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S4E10 of our podcast, The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories. The Quiet Revolutionary – Be Nice To Old Ladies

podcast The Quiet Revolutionary Parkinson's health history carbon drawdown

Episode 10 of The Quiet Revolutionary: the heroic role played in a Plot to Assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of, Series 4 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast

In Episode 10 Be Nice To Old Ladies, the final part of Series 4, we tell how the hero of this story taught the benefits of listening another hero born more than a century after he died, and how this in turn benefitted victims of ‘this cruel disease’.

Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter

Audio Production by Samuel Wain

Like all stories, it’s best to start at the beginning:

Episode 1, Dad, Me and Jimmy P.

Episode 2, The Cauldron

Episode 3, The Pint-Pot Paperweights

Episode 4, The View from Westminster

Episode 5, The Plot

Episode 6, The Physician’s Dilemma

Episode 7, The Privy Council

Episode 8, A Different Kind of Activism

Episode 9, A Tale of Two Wheezes

Episode 10, Be Nice To Old Ladies

Or if you’d like to hear all 10 episodes in one go, here’s the omnibus edition.

If you suffer from, or know anyone who suffers from, what Dr. Gerald Stern called ‘this cruel disease’, do consider joining this See Through News administered Facebook Group.

The Quiet Revolutionary is a podcast by The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.

If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.


Podcast Transcript

Episode 10: Be Nice To Old Ladies 

Dad always used to tell my sister, my brother and me to be nice to old ladies. 

So far as I know, it’s not directly related to the example set by his hero, Jimmy P, when he went out of his way to help Margaret Davis find her press-ganged son, George. 

It was a family Dad-ism, a trigger for teenage eye-rolling and head shakes, long before we understood why he was so fond of this phrase.

After a while, we started to notice how visiting colleagues would use the phrase too, always evoking strange, knowing smiles. We suspected it was some punchline to one of his many stories.

Dad was a great storyteller, especially in what he liked to call his ‘anecdotage’, but his stories were all self-deprecatory, casting himself as the naive fool, or klutzy ingé   nue.

By the time Dad died, just before his 88th birthday, we thought we’d heard them all, but as the eulogies flowed in, we discovered we didn’t know half of them. 

Tribute after tribute told stories of young medics he’d set on the path to eminence through small acts of kindness and support in the toughest of circumstances. 

But long before he died, we were aware of his story about the importance of being nice to old ladies.

I’ve mentioned that one superpower my hero shared with his hero, Jimmy P, was  Listening. 

Dad’s Old Lady story was about the power of listening – and how lightning can strike twice.

It’s also the answer to the question I’ve left hanging – how Dad managed his entire distinguished research career without having to take a penny from Big Pharmaceutical companies.

In the early 1960’s, after working in various  junior positions and research jobs around the world, most recently Newcastle, got his first job as a consultant neurologist, in London. 

These were the early years of the National Health Service. For the first time, ordinary citizens could get equal access to top-quality treatment. 

Patients who’d never before been able to afford such expertise were now referred to consultants, without having to pay a penny, or even prove they could pay a penny towards the cost.

When he took over his predecessor’s job in London, Dad also inherited his predecessor’s NHS patients. 

Dad particularly enjoyed seeing one of them, the last surviving spinster sibling from a large family. 

As this was the 60s, she’d grown up in Victorian and Edwardian England, when families were big, and the youngest daughter was expected to forgo marriage to care for the father. 

This patient of Dad’s had done her duty. Now, in her own old age, she’d developed a tremor, which was why, every six months, she’d appear in the consulting rooms of the young Dr. Gerald Stern.

Dad liked to schedule her for the last appointment of the day. He enjoyed her company. Long after they’d concluded their medical business, he’d listen to her stories and chat about trivial matters.

This old lady never missed an appointment, until one day, she did. 

A few days later, a call from her General Practitioner doctor confirmed she’d died in her sleep.  

A few weeks later, a call from her solicitor advised Dad he’d been mentioned in her will.  

A few months later, a visit to the solicitor’s chambers at London’s Inner Temple informed him that, after the dog’s home, and the cat’s home, Dad was third on her list of beneficiaries.

How thoughtful, said Dad to the solicitor. She was such a nice old lady.  

The solicitor said her will had mentioned her appreciation of that nice Dr. Stern, and how much she looked forward to her appointments with him, as he was such a good listener. 

Dad was moved by this, and thanked the solicitor for informing him in person. 

Privately, he wondered if this kind gesture would cover the cost of the taxi fare to get back to the hospital, as he had patients to see. He asked what the old lady had bequeathed him.

‘600’, replied the solicitor.

Dad was astonished. He’d never imagined that quiet, drably-dressed old lady even possessed as much as £600, a substantial sum in those days.

‘No, six hundred thousand pounds’, said the solicitor.

This small fortune was a personal bequest, naming Dad as the beneficiary.

Like Jimmy P and the surgical truss he invented, Dad has a chance to stop working and live a very comfortable life of leisure. 

Like Jimmy P, he passed up the opportunity. Instead he used it to set up his  research fund for Parkinson’s disease.

Then, a few years later, exactly the same thing happened – another nice old lady, another visit to the Inner Temple, another small fortune, only bigger this time, another lightning strike.     

The research fund grew, and that’s why Dad never took a penny from Big Pharma for his research.

And that’s why Dad always told us to be nice to old ladies.

So, you’ve now heard my stories about my hero, my father Dr. Gerald Stern, and his hero, James Parkinson.

While Dad was alive, I tried for years to interest broadcasters in the story of Jimmy P’s heroic risking of his own neck to save the lives of his friends, accused of High Treason and destined for the gibbet.

I tried pitching it as a documentary, as a docu-drarma, even as a straight drama, but to no avail.  

There are plenty of reasons why my pitch was rejected, of course. For a start, historical drama, or even 18th-century docu-drama re-enactments, are expensive. 

There are also many competing stories, pitched by people with better industry connections and track records than me. Even for such insiders, only a tiny percentage of their proposals end up getting made.

Sometimes, I’d be given more technical reasons for this story’s unsuitability explaining the complications or imperfections of the story itself. 

I’ve been told things like:

The central courtroom drama of James’s risking his life to save his friends is too convoluted and complex to have any impact.

Or they’d say ‘The verbatim stuff is nice, but the language is too complicated for people to understand these days’.

Or sometimes, ‘It’s inappropriate to distract from the narrative of curing and treating such a terrible disease’. 

On top of that, I’m a journalist and documentary filmmaker by trade, and it turns out there’s not much video archive available from 1794.

Now a   ll these objections are true, and have prevented me from telling this story publicly, until now.

Even in this podcast, however, I had to consider how far to stretch my limited budget of strict historical truth. How much I could loosen my fact-checking girdle. How far I could nudge the needle on the Fact to Fiction-ometer.

For example, coming up with even one female character was a real stretch. We know almost nothing of Jimmy P’s wife Mary. This makes Episode Six, all that small-hours agonising between James and Mary Parkinson  in the Hoxton Square family quarters, entirely speculative. 

On the other hand, the dramatic climax of Episode 7’s Privy Council trial is, as I explain, almost entirely verbatim from contemporary records.

Does any of this make the story I’ve told in this The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories podcast more, or less, important? Any more, or less, compelling, engaging or entertaining?

Like Dad, I sometimes like to speculate on what James Parkinson would have made of it all. Like all good writers, communicators, teachers and mentors – like my Dad – Jimmy P would have known what makes a Good Story. 

I’d have loved to have been able to chat about this, the three of us – Dad, Me, and Jimmy P.  

We could have discussed it over a meal at No. 1 Hoxton Square, as it’s now a trendy branch of a restaurant chain. 

The original building has been demolished, but as we go in, Dad and I could point out the blue plaque on the wall outside, honouring its celebrated former occupant.

What would Dad, Me, and Jimmy P have talked about, over dinner and a bottle or two of wine, in the dining room that used to be where the physician’s waiting room had once been? 

Dad could have told Jimmy about all the research papers, the books, the medical journals and conferences he’s been involved in that bear James Parkinson’s      name. What would Jimmy have made of the collection of historical documents Dad assembled for Wheeze Number Two?

I can imagine Jimmy P spending all evening shaking his head at that blue plaque. Of all the things to be remembered for, nearly two centuries after his death –  that obscure ‘Essay on the Shaking Palsy’.  ‘It barely caused a ripple at the time’, he might have said.

Dad, me and Jimmy P could speculate, from our different perspectives, on why James Parkinson is now a household name for that obscure pamphlet, and not for volunteering to save his friends in a sensational trial for high treason.  

We’d have been at it until closing time, wondering what makes some stories endure, and others evaporate.

I’m sure before long the conversation would have turned to the topic of Compassion, Empathy, Observation and Listening.

Dad could tell Jimmy about how, in 1969, he founded the Parkinson’s Disease Society, with the sister of one of his patients.  

I can imagine Jimmy, with his experience of  Margaret and George Davis, and his reform of his local lunatic asylum in Hoxton, being fascinated by this pioneering patient and carer support network.  

He’d be even more astonished to hear how it became Parkinson’s UK, one of Britain’s biggest and best-funded medical charities. 

Dad wouldn’t have brought it up himself, but – once I’d explained to Jimmy what a website was – I would have told him that the Parkinson’s UK website doesn’t include a single mention of Dad’s name, or his founding role!

‘I was literally in the room when it happened!’, I’d tell Jimmy, though as I was 4 years old at the time I can’t claim to be an expert witness. 

Dad was of that uncomplaining war-time generation, and never spoke to me about this, but I imagine Jimmy’s sense of justice would have been pretty outraged. 

‘What can I do to redress this injustice?’, I imagine he’d ask me.

‘Email’, I’d tell him, before explaining what email was. 

If having heard this story, you’d like to ask them yourselves, by all means do some redressing yourself. That’s,

But back to the point about how some stories land, and others sink.

It’s not that forgotten stories are always worse than the ones we know about.  

Some might be deliberately suppressed, if they don’t suit the narrative of the power-brokers. 

The Attorney General who had it in for Jimmy, John Scott, did his best to control the proliferating newspapers and news-sheets in 1794.  I could have told Jimmy about the way the state controls the media in China or Russia.

Jimmy would probably have been wise and experienced enough to observe that  media manipulation can come in many forms.       The subtle versions can direct narratives just as effectively as the heavy-handed ones.  

At this point I’d chime in with my Three-Headed Beasts analogy, describing how the three snapping, biting, snarling heads of Government, Business and Media, connected below the neck by power, and below the waist by Money, thrive in all parts of the Money Mire, democratic as well as autocratic.

The three of us all being, in our different ways, analytic types, we might get to pondering, over the port, on the reasons why some stories stick, and others flop.

Some stories might not make the cut, we might reflect, because they lack one element of narrative, or have one complication or twist too many.  

We like our stories to adhere to certain tropes, to fit into certain boxes. If they don’t fit, we can try filling them out, or chipping away at them until they do. But even if we can cram our favoured story into some box or other, there will always be plenty of competing stories, true and not, that fit perfectly.

Most of the time, we might agree as we drain our glasses and call for the bill, the reason why most stories evaporate, fail to ’cut through’, gain no traction, or leave no trace, is simply down to luck.  

On our way out, we might pass a busker on Hoxton Square. Jimmy might ask how many great musicians with more talent than their famous colleagues busk, undiscovered, on street corners?  Dad could point out that we can never know the answer, because, well, they’re undiscovered. 

So, stories can get buried, ignored or simply wither away  for all sorts of reasons. 

There’s one more reason, though, I’d want to point out before we embrace and go our separate ways. 

If stories are particularly awkward, unpleasant or inconvenient, it’s precisely their truth, their very awkward, unpleasant and inconvenient nature,  that makes it so hard for us to embrace them. 

Doesn’t make them any less true, though…

If you enjoyed The Quiet Revolutionary, why not try Series 5, Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance.  Thank you for listening.