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If the world was run by doctors

Politicians work together to tackle political crises, so why not medical emergencies? Malaria can an

It's a strange thing to be asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to write an article. Particularly strange for me, as I'm one of the few people who would have been confused by his original letter. It asked me to write something for the New Statesman and was signed simply "Rowan". I assumed that it was from my old friend Rowan Atkinson and, although slightly puzzled by his new, fancy headed notepaper, I ignored it, as you're allowed to do with old friends. My office then received a prompting call. I reread the letter and realised that it was from a real, clever clergyman, rather than some­one who has just acted as stupid clergymen throughout his career.

But what to write about? I've been fairly scared of archbishops, ever since my first encounter with one on a train when I was nine. He sat down opposite me - we were travelling from Ascot to London - and I looked at him a lot. When I was finally convinced that he was Michael Ramsey, the archbishop of Canterbury (the purple dress was something of a giveaway), I asked him a question about God. He couldn't have looked at me in a more bored manner. He said it was a "very interesting question", then went straight back to reading his book without giving me an answer. So I was nervous of trying to get in touch with Rowan Not Atkinson and asking him a question, in case I got a similar reply.

I hope it's OK if I just write very quickly about malaria. I know I've got quirks but, now that I'm 54, I guess I have to accept who I am. I'll never understand classical music. I'll never get a glimmer of emotion from any painting by Picasso. I'll never like fish in any kind of white sauce. And I'll never understand why malaria is still killing over three-quarters of a million people, most of them young, every year, in this modern world of ours.

My sense of confusion was brought into focus by the letter that our Prime Minister, David Cameron, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and President Barack Obama of the US sent to the major newspapers of the world in April. It was about something very urgent: the situation in Libya. They had to get together urgently because of the gruesome and dangerous situation that had arisen there. They had to take urgent action and they did. Urgent and expensive action - billions of pounds' worth of action.

What I don't understand is this: why are the lives at risk in Libya more valuable than the lives we are losing to malaria? I don't know how many are at risk in Libya, but I doubt there are 800,000. The total population of Libya is only six and a half million - roughly the same as the number of people who die of malaria around the world every eight years. Of course, oil may have something to do with it, but all of the rhetoric has been about human suffering. So it continues to puzzle me why these three powerful and important men don't write a letter to those same papers and say, "There's this terrible situation that is killing nearly a million people a year - 600,000 innocent children; more than 2,000 people yesterday - even though we know how to prevent these deaths. We must do something about it urgently."

Opening the box

One thing is for sure: they could be much more confident of the outcome of their initiative. Winston Churchill once said that as soon as you open the box marked "War", you have no idea what will happen:

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

This seems true in Libya and the other Arab spring nations. As I write, it is a fluid and dangerous situation. And the history of western support for revolution is littered with strange and unpredictable outcomes - see Osama Bin Laden.

But open the box marked "Malaria" and you will find a complicated plan for its elimination that nobody opposes. There's a long document called the Global Malaria Action Plan, which is a pretty good blueprint for success. There are a lot of brilliant people working on it. There has been a 20 per cent decline in deaths from malaria since 2000. During that time, 11 African countries have cut their malaria deaths by 50 per cent. The world did, in fact, almost get rid of malaria in the 1960s, but a bit stayed in Africa and now it's killing all over again.

This time we could win the full victory. So why doesn't it happen? Why do politicians seem to find lives at risk because of politics so fascinating but bide their time when it comes to lives at risk because of health? One answer, I suspect, is that it seems somehow more horrific for a life to be taken by a ruthless tyrant than to be taken by a ruthless disease.

I would argue that it's not. Spend a day at a hospital in Mozambique, Uganda, Nigeria or Burundi, where malaria is bad, and there's enough panic and horror and violence against children there for anyone's taste. See the looks on the faces of the mums and dads as their children sweat, vomit and slip into comas - they are no less full of horror than if a tyrant's bullet had caused the damage.

Another reason why there is so little sense of urgency in the face of the spectacular number of deaths from disease is that politicians are very, very interested in politics. We'd have a different world if it were run by doctors. You notice it with newspapers and the media, too - newspapers and the media love stories about the media and newspapers. There is no way that the public is as interested in the phone-hacking issue and the superinjunction furore as the newspaper column inches they've been given would imply. Editors love these stories because they're about their job. It is for the same reason that most politicians are interested in politics. They're obsessed by the Middle East - the ultimate political mystery - but they're not viscerally interested in medical questions. And they are not lobbied on medical questions with such vigour. In a world run by doctors, malaria would have been wiped out years ago.

Yet the truth is, if you want huge wins with predictable outcomes, they lie in the area not of politics, but health. And perhaps universal education (see Gordon Brown, overleaf). I would plead with David Cameron to think about making one of these issues his great foreign-policy cause. I'm particularly passionate about malaria but universal vaccination would also save millions of lives - rotavirus, which kills 500,000 children a year, could be wiped out. And universal education would transform the lives of 70 million working children. In a world run by teachers, every child would go to school.

Optimist that I am, I think perhaps things are indeed changing. I strongly applaud the Tories for recommitting to the last government's impressive promise that international aid should account for 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2013. I've heard George Osborne talk passionately about the fight against malaria and I was thrilled. And the UK is co-hosting the crucial Gavi forum this month to find extra money for immunisation.

But I strongly encourage them to go a step further, to ask: "How can British leadership leave a mighty legacy in the world, change things permanently, quickly?" And then I think Cameron should ring up Nicolas and Barack in the middle of the night and say, "Let's write a letter to the papers again. I think we can do this. By the time we're out of power, we could save a million - no, if we really focus on it, five million lives a year, for ever."

Writing on the wall

I know I've got a simple view on it. I know I'm still just the boy in shorts asking the archbishop an obvious question. Nonetheless, I'm interested to know why this is such a foolish notion. Particularly if we have a dominant Obama winning a second term and doing some­thing serious about Africa while in power, unlike some Democrats before him.

One final statistic. At a rough count, the total number of lives - such precious lives - lost in the Middle East conflict since the Six Day War in 1967, added to the number of lives lost in the Troubles in Northern Ireland since 1969, added to the number of US soldiers lost in the Korean and Vietnam wars, added to the number of civilian and military casualties in our recent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, still has to be multiplied by two to get the number of lives that will be lost to malaria in the next 12 months. Precious lives, also. The combined cost of those wars is almostincalculable. But recent calculations say it would cost $6bn a year to get rid of malaria once and for all. That's 12 countries putting aside just half a billion each. But someone's got to lead it. Could it be our lot?

One final quotation. I went to a Roger Waters concert performance of The Wall the other day and up on the wall at one point came a quote I assumed was from the mouth of some noisy, bearded radical. It read: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." I was surprised when its attribution came up: Dwight D Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during the Second World War and Republican president of the United States. So, maybe it's me and Ike now asking the new generation of politicians: is there another way?

Richard Curtis is the writer of "Blackadder", "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and, most recently, "The Boat That Rocked"

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue