As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

No-one Remembers the Singer, the Song Remains (January 2018)

This morning I shall be answering the question of what is mankind’s greatest achievement. I shall be, on this matter, speaking without authority and providing you with one opinion. I won’t give it away now – just one clue: it is a feat that has not yet been achieved but it seems likely that it will be in my lifetime – there may even be just enough time for you to get involved if you want. Reflecting on the great and joyful achievements of which humanity is capable when we work together is a useful antidote to this season’s thoughts of division and unkindness but it is with these that we must start today.

No, I’m in no hurry. Let us actually start with Terry Pratchett – a glorious author of the absurd, creator of the Discworld and writer of 41 novels about this marvellously anarchic place. I have with me the second-best Discworld novel: The Last Hero which tells of the adventures of The Horde, a group of elderly adventurers led by Cohen the Barbarian. If this assembly were a Discworld novel, or if you were reading it in a collection rather than sitting in the Abbey listening to it then there would be here a footnote to explain Pratchett’s allusion to Conan the Barbarian and to remind you that he (Cohen) believes the best things in life to be hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper. Given our actual format you’ll have to live without footnotes from now on.

The Horde steal from the rich, not because of any virtue or fellow feeling for the poor but simply because the rich are the ones with the cash. Similarly, when I said two weeks ago that human history, indeed all history, is littered with examples of the strong abusing the weak, we should not think that this reflects any particular merit as far as the weak are concerned, merely that it’s the strong who have the capacity to abuse their position.

Caitlin Moran wrote an article in The Times a couple of years ago about what men need to understand about women and her first point was that we (women) are scared of you (men). “Try to imagine,” she says, “what it’s like to live on a planet where half the people on it are just… bigger than you. Women are smaller, and softer, and cannot run as fast as men.” Men aren’t, as far as I can tell worse than women, it’s just that they have more opportunities to be awful and it’s worth pointing out that most of them don’t take them most of the time. Although that’s not really the point. The article quotes a comedian called Louis CK who says “Guys, if you want to know how brave a woman is every time she says yes to going on a date, try to imagine that you could only date a half-bear, half-lion ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice!’” I retweeted a piece about Blair Braverman this week. She’s a sled-dog-racer and spends her life standing behind a team of half-trained wolves as they propel her across a snowy wilderness. She faces the very real risk of being left behind in minus twenty temperatures in the habitat of polar bears but what’s interesting is that the actual bears that might eat her are less of a concern than the bear-lions she has dated. She writes beautifully, tweets photos of cute dogs and is altogether awesome and I commend her to you. The bear-lion parallel bothers me – if you’re a man considering dating a woman then I exhort you to be a nice one.

Gay relationships are much better organised – the lesbian and gay community probably has the same mix of wonderful and awful people, cruel and kind behaviour but, without the physical power differential, there is less scope for abuse, less reason for half of the community to live in fear of the other half. Actually, it’s more subtle than that – men and women are still physically different but at least you’re not having to date the bear-lions. This is, of course, more than made up for by the abuse that homosexual behaviour has historically attracted and still attracts. The imbalance here, as with all of the protected characteristics except for sex, comes from numbers – those in the majority convince themselves that they are “normal” and use their numerical advantage to marginalise and abuse those who are different. Some of them, some of the time. What, though, about characteristics that make you both a minority and inherently weaker?

Disability is one of the nine protected characteristics and the horde, being an equal opportunities employer have a disabled member – mad Hamish is confined to a wheelchair and, in his later years, when this book is set, has also become deaf. Mad Hamish avoids abuse and prejudice by mounting spikes on his wheels and carrying a fearsome collection of swords – “Speak up, boy” is a terrible request when accompanied by a claymore. Back in the real world disability can be a significant disadvantage and a difficult one to try to address both because the disadvantage is, to some extent, built in, as it were, and because every disabled person is different – you only have to look at the classifications in the Paralympics to realise how complicated it is and how inadequate to clump all disability together. One classification: SB5, for example, includes swimmers with short stature or amputations of both arms or moderate coordination problems on one side of their body. There are both more and less severe classifications of Paralympic swimmers. Mad Hamish, by the way, would be a category A Wheelchair fencer because he has good trunk control and his fencing arm is not affected by his impairment – unfortunately the claymore is not an accepted class in Paralympic fencing which means that any medals he owns have been stolen, not earned.

