Remembering David Widgery, general practitioner, writer, and political activist

Last night I dreamt that I should post as a blog a piece I wrote 12 years ago about David Widgery, a general practitioner, Trotskyist, writer, journalist, polemicist, and activist who died in 1992. I wrote the piece as contribution to a book about Widgery written by Patrick Hutt, a young general practitioner: Confronting an Ill Society: David Widgery, General Practice, Idealism and the Chase for Change.

 I can be very confident that Widgery would be horrified by what is happening in the NHS now, and perhaps that was why my dream told me to pull out and post this piece. (I’ve edited it slightly.)



David Widgery—a general practitioner from the East End, political activist, radical journalist, and rock and roller who died young—was about as interesting a person as you could hope to meet. I knew him, and reading this intriguing book has allowed me to rekindle our relationship. I’m confident that others who never knew him will be fascinated to meet him for the first time through the book.

The life, visions, thinking, and excesses of Widgery are well described by Patrick Hutt, a doctor who discovered him posthumously when a disillusioned medical student at Cambridge. Hutt quotes Robert Duncan: “Though detachment must always be the biographer’s aim, he can never achieve it; and more often than not he succeeds in revealing nothing but himself.” He compares his discovery of Widgery to that of a student struggling with the classical guitar who discovers Hendrix. Yet he still manages to present lots of interesting material on Widgery.

But as you read a young doctor writing about his doctor hero you have a feeling of looking into multiple mirrors. Hutt both searches for meaning for his own life as a doctor and tries to make sense of his relationship with his father, who was also a doctor who worked in the East End of London and died young. Hutt was writing the book as his father was dying.

We look into books and see ourselves not reflected but refracted. Therein lies the usefulness and pleasure not only of reading them but also of writing them. We join Hutt and Widgery on a journey where we reflect on what it is to be a doctor, how medicine can be combined with other perhaps more glamorous activities like politics, writing, and rock music, and how we can give meaning to our lives.

Widgery the docror

Widgery became a doctor partly as “a debt of honour.” When 6 years old, in 1953, he contracted polio and spent weeks in a glass bubble. Hutt decided to study medicine—despite resenting the fact that his father was a doctor—because he was inspired by Iona Heath, another London general practitioner. The power to inspire is one of life’s greatest gifts, and Heath, whom I can’t resist  describing as wise beyond her 50 something years, contributes to the book a conversation with Roger Neighbour, yet another general practitioner with inspirational talents. Both Heath and Hutt “value passion and curiosity in doctors.” These four doctors thus present a rich cache of material for those who want to meditate on the nature of doctoring in general and general practice in particular.

For all of them general practice is not just a job, and perhaps that’s true for all general practitioners apart from the most exhausted and burnt out. As a general practitioner you are privileged to learn the secrets of peoples’ lives and to be with them in moments of extremity—pain, sickness, and death. If you can empathise, watch, listen, and learn you can understand life and death more deeply than most, as Anton Chekhov, doctor turned writer, showed in his plays and short stories.

Being a general practitioner for these doctors is also a matter of values and politics. They identify strongly with the National Health Service, which continues to embody values of social justice, fairness, and community in a world that sets increasing store by individualism and market forces, which if unrestrained will leave the poor adrift. All general practitioners recognise that poverty, unemployment, poor housing, lack of education, discrimination, and stigma are causes of poor health, but most settle for trying to counter these forces through helping individuals.

Widgery the activist

For Widgery that could never be enough. He joined the International Socialists, part of what is now called the hard left, and harangued crowds in Chapel Market, Islington. Later he helped form Rock against Racism and was prominent in the Anti-Nazi league.

Confrontation was part of Widgery’s style, and this worked well in yet another outlet for his passion—radical journalism. He was expelled from school for publishing a sexually explicit magazine. At university he started a political magazine called Snap and argued that the National Union of Students led by Jack Straw (who was at the time Home Secretary) was “financed by a group of CIA bureaucratic fascist bastards.” This was the style of the time, and I was reminded that at a similar age to Widgery I founded a magazine called BUMp, which unfortunately was full of adolescent, broken hearted poetry rather than political activism.

Later Widgery was at the heart of a great 60s cause celebre, which like many of them happened in the early 70s, when the editors of the magazine Oz were found guilty of “conspiring to corrupt public morals” by publishing a “schoolkids’ issue” that depicted Rupert the Bear having sex. (Again in the spirit of how reading sparks thoughts and feelings in us all, I reflect that a friend of mine, then  the architecture correspondent of a national newspaper, was on the cover of the corrupting issue). Widgery kept Oz alive by becoming editor.

Widgery writes a column for the BMJ

After writing for many publications Widgery came to write a column for the BMJ when I was one of the the editors. What fun, I thought, that such a radical would be writing in a journal 150 years old and famous for its stuffiness. I’m a great believer in multiple voices in a publication. Impose a party line or an ideology on a journal or newspaper—and it will sooner or later lose touch with reality. “World,” says Louis MacNeice in his marvellous poem Snow, “is crazier and more of it than we think/ Incorrigibly plural.” Surrounded by science, numbers, and conservatives Widgery wrote insightful and provocative columns that thrilled many and appalled some. He played an important part in energising the journal and was writing at a time when many felt that the right wing government was tearing the heart out of the NHS. His voice of dissent was much needed.

I find it hard to know how well I knew Widgery. We spoke often on the phone and met occasionally. He asked me to go and speak to the Hackney Philosophy and Literary Society, which he and others had resuscitated after (what, I think) was a dormancy of a century. In my (utterly distorted) memory we were revolutionaries gathered around a candle, like characters in a Caravaggio picture. Afterwards—in a manner typical of the “revolutionaries” I knew—we had a jolly evening in the pub. One of my keenest memories is of Widgery showing me the minutes of a century before, which described how the society had broken up after a debate on the role of women in the society.

Widgery had a wild side to him, loving “sex and danger.” His heroes—Rimbaud, Shelley, Keats, Hendrix, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk—were prone to dying young, and perhaps it’s no wonder in retrospect that Widgery died young. The cause of his death wasn’t clear (at least to me), but he had illegal drugs in his body.

The last words that Widgery said to me, shortly after I returned from a year at the Stanford Business School, were: “I hear that you’ve been captured by managerialism. We’d better meet and talk about it.” We never did, but I wish we had. He would, I suspect, have been appalled by my development as, I’m fairly sure, he would have been appalled by “new Labour.” The beauty of this book for me is that it has helped me to have that conversation—albeit in various versions and all in my head. I hope that it will be equally useful to other readers in provoking internal and external conversations. I think it will.




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