David Widgery, 1947-92: against oblivion

It is twenty years since the premature death of David Widgery, a singular radical who combined a prolific writing and political life with work as a medical doctor in London's East End. A man always "alive to things" is recalled by David Hayes.

David Hayes
28 October 2012

"A new government: pledged to change the face of Britain with a new threadbare philosophy and ruthless policy. A new decade: of economic collapse and international tension. A year when all our cosy institutions suddenly seemed fragile: the Labour Party, the NHS, civil liberties and the Olympic Games. But a year, too, of new forms of opposition, hopes for something better than survival. More strikes than 1926 and a rapid rise of popular protest movements." - David Widgery ed., The Book of the Year: September 1979 to September 1980 (Ink Links, 1980)


A short walk north of the River Thames, at a point where it makes an enormous arc from Limehouse's renovated wharves around the gleaming towers of the Canary Wharf financial complex, a modest wooden plaque on the wall of St Anne's church commemorates David Widgery, a prolific writer and tireless libertarian socialist who worked for two decades in London's working-class East End as a medical doctor before his death on 26 October 1992 at the age of 45. 

This reverent alcove in the shadow of one of the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor's six London churches, consecrated in 1730, seems an incongruous setting for a singular radical whose writing straddled the late-1960s underground paper Oz (which he briefly edited after the imprisonment of colleagues in the 1971 obscenity trial) and the British Medical Journal, whose activism stretched from involvement in pioneering anti-racist, gay and feminist movements to loyal-if-critical membership of the (Trotskyist) International Socialists (which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1976-77), and whose intellectual interests ranged from Vladimir Mayakovsky to André Breton, Bessie Smith to CLR James and his fellow physician-writer William Carlos Williams.  

In several ways, though, it is also a fitting location. The overhang of other towers, Poplar's council-housing blocks of the 1960s, whose broken lifts and musty stairwells Widgery navigated over many years of ministering to local residents (and of listening to their stories, as recorded in his last book, Some Lives! A GP's East End [1991]; the proximity of further landmarks of the area's rich ethical politics, from Limehouse town hall and former library to the philanthropic sailors' mission that provided temporary refuge to generations of arrivals at the nearby port (and in 1960 - a shade too early even for the precocious Widgery - hosted the fourth conference of the Situationist International); the presence of Hawksmoor's odd pyramid in the church garden, which eerily prefigures the downriver monumentalism of the 1980s (it was perhaps designed for, but never placed in, the gothic-style church tower, the second tallest in Britain after the Westminster parliament, which helped guide navigators at one bank of the Thames as Greenwich's Time Ball did at the other). 

This corner of a corner of London was variously Widgery's workplace, heartland, reference-point, subject and inspiration: the local foundation of a boundless, restless persona that, in addition to sustaining the daily discipline of a practitioner's life in the National Health Service while coping with the severe legacy of the polio he had contracted in the epidemic of 1956, embraced and championed with unmatched gusto the new horizons of possibility - cultural and experiential as well as political - released in the 1960s. (His close friend David Phillips described the young Widgery as "magnetic" and said he had "that blend of sex and danger". The painter Jock McFadyen, a patient, was, as quoted in Iain Sinclair's Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire, pithier: "A posh leftie, basically. There's a lot of that about..."). In a testing, exhilarating age of personal self-creation, flaws and fire welded.

On the up

Here he is, for example, on Jack Kerouac, a teenage inspiration:

"To read Kerouac when you were 15, scrabbling through the Ks of Slough Public Library, was a coded message of discontent; the sudden realisation of an utter subversiveness and licence. He legitimised all the papery efforts of a child writer, dream books, pretend novellas, invented games, planned and described walkouts. He expressed a solution to the pent-upness, exitlessness of youth, that feeling of wanking off inside all the time. Everyone I know remembers where they were when they read On the Road, whether newly expelled from school, public librarians (trainee) in Hammersmith, car park attendants in Dorking, knowledgeable Eisenhower drunks or hospital porters, because of the sudden sense of infinite possibility. You could, just like that, get off out of it into infinite hitchhiking futures. Armed only with a duffle coat, you could be listening to wild jazz on the banks of the Tyne or travelling east-west, across the Pennines. Mostly we never actually went, or the beer wore off by Baldcock High Street and you were sober and so cold. But we were able to recognise each other by that fine, wild, windy prose and the running-away motif that made so much sense."

It's characteristic that this extract from the long essay "The Kerouac Connection", published in Oz in 1969 (well worth reading as a counterpoint to the copious puffery that now attends Walter Salles's evidently super-shallow film) was written when Widgery was barely 22.

Here he is on Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette turned East End campaigner for the working class and left-communist critic of Leninist centralism: 

"My interest, affection, it’s hard not to call it love, for Sylvia Pankhurst has grown over the last five years spent practicing as a doctor not half a mile from her old home in the Old Ford Road. East London is different now, studded with tower blocks and fenced with corrugated iron. But curiously the same. Still solidly proletarian, still the sweatshops and street-fights and rent strikes and plenty of old lady patients who remember ‘our Sylvia’ with a twinkle. Still the migrants, speaking Bangla Deshi rather than Yiddish, still the dole queues, longer now than ever. And still a revolutionary socialist minority, of which I’m part, spouting at street corners, dishing out leaflets, spreading union membership, occupying hospitals due for closure. Sometimes I feel Sylvia’s presence so sharply, it’s like a political ghost leaning over my shoulder to look with anger and compassion at the wheezy infants and cooped up young mothers and panicky grannies who live in the council blocks the Labour Council has had the nerve to name after Shelley, Morris and Dickens." ("Sylvia Pankhurst, Pioneer of Working Class Feminism", Radical America, May-June 1979).