The Paralympics are a wonderful expression of human beings overcoming adversity and their quadrennial organisation is certainly a candidate for humanity’s greatest achievements – nations coming together in peace to celebrate the physical prowess of the physically impaired. Merely the thought and ingenuity that has gone into classifying all possible disabilities is stunning. Closer to home – for me – are my parents-in-law, both of whom would be able to qualify for the Paralympics were they at all sporty. My mother-in-law is registered blind: she has a form of albinism that means that she struggles to see even with her glasses. She carries a small magnifying glass on a chain round her neck with which to read – she has obviously never been able to drive. Despite this she has a fine collection of degrees and a very successful career as a psychotherapist and writer.

My father-in-law, meanwhile, has walked with sticks since he was a boy. The educational establishment of the time considered that disabled children should be taught separately in special schools where they could learn to cook for themselves and manage in society but my grandmother-in-law was clearly a woman of resource who would have made even Mad Hamish quail and got him (my father in law) into an ordinary primary school and thence to a grammar school. He went to Oxford (where he met his wife), gained a PhD from Rochester University in upstate New York and became an astronomer, receiving an OBE for his work in discovering the first galactic black hole. To get that far he taught himself how to climb stairs – a feat the doctors had thought would forever be beyond him – and designed an apparatus with which he is able to drive a car: public transport is as hard as walking long distances, cycling is right out.

The reason he walks with sticks is that when he was seven he caught polio – a viral disease that in the early 1950s reached epidemic proportions in the west with as many as 8,000 cases a year in the UK. Polio causes muscle weakness that reduce the victim’s ability to move or, in the worst cases, breathe – one in ten patients died. In 1952, in response to a huge epidemic in the USA in which thousands of people died, Joseph Salk developed a vaccine and numbers of cases quickly dropped – by 1961 there were 700 acute cases in the UK and 70 deaths. Things were not so good internationally – in 1975 there were 50,000 cases recorded which is estimated to be just 10% of the total number of infections (if you don’t have a great health care system then you probably don’t have great recording of infections).

In 1988 the World Health Organisation decided on a strategy to eradicate polio – it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the word strategy here: the vaccine was available 36 years earlier but having the resources available is not the same as using them effectively: something we are trying to teach you in relation to your studies. In that year there were 35,000 recorded cases. The plan is to vaccinate as many babies as possible, to fill in the gaps with immunisation days when everyone under the age of 5 gets immunised, to actively monitor populations for signs of the disease and once it has been confined to particular areas to focus vaccinations locally. Once about 90% of a population is vaccinated, herd immunity steps in to protect those still vulnerable to the virus. This plan has been incredibly effective: by 1994, just six years after the conception of the strategy, the Americas were certified Polio-free, by the millennium six years after that, there were fewer than 1,000 recorded cases of wild polio and in 2017 just 21 all in two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Maybe 2018 will be the first year with none – maybe it will take a little longer – but I find it incredible that within one person’s lifetime we can go from a situation where a disease kills thousands in the richest and most developed countries to one where it is confined to a rural corner of two of the poorest and soon, I believe, to one where it is eliminated completely. It’s worth remarking on the fact that although it’s doctors and nurses who have treated the patients, this feat is due at least as much to the strategists of the WHO and the scientists working in laboratories. Eliminating polio is, and will be, the greatest achievement of humanity (at least until the next one).

Don’t underestimate disabled people – they can be elite sportsmen and women, they can be writers and scientists, they may even be able to play their part in the last hurrah of a barbarian horde. Don’t, either, underestimate humanity – polio is, amazingly, on its way out but there are other diseases to vanquish and we will need strategists and scientists and doctors and nurses to work together to eliminate them.

The reason that I love The Last Hero is that in it I see Cohen as a self-portrait of Terry Pratchett, seeing his brain dying of Alzheimer’s disease, railing against an unfair world – a world he hadn’t finished exploring – a world he hadn’t finished writing jokes about. Cohen travels to the mountain at the centre of the Discworld to stick one finger up at the gods who live there, to challenge Fate to a roll of the dice, to berate them for playing games with humanity. Pratchett, an atheist, had no deities to fight – instead he donated a million dollars to the Alzheimer’s research trust: ridding the world of Polio is reaching its endgame but the fight against Alzheimer’s is just beginning – at the moment I don’t think there is even a strategy.

The Last Hero is about how heroism isn’t what you think it is, about how unfair it is that we have a finite time to explore such a wonderful world, about how we all need the idea of heroes even if we reject the idea of actual heroes, and about how stories and songs outlast doers of deeds. The last words of the book are “No-one remembers the singer. The song remains” but to understand what that means for Cohen and Hamish you’ll have to read the footnotes.