Last week, last Thursday to be precise, I had one of those days which will remain in the memory for a long time. A day to evoke a variety of emotions it would take longer than a simplistic blog post to explain.
Most of the day I spent at a conference on children's palliative care, organised by Together for Short Lives. The conference, called the National Square Table Event, was the culmination of a series of local Square Table events, at which service users (ie parents and children), politicians, clinicians, children's hospices, and palliative care providers came together to discuss the state of children's palliative care, and how it could be improved, what the road forwards is. I was there with a trustee of one of the charities I administer (and please note I write this post in a private capacity, not in a work capacity).
The story, of course, is always the same; there isn't enough money to provide interlinking services, where GPs talk effectively with parents and specialist providers, where parents aren't pushed from pillar to post, where they don't have to fight to get the best for their life-limited children. What many don't realise is that children with life-limiting conditions live for much longer than they did ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and that service provision for such children is underdeveloped, compared to the (albeit still struggling) provision for adults. Whilst one might expect such an event to be sad and depressing, it wasn't, except for the intransigence and flag-waving of politicians with party-political axes to grind). I met with many people, from service providers through to parents, who were unrelentingly optimistic and cheerful in the face of the gale of spending cuts blasting down from the North Face of government and recession. It was, for me, an uplifting experience (and educational, and vital for my job). The most telling comment came from a large Irishman, Frank, who lost his son last year, after looking after him for almost twenty years, who said - paraphrased from memory - 'I'm frustrated that I'm no longer a parent who can fight for better things.' The first thing I did when the formal part of the conference was over was to go down into the forum and shake this man's hand. He, and the other parents (including Karla Turner) are the real heroes of this difficult time we live in.
After the conference, I was lucky enough to have been invited to a book launch by someone who has become, contrary to expectations, a really good friend of mine. He is David Wilson, the great nephew of Edward Wilson, one of the men who died in the same tent as Scott on his way back from the South Pole in 1912, which is the subject matter of my forthcoming debut novel, Dead Men. David has been somewhat opposed to the restoration of Scott's Hut at Cape Evans, and, when I was due to meet him for the first time, I expected to be faced by an aggressive man determined to impose his view on others. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and I am very lucky to have seen yet another deep friendship come from my obsession with the Antarctic.
David was launching Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks, co-authored with his brother Christopher, at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Barnes, with a special guest, Sir David Attenborough. I have admired Sir David for over half my life, so to be invited to the launch was naturally something I was very excited about. But before then, I was lucky enough to meet lots of people who are obsessed with the Antarctic, including a young gentleman called Henry Evans, who will be going to the Antarctic for a couple of months in November 2012.
Being a writer (prerequisite - have a personality disorder), I spent the first part of the evening hanging around in the vicinity of the food and wine, staring impressively into vacant space, giving the impression that I was absorbing the atmosphere and observing the assembled masses to include them as bit parts in my next book (working title A Fear of Heights. Fortunately, Henry took pity on me, just as Sir David was due to come out and be interviewed and make a speech, and suggested that if we pretended to be joined at the hip, we might stand a greater chance of getting to meet the great man. Never one to be forward in coming forward, I accpted this suggestion with good grace.
Getting anywhere near the front, with at least 4 TV crews in attendance was somewhat of a trial (which I'm sure prepared Henry well for his Antarctic travails), and the number of blurry shots on my camera easily outnumber those in focus. But, hearing that familiar Sir David voice (I'm glued to Frozen Planet every week), and watching those wonderfully exaggerated English gesticulations was more than reward enough. And then, after the speeches were finished and Sir David met the people, Henry and I did manage to manoeuvre our way to the lectern, second in the queue after a young, dumbstruck gentleman from Ireland being filmned by his local TV and hardly able to get a word out. Of course, he asked the Sir for an autograph. Disaster! No pen. I had, in my pocket, the Spacepen which travelled all the way to the Antarctic band back with me, so I handed it over - it was used to sign autographs for the rest of the brief session. I managed to press a copy of my self-published Antarctic poetry into Sir David's sweaty palm ('you want me to sign this?' 'no, it's for you' 'thank you' *stuffs slim volume into voluminous jacket pocket*).
Now, I'm never one to bask in reflected glory - I am me, after all, not the image of someone else, - but in this case I have to make an exception. Sir David is an old man, a legend of my life-time, so I pressed my phone into someone's hand as he was on his way out and asked them to take a picture, which, very fortunately, turned out, and was on facebook five minutes later, a photo of me with another one of my heroes, a very different kind of hero to the ones I had encountered earlier in the day.