Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 3


Confronting an Ill Society

Patrick Hutt
Confronting an Ill Society: David Widgery, General Practice, Idealism and the Chase for Change
Radcliffe, Oxford 2004, pp. 152

ONE of the difficulties of writing a biography of someone who has died recently is the temptation of that person’s friends to demand a role in the story. Some will remind you of their dead friend’s many positive characteristics and deny all other blemishes as if they were quite imaginary. Others will insist that any of your protagonist’s best-known achievements did not belong to him or her at all; that ‘David’ (or whoever), far from originating the campaign he is said to have led, was in fact only a distant bystander, muscling into events late and with the sole idea of gaining all the credit afterwards. As a biographer, you can only do your best, armed with your protagonist’s writing, a historians’ guess as to who is right, and ideally by checking as many different views as possible. The interpretation that none of them denies is probably just right.

David Widgery, doyen of OZ, the BMJ, Rock Against Racism and Socialist Worker, has surviving friends in abundance, which makes it heartening that the author of this first biography is a recent medical student who was not even in his teens when Widgery died in October 1992. Patrick Hutt uses Widgery as the start and end of his book, but much of the middle is a rather general reflection on the nature of general practice and also of ‘idealism’, the quality that Hutt associates with Widgery’s political radicalism and also with the work of being an NHS doctor.

Hutt perceives a profession dominated by new managerial initiatives, by increased integration into the rhythm of the market, by stupidity, bureaucracy and by a sort of fallback cynicism in face of the tenaciousness of ill health. ‘Consultants have different interests from GPs, who have different interests from nurses, who all have different interests depending on which part of the country they work in.’ Against the culture of permanent change, Widgery is seen to have embodied alternative values.

Hutt reads Widgery’s life through the prism of his last and greatest book, Some Lives, a medical journal turned history, turned autobiography, an account of Widgery’s own medical practice in the East End. His socialism is explained in similar terms:

Widgery believed his causes deserved attention but he also knew that you had to make an argument for them. He drew strength from a belief that his patients and colleagues were especially hard done by. They were already poor and working in depressing circumstances. The last thing they needed were changes making life more difficult … This is not to say that he did not possess a wider view, merely that he thought that taking a narrow and extreme view was a necessary tactic.

One of the first reviews of Confronting an Ill Society appeared in Socialist Review, where a former medical colleague of David’s complained that Hutt’s politics were hazy and that he had relied too much on other people’s opinions. Perhaps the silliest of these, Socialist Review concluded, was the quote Hutt cites from another doctor, Trevor Turner, who told him that if he was still alive Widgery would be working for New Labour. Definitely, Hutt should have seen through such nonsense.

Widgery acted at various stages as a guiding influence to half a dozen of the best-known names of British feminism, a similar number of early gay socialists, and countless other activists. Hutt passes the politicos by, concentrating on doctors who knew David, some of them barely. The best anecdotes are missing as a result and even the quotes from Widgery’s books are not his sharpest, nor his funniest, but come from the frequently more constrained passages of Widgery on medicine.

Confronting an Ill Society does suffer from a surfeit of sources, and those often of the wrong sort. The list of people who dedicated obituaries to Widgery, following his death at a party in October 1992, counted Paul Foot, Richard Neville, Mike Rosen, Raph Samuel, Sheila Rowbotham and Darcus Howe. By the time Widgery died in the early 1990s, no one but he could have kept them in a room together. The sparks between them might have enlightened a different book.

The last word should belong not to the book but to its protagonist. David Widgery wrote several obituaries, the most poignant of which was dedicated to the magazine OZ, where his first and some of his liveliest journalism had been published:

The last part of OZ’s life was spent in a wistful melancholy … He was happiest among friends reminiscing and he would talk of the old days with a bewildered tenderness. The circumstances of OZ’s tragically early death remain unclear. Whether OZ is dead, of suicide or sexual excess, or whether OZ is alive and operating under a series of new names is unclear at the moment. What is clear is that OZ bizarrely and for a short period expressed the energy of a lot of us. We regret his passing.

David Renton

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011