My play reaches the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The year was 1947. David Tasma was just 40 years old. A Polish migrant who had fled his homeland weeks before the Nazis invaded, he’d spent the war years living on the margins of London life, eventually finding employment in a Kosher restaurant in the West End. When peace came he hoped for better things. Then came his diagnosis of inoperable bowel cancer. As his illness advanced his biographical pain increased. He was estranged from his family, fearing most of them had perished in the death camps. He had lost connection with the Jewish faith of his forefathers. He felt he had achieved nothing in life. He longed for love and for reconciliation. Then into his world came a newly qualified social worker, Cicely Saunders. She first met David in the outpatients department of St Thomas’s Hospital and later found time to visit him when he was admitted to the Archway Hospital. Over a few months, an intense and elusive relationship developed between them in which Cicely sought to help David find closure before he died. Their encounter had a remarkable legacy. It inspired her to learn more about the care of dying people and eventually to conceptualise a new model of hospice care that would develop into a global social movement. Remarkably, David’s fear that his life would leave nothing behind was to prove groundless.

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of a play I’ve been writing. It will receive its first performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month. The story behind the play goes back some time and has several aspects. Its realisation is a huge tribute to the spirit and energy of collaboration.

I first met Cicely Saunders in 1995 and knew her for exactly the last decade of her long life. Like many others I was drawn to this charismatic woman who had been a nurse, a social worker and a doctor. By founding St Christopher’s, the world’s first modern hospice, she had created a new and compelling approach to care at the end of life. It was a beacon of inspiration to countless others. As an academic, I wanted to understand her story, to ensure that it was properly recorded and to assist in the preservation of her remarkable papers, diaries, books and letters. By the time of her death in July 2005, we had got to know each other well and I was in turn, well advanced with my goal.

I had been uniquely privileged to have access to Cicely Saunders’ personal archives. She had given her time freely to take part in two dozen interviews that ranged over all her major milestones as well as the nooks and crannies in the backroads of her life. I’d had unfettered access to her correspondence. By 2005 I’d edited a book of her selected letters and preparations were complete on an collection of her publications, During the final years, my interviews with her had intensified, going deeper. For now a third volume had been agreed. Cicely had entrusted me with the task of writing a post-humous biography.

That book was some time in the making and eventually appeared in June 2018, marking the centenary of her birth. The trilogy, along with a clutch of related academic papers, was in many ways the high water mark of my involvement with the life and legacy of Cicely Saunders. The work received positive recognition from her admirers and was cited by academic commentators. Over the years it found an audience at literary festivals and at special occasions and anniversaries in the hospice calendar.

But despite all this, I still felt there was something else that could be done. Something that would reach out to a wider public and tell Cicely’s story in a new way. So in early 2021 and after much pondering, I made a decision. I would try to write a play capturing the genius, the vulnerability, the contradictions and the sheer determination of the woman who almost singlehandedly invented not only the hospice movement, but also the modern field of palliative care which sprang from it.

I knew an enormous amount about Cicely, but I knew nothing about play writing. I called my old friend, palliative care pioneer and theatre enthusiast, Jo Hockley. As a nurse, she had worked with Cicely in the 1980s. Jo had also successfully produced the play Shadowlands at the Edinburgh Fringe. She immediately understood what I was thinking, and in the Spring of 2021 our shared endeavour got underway.

I began writing synopses, and drafts of scenes. We talked about play production and its practicalities. Soon others joined in the process and supported us along the way. We progressed from readings over Zoom, to workshops with local school drama students and amateur theatre groups. As others read and commented on my script, I was helped to refine the story and to uncover ways in which to dramatise it.

Key to everything was the advice and enthusiasm of staff and students in drama at Queen Margaret University (QMU) Edinburgh. A day there with them exploring the script in January of this year was transformative and set the whole venture on an exhilarating path. The script had resonated with a knowledgeable and insightful group. Jo and I began to feel that it might indeed make its way to performance, or ‘from page to stage’ in theatre parlance. By April three final-year students came forward with a proposal to co-direct the play. They enlisted actors from QMU and Edinburgh Napier University and drew in production people from the student body. By June rehearsal plans were being made and from the start of July the sessions began in earnest. Everything was in place and a venue had been booked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for five shows in August.

