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David Widgery: did he lose faith?

A new biography of the renowned left-wing GP shows how political crisis spawned personal crisis.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

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Confronting an Ill Society: David Widgery, General practice, Idealism and the Chase for Change, by Patrick Hutt with Iona Heath and Roger Neighbour

David Widgery died in 1992 at the age of 45. Shortly before his death, he contributed to a collection entitled Infidelities, edited by Marsha Rowe, a fictional account of the crisis of conscience of a left-wing East London GP, ‘Harry Meyer’ (1). After a lifetime devoted to his poor patients and to radical causes, Meyer loses faith, both in the working class and in the goal of socialism. Losing his ‘inner core of hope and humanism’, he is ‘left with an empty cynicism’, writes Rowe in her introduction.

Yet, in a dramatic (and somewhat unconvincing) volte face, he finds, in Rowe’s words, ‘the strength of will to tell himself that he still believes in the lives of the people, in his patients in particular. The political belief that has sustained him in the past will sustain him again’. Then, ‘with a terrible, ironical twist of fate, he dies before he can put this belief into practice’.

Widgery’s story is based on the thinly-disguised character of Michael Leibson, the veteran Communist Party GP in Bethnal Green with whom he worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like Meyer, Leibson died of a heart attack. Before the story was published Widgery too was dead, as a result of an excess of alcohol, barbiturates and pethidine, an injectable synthetic opiate (the coroner recorded an open verdict).

In Confronting an Ill Society, Patrick Hutt provides a biography of Widgery that offers him as a role model for a new generation of doctors. Hutt avoids, however, the questions raised by the manner of his death, implicitly endorsing the prevailing view that it was some sort of freak accident. Yet depicting Widgery as a hero to be emulated, without engaging with the background to his demise, risks the sort of infidelity to principle of which Widgery accuses Meyer in his story, poignantly entitled ‘Mea Culpa’. We have to ask: had Widgery too ‘lost faith with his own conscience’? One thing seems clear. Whatever the particular circumstances of his end, alongside issues of health (he continued to suffer from the effects of childhood polio) and lifestyle, a deep political disillusionment had been setting in.

I first encountered Widgery in the early 1970s when, as a medical student, I read his articles, sometimes in purple ink on a green background, in Oz and other ‘underground’ publications. We were both members of the International Socialists (IS), an allegiance he continued (though I did not) as it metamorphosed into the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1977. Our paths often crossed in the campaigns against hospital closures, anti-racist protests, labour movement and anti-war demonstrations of the 1970s and 80s. We both became GPs in East London and for a time I worked in a practice adjacent to his in Limehouse, sharing in the same out-of-hours rota.

As Hutt acknowledges, Widgery was notorious for his rude and abrasive behaviour. Our relations, though I was never a close friend, were always cordial. I was an admirer of his writings, particularly on matters of music and culture. He was a man of wide interests and great enthusiasms and he wrote with feeling and flair about Bessie Smith and George Bernard Shaw, Roland Kirk and Chuck Berry. It is perhaps unfortunate that writers who now seek to claim Widgery for left-wing politics tend to neglect his wider critical journalism.

Widgery personified the convergence of the counterculture of the 1960s and the radical left of the 1970s, expressing both the strengths and the weaknesses of these trends. Like a number of talented individuals attracted at that time to the IS – Peter Sedgwick, Eamon McCann, Terry Eagleton, Christopher Hitchens – Widgery was independent of spirit, intellectually alert, imaginative and energetic. He always looked beyond the combination of parliamentary cretinism and dour trade union militancy that dominated the outlook of the British left, and took creditable stands against racism and in support of women’s rights and gay liberation when these were far from fashionable positions.

Though revolutionary rhetoric was commonplace on the radical left, rigorous political analysis was not. Subjective commitment to socialism was never complemented by a coherent anti-capitalist programme. Indeed, whenever the left’s leading figures moved away from their preoccupation with trade unionism, they tended to fall back on theory developed by the social democratic or official communist movement. Widgery shared this weakness. Though he is now celebrated as a ‘dissident Marxist’, it is difficult to discern much Marxist theory in his writings (2). His 1979 assessment of ‘the crisis in the health service’, for example, is described in Hutt’s account as an impassioned polemic (3). Yet in substance it is little different from that of contemporary social policy academics more or less closely allied to the Labour Party (as a result it is, in striking contrast with his cultural writings, a rather dull book).

Widgery also expressed the self-indulgent and ill-disciplined approach to organisation characteristic of the radical movement. The notion that Widgery and his fractious friends in Rock Against Racism – in his own judgement ‘a fairly egocentric group of artistic people’ – ‘organised’ the successful Anti-Nazi League carnivals in 1978 can only raise a smile (4). Though he is characterised as a ‘dissident’ within IS and the SWP, this had a more personal than political character. Thus, while more serious dissidents moved on to organise elsewhere, Widgery remained loyal to the SWP to the end.

