It started in a cupboard
Unusually for Probus, Ken Calman was interviewed on his recent autobiography ‘Parkinson style’ by Nick Kuenssberg, rather than a conventional talk. In this interview, question by question, Ken’s rich life unfolded. We learned of his academic successes, driven by his thirst for new knowledge, his medical successes, including a professorship in oncology at the age of 32 and his many later administrative successes, from Chief Medical Officer in Scotland to that of England, Chair of the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish National Trust and after a successful Vice Chancellorship of Durham University, Chancellor of his old university (Glasgow). Ken’s responses were always measured and politic. Nick, despite his best efforts, couldn’t manage to get Ken to rise to the bait and ‘dish the dirt!’ As Ken described his career progressions, he often referred to visiting the library to find out what the job and the organisation involved before he made up his mind to commit. Possibly a habit which goes back to Ken’s early life growing up in Knightswood where a visit to the local library was part of his family life. Ken is proud of Knightswood, a well planned estate where houses have gardens, local amenities including schools, shops, churches, parks, public transport as well as the library which his mother used regularly.
We learn that the title of Ken’s book It started in a cupboard arose from the challenging circumstances Ken’s Mum faced at the premature death of his father at the age of 41. Having only a small widow’s pension, to add to her income, Ken’s mother took in two boarders, students from Jordanhill College, leaving Ken with a hall cupboard, illuminated by candle light, for his studies. This is where Ken realised he had a passion for acquiring new knowledge, a gift which has served him well throughout his life. This facility enabled Ken to win a scholarship to Allan Glen’s School. While Ken didn’t dwell on what he learned at Allan Glen’s, he was always sliding in references to people in his career who had emerged from the same crucible, such as Lord Smith. A reflection of his affection and respect for this school that was ended with an Act of Parliament, promoted by none other than Vince Cable, who was then a Glasgow Labour Councillor!
Music has always been important in Ken’s life and he enthusiastically told the story of how it came to be that he met his future wife on the back of a lorry! By the time he got to University in 1960, he was into playing a banjo in an 8 man jazz band. During the Annual Charities Day parade his band was playing on a float in the parade. Through a boy friend – girl friend link of one of the band members, a group of girls from Jordanhill College, happy to dress up as flappers and dance the Charleston, got together on the same lorry. This is where Ken met Ann, and the rest as they say, is history!
On completing his medical course Ken went into surgery and by progression this took him down to the Royal Marsden where Ken was drawn into oncology. A key factor a few years later in an invitation to establish an oncology department in Glasgow University. Ken’s response to Nick’s probing revealed that the University were struggling to attract experienced talent to get such a department in this new field of oncology established. However, players behind the scene such as Professor Stuart Macpherson (a Glen’s boy!) who knew and had worked with Ken believed he had the ability to deliver. The University knew he had a science degree as well as a medical degree and had done recent research in oncology which qualified him for the post, even if he was only 32! Nick extended Ken’s discussion to include one of Ken’s great innovations in cancer care, learning from patients. From his work at the Royal Marsden, Ken became aware of the great work which Cicely Saunders did at St Christopher’s Hospice in helping people in terminal care. Drawing on this experience Ken introduced Tak Tent meetings, old Scots expression for ‘take care’, where patients, their families and staff could meet together to discuss their experiences and the staff could learn from the patients. These meetings started in Ken’s house and the informal setting helped people speak more freely with benefits to all involved. Tak Tent became a charity and spread throughout the West of Scotland and produced useful booklets for patients and families on a diverse range of subjects even including financial help.
Nick turned the conversation to Ken becoming the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, a step well removed from clinical care, and his subsequent move to become the CMO for England. What attracted Ken to go into Public Health? How did he compare the two jobs? Here Ken acknowledged that he hadn’t been thinking in that direction but an approach from Edinburgh got him going into the library to find out what the CMO did. His researches revealed that the post involved a lot of interesting and important work looking after the health of everyone in Scotland. So he fired off his application and got the job. Ken’s first point to Nick was that he was the Minister’s representative and all policy came through government. Further, he observed that if he had gone in to the job ‘lording it’ over his colleagues, it wouldn’t have worked. You need team work to get the best from your colleagues, many of whom you rely for their specialist knowledge and experience. The big difference with the England CMO post is that, unlike Scotland where most of his colleagues were in St Andrew’s House, in London the CMO is reliant on rival departments under a number of roofs. And, ‘what about the politicians he met?’ asked Nick. Clearly hoping to hear some juicy tit bits! Here Ken was circumspect and would not spill the beans. However, he was prepared to make an exception by talking about Virginia Bottomley, one of his Ministers. She had a constituent who experienced issues with cancer care and this revealed inequalities in cancer care provision nationally. Here, with Ministerial interest and political will, it was easier to research the problem and come forward with proposals that stood a chance of being taken forward.
After Ken retired from his CMO job, he became the Vice Chancellor of Durham University. A University founded in 1832, much younger than his alma mater he wryly noted. His arrival occurred when Durham was contemplating its 175th anniversary. This gave Ken the inspiration to go on a fund raising drive to raise £175 million which would allow much needed investment in the fabric of the University and its activities. A sum which was ultimately achieved comfortably but involved Ken meeting the great and good from all organisations in the North East of England and further afield. Crucially for Ken, was the involvement of the students. In his view, one couldn’t address the future of the university without getting input from the students. It was clear that Ken’s experience at Durham was very positive and he is kindly remembered
Ken’s career still had more to go after Durham as his skills were sought by others such as the Chancellorship of Glasgow University and the National Trust for Scotland. However, Nick ran out of time to explore further and opened the discussion to the floor for members’ questions. This discussion focused mainly on the future of the NHS and how to keep funding it. Something that our politicians are struggling with as well!
This interview skilfully managed by Nick revealed Sir Ken as a polymath who through his life had been able to turn his knowledge, skills and experience to many different tasks. For those who would be interested to learn more about Sir Ken’s career and life philosophy, they should turn to his book It started in a cupboard, Adventures in Life, Learning and Happiness, published by Luath Press.