The whole thing has been exhilarating and life-affirming for me. Emerging from lockdown and transitioning into ‘retirement’ I’ve found myself working outside my comfort zone, meeting new people, learning about drama, theatre making and play writing. The enthusiasm of the actors, directors and production team is an inspiration. Their hours of effort, attention to detail, team spirit and motivation are herculean. When I attended a rehearsal 10 days before the first performance, I was astonished and delighted to see how they had interpreted my script, introducing movement and increasing its drama. Watching the scenes unfold, more than once I felt the tears welling up.

The palliative care community has also responded with great commitment. We have received personal and institutional gifts of sponsorship to cover our production costs and to allow the play to be filmed. A taster from Scene 1 has been performed at a palliative care conference. We know that lots of palliateurs and friends of Cicely will be coming to the performance in Edinburgh. Some hospice organisations are already in conversation with me about how they may use their own productions of the play for wider public engagement and fund-raising. So I am hoping the script will travel and have a life of its own well beyond the ‘premiere’.

Curiously, the Edinburgh Fringe is celebrating a major landmark this year: its 75th anniversary. In the summer of 1947 as it began, the festival coincided exactly with the moment when Cicely Saunders first met David Tasma. Seventy five years on, the encounter between Cicely and David remains a story for our time. So I am delighted, (and trepidatious) that it is now about to be shared through the medium of theatre. I hope to see you there.

Tickets for the play are going fast (16th to 20th August at 4.30pm each day). You can book them here:

With thanks from me and our producer Jo Hockley to:

The cast – Serena Park, Michael Johnston, Tegan Smith, Jaimie Busuttil, Arlene Mckay

Directors – Caitlin Truscott, Meghan Wallace, Caladh Walker

Design and Tech – Alex Shanks, Danny Menzies

Music – Kath Bruce

Our sponsors – Dr Fiona Graham, Gilbert Archer, James and Antoinette Galbraith, Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, St Columba’s Hospice, Marie Curie, Irish Hospice Foundation, St Christopher’s Hospice, Highland Hospice, Cicely Saunders International, Marie Curie, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

All ticket proceeds will go to Hospices of Hope – Ukraine Appeal

The frugal academic

Gary lived alone.

A social scientist, he was good at structures, patterns and policies, but less adept in the world of relationships.

Gary’s minimal approach to intimacy was echoed in the frugal aspects of his living arrangements.

His home was a bungalow, well below his pay grade. Among his few luxuries was a pair of binoculars for birdwatching. He was a stranger to foreign holidays and his tastes in food and drink rarely went beyond the staples of the British diet.

By the standards of the day it’s true that Gary had a rather large television. Placed directly in front of it was an over-sized fake leather armchair that could be tilted backwards to push out a foot rest. To the right of the chair was an upturned Watney’s Red Barrel party beer can, now doubling as an occasional table. That completed his ‘lounge’.

Gary was content with this approach to domesticity, which characterised all the rooms in the house and even the contents of his fridge.

Visitors could be seen swivelling through 360 degrees, curious at the absence of functional or decorative accoutrements. He never noticed their bemusement.

Tonight Gary had a special guest. An American colleague had arrived early for the national sociology conference. Until now he and Gary had only known each other via the email. Gary had invited him over for a drink.

As he poured the beers, Gary began to explain a recent misfortune that had befallen him. He had been burgled.

The perpetrators had got in through the kitchen window and stolen a watch and some cash from his bedroom.

Gary had no experiences of break-ins and was still feeling shaken by it over a week after the event. Recounting what had happened, he was touched by the American’s concern.

‘I can understand totally’ said the visitor. ‘To feel that the private space of your home has been invaded by external, perhaps threatening agents must feel somewhat like a violation’.

‘Indeed’ mumbled Gary.