Shortly after his death, Widgery’s family and friends held a commemoration at the Hackney Empire (of which he was a trustee). Featuring speeches by stars from the worlds of politics and the arts, and poetry, music and theatrical performances, it was a moving tribute to his life and work. As I recall, the only contentious comment came from Paul Foot (recently himself commemorated in the same theatre). Foot provoked some animosity by describing how difficult Widgery had been within the SWP and expressing his anger at the wastefulness of his death. Overall, I was struck by the fact that somebody for whom few, either in the worlds of medicine or politics, ever had a good word when he was alive, had in death already become a saint. Talking over this commemoration later, one of the organisers said how much Widgery would have relished the backstage rancour that raged before, during and after the event.

Recent publications confirm the extent to which, a decade after his death, Widgery has assumed cult status. It is true that, as one of his friends said after the commemoration, ‘Widgery was an assiduous promoter of his own myth’. Yet this is an insufficient explanation for his current stature. Hutt’s book includes an introduction by two leading figures in the Royal College of General Practitioners (whose membership examination Widgery never deigned to sit) and a foreword by the former editor of the British Medical Journal. Elsewhere, David Renton includes him in a cast of dissident Marxists that includes Mayakovsky and Serge, Karl Korsch and EP Thompson (2).

One reason for Widgery’s rising status is the transition of the counterculture from the bohemian margins of the past to the cultural mainstream today (5). By 1985 Don Henley had already famously spotted ‘a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac’; 20 years later a senior civil servant at the Department of Constitutional Affairs was hosting a celebrated Grateful Dead fan website (6). Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Widgery’s adolescent heroes, have received retrospective recognition, Mick Jagger has his knighthood and Bob Dylan has received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

The twin features of the counterculture, the rejection both of contemporary society and of any possibility of changing it, once regarded as marginal and subversive, have become universal and safe. The recent thirtieth anniversary of the Oz obscenity trial revealed that most of its leading figures were fully assimilated into respectable society, while the BBC screened Jerry Springer – the Opera, with an obscenity count in thousands. The old left has become a heritage project sustained by ageing veterans and academic historians.

A key factor in the emergence of Widgery as a medical role model is the politicisation of medicine since the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s. Whereas the government had formerly spurned doctors, such as Widgery, who drew attention to social inequalities in health as part of a wider socialist project, in the 1990s it embraced an authoritarian public health agenda (7). This gave the medical profession, including many of its erstwhile radicals, a new role in promoting healthy lifestyles.

Widgery’s last book, Some Lives! A GP’s East End is, as Hutt indicates, ‘generally considered his best’ (8). It skilfully weaves sketches gathered from surgery consultations, home visits, night calls and casual encounters, with a history of the East End and its immigrant minorities and subcultures. It is also, however, a testimony of personal disillusionment, of ‘the grinding down of optimism’ that resulted from his encounters with brutalised lives.

There is an air of fatalism in his account, and nostalgia for the lost spirit of community and solidarity of the old East End. Hutt quotes the criticism of Kambiz Boomla, one of Widgery’s former colleagues and comrades (with a far more sustained record of commitment to general practice in East London), that Some Lives! fails to mention the class struggle. Yet to criticise Widgery’s book for neglecting politics misses the point that the political approach he advocates is that ‘we need to plan again’, citing Fabian municipal socialism as a model. By the early 1990s, the radical left had reached the end of the road: Some Lives! records Widgery’s personal and political exhaustion.

Had Widgery, like Meyer, lost faith? There is an undercurrent of despair in Some Lives! that goes some way towards explaining the subsequent tragedy. As Marsha Rowe concludes on Widgery’s fictional alter ego, ‘by his own infidelity, the character of the doctor was in the end betrayed’.

Patrick Hutt has written Confronting an Ill Society as a personal voyage of discovery. As a work that started out as a student dissertation and was completed just as he qualified as a doctor, it is an impressive achievement. His father Nick Hutt was a highly respected GP in Hackney who died of cancer at the age of 51, before the book was published. Hutt records how he asked his father ‘Do you wish you were more like Widgery or these other political medics?’. To which Nick, characteristically wise, replied with a question of his own, ‘Are they better doctors?’.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA)

(1) Infidelities, ed Marsha Rowe, Chatto, 1993

(2) Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times, David Renton, Zed, 2004

(3) Health in Danger: The Crisis in the National Health Service, David Widgery, Macmillan, 1979

(4) Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, David Widgery, Chatto and Windus, 1986

(5) Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Andrew Calcutt, Cassell, 1998

(6) See A Deadhead in Whitehall, Marcel Berlins, Guardian, 8 June 2004

(7) The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Michael Fitzpatrick, Routledge, 2000

(8) Some Lives!: A GP’s East End, David Widgery, Sinclair Stevenson, 1991

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Topics Politics

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