
Whilst transcending all the barriers I mentioned above, we decided that the ceremony needed to have some structure, and Steve was left to organise an order of ceremony that would be respectful of the project and those who we were honouring. It was felt that as Wales is very much the land of song, we should start and finish the ceremony with appropriate and fitting pieces of music. We left Steve to decide on the pieces being the only one with a true element of musical talent in our three-some. I approached the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) to see if any of their students would be willing to provide the musical accompaniment. Some of you may remember that in November last year, the Students of the RWCMD performed at the National Museum of Wales in a piece loosely based on Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes. I was absolutely delighted that, despite the 30th June falling right at the end of the academic year, two third year students worked with their tutor Zoe Smith (Head of Interdisciplinary (Music) Practice) to create, what I can only describe as the most moving renditions of two distinctly differing pieces of music. We asked for the ceremony to be opened with Calon Lân – the “welshest” of welsh hymns, and for the event to be closed with a version of the Sondheim classic Somewhere (There’s a place for Us) from West Side Story. Catrin Raymond and Grace Wyatt (who are delightful and generous young ladies) are two names to look out for in the not-too-distance future on the classical music scene.
We also felt that the Memorial ceremony should, after the stone had been formally unveiled, be closed with an appropriate prayer of dedication. Canon Robin Morrison, with whom I have shared many cheeky jokes at Cardiff Business Club, kindly agreed to close the proceedings – and in his usual fashion was able to cleverly incorporate our “To Remember Is To Care” theme into a poignant prayer of dedication.
To be fully inclusive, we organised an outdoor public address system (hired from Drake AV – Cardiff) and sign language interpretation was provided by Rachel Williams, literally coming to our rescue at the 11th hour. To further help attendees, marshalling, car parking and general help was provided by our friends from the Porthcawl Lions Club.
We were honoured that so many people attended the Dedication ceremony, and it would be amiss of me if I didn’t mention a few attendees in particular … Lady Irene Morris (widow of the late Lord Morris of Manchester – formerly Alf Morris and great friend of Jack Ashley) travelled from London with her daughter Gill. Despite her age – presently 89 years – she joined the official party at the commencement of the ceremony, and afterwards, took time to join us for refreshments in the wonderful surroundings of the National Museum of Wales, before travelling back to London. Call the Midwife representatives, Stephen and Heidi McGann joined the guests, as did the Officers of the Thalidomide Society.
Many of our Thalidomide friends and guests travelled considerable distances – in some cases over 250 miles one way – to join the ceremony. Parents, some of whom had not seen each other for years, were able to meet again. Steve was able to meet Alan Shannon again after last seeing him at a Lady Hoare organised event in Carberry Towers in Scotland in 1971.
But perhaps amongst the most significant attendees was Joanne Walker and her daughter Annie. Following the airing of the Call the Midwife series in January, Joanne made contact with the Thalidomide Society to enquire as to whether there was any form of memorial to those babies who did not survive. The Society Secretary, Ruth Blue, was able to say that the Memorial event was taking place, and put Joanne in touch with us. Although Joanne’s mother Erica Partridge was not able to attend, Joanne and her own daughter were able to come and honour her brother Michael, who was one such baby that did not live to enjoy a full and active life.
Steve. Ed and I had decided that we were keen to involve the next generation of the Freeman and Moriarty-Simmonds family in the events of the day. Ed’s son Harry read the Memorial poem – and (our) James and Ed’s other son Charlie were responsible for photography and video recording.
There were tears of sadness for those we have loved and lost; but most of all an overwhelming sense of pride at what we have achieved in our lives, whilst remembering every facet of our Thalidomide family – as was our intention when we started this project over seven years ago.
Despite the gloomy forecast, the weather held good, long enough for the ceremony to take place, and when Steve, James and I returned a few days later to remove the floral tributes which had been left, we were struck by the number of people walking through Alexandra Gardens – who paused to read the Memorial inscription.
Organising and co-ordinating the whole ceremonial event was achieved in less than five weeks, from the final consent being granted, and I think we did our friends and families proud in what was accomplished.
For those who are interested, more information can be found on the Memorial website at www.thalidomidememorial.com
The website was designed by another member of our Thalidomide family … Suzanne Hernandez through her Company – Double Digit Designs. Suzanne is based in Canada, and worked with us to produce a Memorial website that is informative, interesting and will allow people to leave a tribute to those who have been loved and lost as a result of (or through being associated with) Thalidomide.
On the back of the Memorial stone a small reference is made to the three friends who orchestrated the project, and poignantly refers to us as being “Friends for a Reason – and Friends for Life”.
Our whole Thalidomide family is based on friendship, brought about by one unique reason – and it is fitting that the Memorial now stands to mark our friendship for life.
However, a Memorial is only as relevant as we can continue to make it. Therefore to make this Memorial constantly relevant, we must strive to keep the stories of those affected alive and in the public eye. Whenever one of our “Thalidomide family” or anyone reading this blog, chances to visit Cardiff, please take a moment to visit the Memorial, if only to remember for a short while all the people to whom the project was dedicated.
At various times throughout the year, Steve and I will visit the Memorial, we will continue to ensure it is looked after, and that via the Thalidomide Memorial Facebook page and the Memorial website, fresh images are uploaded showing the Memorial standing proud in this most prestigious location – with all the different foliage and flowers that grace Alexandra Gardens, during the differing seasons of the year.
It may not be possible for everyone to visit the Memorial, but there is one thing that we can all do. On the 30th June each year, we should try and pause, at some stage in the day. We should remember the 30th June as being “Thalidomide Memorial Day”, and by so doing, we can in actuality remind Society that “To Remember Is To Care”.