‘To have malevolent strangers touching, perhaps pruriently raking through your personal possessions, must be a high level form of transgression’.

‘Absolutely’, came the weak reply.

‘But then in addition to the special importance of losing the watch and the annoyance of the stolen money, to think that they would be so bold as to steal most of your furniture – that’s the final insult!’.

Gary, ever the minimalist, shuffled his feet and looked down at the floor in silence. He felt grateful for the American’s sympathy. ‘Thank you’ he said.

It was the least he could do.

The host and the special wine

The big moment was imminent. For weeks the host had been rehearsing in his head how the evening would end. I knew this because every morning when our paths crossed at the school drop-off he’d had something to say about the special wine that would conclude his next dinner party.

It was to be a Burkheimer Feuerberg Kesselberg Spätburgunder Eiswein, some ten years old, and emanating from the Baden region of Southern Germany. These details and more besides were tripping off the host’s tongue with increasing facility in the days before the meal.

I learned how the grapes for this model of vinous perfection must be picked whilst frozen and how they are heavy with sugar because Baden is the warmest wine growing region in the Federal Republic. It was explained to me that this white dessert wine would be so delicious that no food could be served with it, for nothing should detract from our intense and unalloyed pleasure in its consumption.

It was a big build up, right enough.

And now here we were on an Autumn night in the 1980s. The starter, main course, cheese and pudding had been dispatched. All the guests had several glasses before them – the legacy of wines matched carefully by the host to each course of the meal.

A feeling of wellbeing prevailed among us.

When the host left the dining room and returned moments later, he was holding with infinite care the cherished wine, and assuring us it was at the optimum temperature.

He circumnavigated the table with ease, deftly pouring for each guest a modest measure into beautiful Roemer glasses, selected specially for the Eiswein. A practiced twist of the bottle ensured nothing dripped to the table or was wasted.

The person to my right sat with reverence while the host poured. The sense of anticipation was mounting as I, the final guest, was about to be served.

It was at this point that my neighbour, who could contain himself no longer, raised the newly charged glass to his nose, sniffed deeply, paused, and then threw back his head in a moan of delight.

Seeing such enthusiasm even before the wine was tasted, the host was palpably pleased, indeed distracted. Half speaking to my ecstatic neighbour, he proceeded to pour for me.

Thus it was that our sommelier made a fatal error.

Instead of the green stemmed Roemer, my drink glugged into a much larger glass, to whit one from which I had not yet finished a rather good claret.

Seeing his mistake, the host looked on in the epitome of incredulous horror. For once he was speechless.

Taking my time to fill the silence, I smiled, looked around the table at my aghast companions, and then made to speak to our host in the friendliest of tones and in a way that seemed commensurate with the situation. There was only one thing that could be said:

“I beg your pardon, you never promised me a rosé Baden. 
Along with the white wine, you’ve gone and mixed a drop of red this time”. 

From scalpel to story: creative reactions after surgery

It’s curious how a moment of creativity can sneak up on you by surprise. After months, even years, of struggling with an idea that will simply not allow itself to be realised, something changes, and the floodgates of the imagination are opened.

Here’s how it happened in my case, quite recently.

Continue reading “From scalpel to story: creative reactions after surgery”

Alan McClure: creator of songs and wielder of words

I first met Alan McClure over 10 years ago when I read a review of a CD from an upcoming trio called The Geese. I quickly bought a copy and was rewarded with a selection of songs that combined wit, insight and enthusiasm with great tunes and memorable choruses. The acoustic band was quickly booked for my infant Kirkmahoe Concerts series, where one spring evening they delighted a small but discerning audience in Dalswinton Hall. That evening I had a feeling much more would emerge from The Geese over time, and perhaps not least from their main songwriter – Alan himself.

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Play-writing as a shared endeavour 

When I first set out to write a play, I envisaged it as the lone writing task, par excellence. I thought of someone like Henrik Ibsen, exiled and working alone with only his dramatic imagination to guide him. The prospect was uncongenial.