And here he is on the "Carnival against the Nazis" in April 1978, part of the "rock against racism" movement of the period which Widgery celebrated in his written-on-the-wind book Beating Time:

"The sheer size of the march was the first surprise, especially in a country which has never experienced fascism first hand and whose anti-fascism is therefore bandaged up with national patriotism. But the carnival stood comparison with the high points of the nuclear disarmament and Vietnam movements and was certainly the biggest anti-fascist rally since the Thirties. In class terms it was a blast too. The white working class youth, the universally maligned and largely unemployed, the punks and soccer fans and skinheads and school kids, largely outside any political organization, had got there under their own steam. And the black youth, cagey at first, turned up too. My workingclassometer registered the march as markedly more proletarian than anything since the big Industrial Relations marches of the early Seventies and with the average age about 15 years younger. This is not to knock the British lower middle class’s capacity for organised moral outrage, from the Turkish Atrocities through CND to My Lai, but to record that anti-racialism is no longer an optional foreign policy issue. Modern immigration is about imperialism coming home, race in the capitalist nations of old Europe is now a working class, street level matter, a critical element shaping modern class conciousness."

Raphael Samuel, the protean historian and teacher, and fellow archaeologist of East End lives and currents (albeit from a different political milieu) confirmed Widgery's judgment in describing this gathering in Hackney's Victoria Park as "the most working class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion."

Alongside such essays (available thanks to the sterling work of the Marxists Internet Archive, and published in the above cases by Einde O'Callaghan) are Widgery's books, both single authored (including his collection of essays, Preserving Disorder [1989]) and the edited anthologies (The Left in Britain, 1956-68 [1976] and The Chatto Book of Dissent [1991], with Michael Rosen). If much belongs to its moment, it can also be read as a rich record of the ideas, hopes, and energies of an honest, full-hearted participant in a generation's struggles. It was surely in this spirit that Raphael Samuel referred to Widgery as an "archivist for the future".

In the mix

In what proved to be Widgery's last decade, Britain was dominated by the social and economic transformations taking place under Margaret Thatcher's government, with east London one of the areas where change - from deindustrialisation and demolition, through depopulation and immigration, to financialisation and gentrification - was most visible and its effects on everyday life most acute. As the optimism of the late 1960s and even the mobilisations of the 1970s were becoming ever more distant, he sought to make the best sense possible consistent with his ideology of what was going on around him, while finding his work, patients and immediate locality a reassuring source of political meaning.

Many scattered blogs, archives and memoirs of turbulent years record Widgery's activism and unique persona; those worth reading include Michael Rosen's warm obituary and David Renton's political overview, while Michael Fitzpatrick and Paul Foot's appraisals say as much about their authors as the subject. His medical philosophy and association with the East End is considered at length in a fine book by Patrick Hutt (with Iona Heath and Roger Neighbour), Confronting an ill Society: David Widgery, general practice, idealism and the chase for change (2005). Hutt gave a talk on Widgery in 2008 as part of local commemorations in Tower Hamlets (the wider district of of which Limehouse is part) of the sixtieth anniversary of the NHS, whose future as an integrated public body is even more in question than when Widgery was moved to write The National Health: A Radical Perspective (1978).

It seems certain that Widgery, who would today only be 65, would have continued to be a frontline defender of free and universal medical care. After the death of his and his partner's baby daughter, he found consolation in the NHS: "In the 1980s, policy dominated by the philosophy of possessive individualism still allows a different set of values to flourish. And it makes manifest the spirit of human solidarity which is at the core of socialism, and which our present rulers are so concerned to eradicate." At the time he died, he was preparing to take up a one-year sabbatical at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine and to write a history of medical care in the East End. Where his left-libertarian politics would have have taken him is harder to say, though in the early Thatcher period he was fond of quoting the trade-union leader Tom Mann: "we intend to become more dangerous as we grow old." And he would surely have embraced new media with characteristic zest as another vehicle to think through a present determinedly resistant to revolutionary-romantic idealism.

The increasing association with locality in Widgery's last years is reflected in his contribution to the revival of the Hackney Literary and Philosophical Society, involvement with Hackney Empire, and becoming the subject of a documentary film, Limehouse Doctor (1993), which focused on his work at the Gill Street Health Centre. He also became part of the acclaimed Czech-born photographer Markéta Luskacová's portfolio of a changing East End, an image now in the National Portrait Gallery.

A subtle political refocus amid the larger retreat of the left is suggested by his remark: "[Being] radical today is about fighting to keep hold of what we already have...To hold the ground and fight for aluminium frames, meals on wheels and high blood pressure screening in the present context is pretty damn revolutionary."

David Widgery's public life belongs to many worlds: medicine, far-left and working-class politics, the underground and avant-garde, anti-racist and gay and feminist activism, London's East End and its layered histories. The pulse of his work continues to beat, its verve undiminished, its spirit uncaptured, even as the great river sweeps so much of its era into oblivion.

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