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The last game

Tennis, friendship and suicide.

Three days before Christmas 2015, my friend Mark killed himself. He had a well-paid job at a respected law practice in London. He was close to his family and friends. He was about to go on honeymoon. He was just 38 years old.

On the afternoon of his death, he had arranged to play tennis with two friends from the tennis club he and I belonged to in north London. He never turned up. When his wife discovered him that evening, he had been dead a couple of hours. They had been married only four weeks.

What makes someone with so much to look forward to take his life? At Mark’s inquest at the coroner’s court in Barnet, there were few answers. The coroner considered reports from Mark’s employer and his GP. He then read out part of a note Mark had written before he died, addressed to his wife. It had been left on the kitchen table of their flat, along with car and house keys, bank cards and a photograph of their wedding. On the table, too, were the remains of lunch and a cup of cold tea.

A couple of hours before Mark died, he had talked on the phone to a friend to confirm a game of tennis that evening, and mentioned he must get round to buying a turkey for Christmas. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Nobody, he said, could have done anything more. It was Mark’s decision, brought on, at least it seemed to me, by debilitating depression.

When I met Mark after he joined our tennis club six years ago, I recognised a fellow tennis obsessive. We were about the same standard and we ended up in the same team. When I took over as the team’s captain in 2015, it was on the understanding that Mark would be my deputy and soon take over from me. He was, after all, the same age as most of the other team members, while I am about twenty years older. After our matches, Mark and I often stayed late in the club bar talking about the shots we were proud of and the mistakes that would haunt us for days afterwards. It’s the nature of the game.

Sometimes, after we had exhausted all the arguments about topspin or slice, our conversation might switch to less important things such as work and life. And then, after another beer or two, we might talk about relationships and about how happy we were with how things had panned out, both being sons of Irish immigrants who had done well in Britain although we both lost our mothers before their time.

Once or twice we did touch on their deaths, only to be interrupted by other tennis friends coming over to our long, black sofa to gossip about who was playing well and, more importantly, who wasn’t. People knew that Mark wouldn’t turn them away even if all they wanted was to complain about why they weren’t in the team: he was one of the few players in the club who was genuinely loved. And so we budged up to make room and the conversation switched back to tennis, and an opportunity to deepen our friendship was missed.

The Wednesday before his death he took part in our team’s Christmas game, when everybody played wearing the Santa hats I’d bought at the 99p shop on the Holloway Road on the promise they would glow in the dark. Mark seemed uncomfortable and not on form. His looping serve was sluggish, his volleys wayward. The light on his Santa hat kept going out. After the game, he sat in the corner of the Turkish restaurant we had adjourned to and said very little. At one point, I asked him if he was OK and he nodded, but he looked as if the blood had drained from his body. Somebody took a picture of us that night and there he is, frozen in time, right at the end of our group when he was usually in the middle, looking pale and withdrawn as he tries to smile. I said to him afterwards he could ring me any time and he nodded, but he never did.

 

***

 

Last year the Office for National Statistics published a report showing that men are still three times more likely to kill themselves than women. Although male suicide reached its highest levels in Britain in the early 1980s in England and Wales, it remains the most common cause of death for men between the ages of 20 and 49, which Mark was. In the early 1980s, when I came close to killing myself, so was I.

It was the winter of 1983. I was 29 years old and living in a shared flat in Wynford House, a postwar north London council block just up the Caledonian Road from King’s Cross. Four of us had been rehoused there while our short-life houses, five minutes’ walk away in Richmond Avenue, were turned into permanent homes.

Despite Margaret Thatcher’s second electoral triumph that June, those were good times to be in London if you were young and politically radical. Across the road from us lived Margaret Hodge, the dynamic leader of Islington Borough Council, one of the most left-wing in the country. The development officer who had masterminded the transformation into a long-term co-operative of our run-down Victorian terrace, originally occupied by squatters, was another Islington Labour councillor, Chris Smith. He soon became Britain’s first openly gay MP.

A couple of friends of mine had powerful positions at the Greater London Council under its new leader, Ken Livingstone. Others worked in left-wing bookshops or made films for the new Channel 4. My own housemates were employed by CND, Release and Shelter. There were many exciting possibilities to combine work, politics and life. Instead, I became depressed.

A month earlier, I had started a doctorate in sociology at the University of Sussex to reinvent myself as an academic. As the nights grew colder and the theory tougher, it became an ordeal. My manic working-class confidence, which had seen me through a university degree and then helped me get work with the half-dozen radical book publishers that were then flourishing in Britain, ran out of fuel. I crashed down.

One Monday morning I took the train to the campus in Falmer, near Brighton, rented a student bedsit and retreated from the world. When I failed to return to London for the weekend, my housemates became concerned. When I still had not made contact after a week, one of them drove down to find me. I wonder what would have happened if he had not.

For days on end I had stayed in bed until mid-afternoon and gone out only when it was so dark that I wouldn’t bump into anybody. I ate convenience food but did not allow myself any alcohol, because that might make me face up to how miserable I was. Late at night, I would creep into the uni­versity library and take from the shelves something that was straightforward to read and that would distract me from reality: a history of pop music or a detective novel. I would stay in the library for hours, returning to bed only when I was about to collapse. Occasionally I might venture out to walk the coastal path to Brighton and allow myself to be buffeted by the waves washing in from the English Channel, wishing one of them would sweep me away. I kept putting off any decision to live or die until the morning I felt sure would come, when I would wake with certainty about what to do: either start living again or kill myself.

Fortunately, that morning never came. Instead, there was a knock at the door that wouldn’t go away, until I was forced to answer simply to stop the noise. Standing there was Christian, one of my London housemates. He put his arms around me and took me back to London.

Back at Wynford House, Susan, an ex-girlfriend, took over my life and negotiated with the university, my GP and local social services to sort out my affairs and find me an alternative to mental hospital: in the spirit of those times, we all thought that there would be nothing worse than ending up on a psychiatric ward.

Through friends of friends, Susan discovered the Arbours Crisis Centre in Crouch End, a private community with origins in the anti-psychiatry movement of the late 1960s. At that time, Arbours offered intensive residential therapy for those with “serious emotional problems”, which I certainly had. She applied on my behalf to Islington council for a grant for me to stay there, which my GP supported. The council approved the money and I spent four weeks at Arbours receiving psychotherapy twice a day. It saved my life.

Arbours survives today but its innovative crisis centre is no longer. Gone, too, are other crisis intervention teams that were part of the NHS, such as the one that ran for many years in Barnet and which would have been available to Mark, day or night. Instead, the help on offer these days for people who find themselves in the same despairing place as he was usually comes down to antidepressant medication, combined, perhaps, with a weekly visit to a counsellor. In an emergency, you go to A&E.

There are places on psychiatric wards in general hospitals for people at serious risk of suicide but that risk often becomes clear only when it is too late. Many men like Mark are “smiling depressives”: we hide our despair under a cloak of cool bonhomie. So, we don’t get help until it’s too late or until some of our loved ones insist that we do.

Thirty years ago I was lucky. My smiles had long gone. Everyone could see how desperate I was. My friends were determined to find somewhere for me to be safe. Without them I wouldn’t be here today.

After Mark’s inquest, held at the end of April last year, I left the coroner’s court in Barnet, crossed the high street and passed the parish church, resisting the urge to go in. Instead, I found a French coffee shop run by hospitable Kurds. It was early spring. The sun was shining. The coffee was fresh and strong, and the Danish pastries inviting, but nothing could lift the deep sadness I felt. 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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