I called my friend Jo Hockley, who had once produced a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, and asked her to join me in the enterprise. She readily agreed to review my drafts, offer insights and comments and generally take an interest in the project. Quite soon a former student of mine, Erin Craighead, an amateur actor and budding playwright herself, came on board in a similar way. 

Suddenly my playwriting ambition was housed within a team of three people, whose members were keen to work together. I was no longer on my own.

Continue reading “Play-writing as a shared endeavour “

Hazel Campbell: at the stroke of a brush

The year was 2010. Heading to our favourite cafe/gallery in Castle Douglas one gloomy Saturday, we paused at the front window. A large watercolour painting was mounted on an easel and seemed to be lighting up the whole High Street.

Electric blues and vibrant greens shone out around a quirky white cottage. In the foreground, as if on a window ledge, was a pot of purple flowers, itself decorated with a red heart. The sky looked like the northern lights. The whole painting exuded a sense of energy, yet at its centre was a sense of quiet, rural calm. In an instant, Dr G strode into the shop and within moments she had made a purchase.

Thus it was that the work of Hazel Campbell found its way into our home. It is my pleasure to enjoy that painting multiple times each day as I go in and out of my house. It is the first thing visitors see on arrival and the last thing they view on departure. Fastened to the wall with strong mirror plates, it has become almost a part of the building itself.

Continue reading “Hazel Campbell: at the stroke of a brush”

Karen Campbell – a writer’s story

Photo credit Kim Ayres

Back in the early months of the 2020 lockdown, like many others I was using enforced isolation to broaden and deepen my reading. I found myself reaching out to the works of authors I was aware of, but had not yet ventured towards. In this context, that spring I became immersed in a novel about wartime Tuscany. A story of divided communities, and cultural strain. A story of violent and mounting tension. And yes, also a story of love. The writing was luminous, sharply observed; the characters compelling and demanding; the historical details, mainly new to me, peppering the storyline, but never obscuring it. I read the book slowly and with respectful attention. Two years later the hardback copy still sits in a pile by my favourite chair, something to be returned to, its vivid passages re-experienced, its deeper implications re-explored.

The novelist in question is Karen Campbell. The Sound of the Hours, is her seventh book and the eighth is soon to appear. Through my links with the Atlas Pandemica project, in which artists and writers developed cultural interpretations of the unfolding consequences of COVID-19, I also discovered her remarkable set of short stories and reflections based on the experiences of Council workers during the lockdown periods of 2020.

Continue reading “Karen Campbell – a writer’s story”

Art, memory and the lobster pot

It is a bright, dry day in October 2021, the full palette of autumn is fully established, and there is still plenty of warmth in the sun. With me are two friends from southern Norway, Lisbeth and Einar. We are spending the day together, drinking coffee in my Dumfriesshire home, exploring the Dalswinton estate, and eating lunch at Thomas Tosh in nearby Thornhill. The highlight of our excursion is to be a visit to CAMPLE LINE, a small gallery in Nithsdale, where I am a charity board member.

At the gallery, the three of us encounter for the first time the work of Tonico Lemos Auad.  His show consists of just 12 pieces. The largest are in an upstairs room, where some are suspended from the wooden rafters of what is a former textile mill. The exhibition is beautifully constructed. The work and the place that contains it seem uniquely at one. It is clear that the artist understands the building. So I am only half surprised when I learn that Tonico is also an architect.

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Circles of trees: an ‘arboretum’ in the making

​The idea of the arboretum came about in 2015, when I had the opportunity to take a long lease on the field adjacent to my home in Dumfriesshire. ​Having secured the arrangement, I began to ponder how to proceed. Almost two hectares in extent, the field had been set-aside for years as rough pasture. Long coveted, it now seemed a rather daunting responsibility.

Fortunately it did not daunt my ever practical friend Artur Nalepko, who assured me of his assistance and know-how. My principal idea was to plant trees, though I wasn’t sure which ones or in what groupings or pattern. The rather grand term ‘arboretum’ came a little later,

Continue reading “Circles of trees: an ‘arboretum’ in the making”