Janet Street-Porter: We've lost sight of what bravery really means

Wednesday 25 March 2009 01:00

Is "brave" the most over-used word in the English language? Jade Goody receives the same kind of gushing tributes that surrounded the death of Princess Diana. Then, psychologist Oliver James was roundly condemned for daring to voice the opinion that the nation was succumbing to a kind of collective hysteria (and not true mourning) about a woman people felt they knew, even though they'd never met or spoken to her.

Writing in this paper at the time he said: "Feelings of shock and regret that she should no longer be with us and sympathy for her relatives would be appropriate. But (for people) to become convinced that they have lost a friend or relative seems out of place ... unlike in a real relationship, this person was never there in the flesh and she had no opportunity to communicate with them personally ... the boundaries between reality and fantasy are becoming seriously blurred."

Earlier this week in The Independent Johann Hari implied that to find Jade an unacceptable role model betrayed snobbery and a lack of humanity. Well, I disagree. Eleven years after Diana's death, will the funeral of Jade Goody turn into the same outpouring of grief that Oliver James found so worrying?

The ubiquitous Max Clifford has already promised us large television screens outside the church in Essex where the ceremony takes place on 4 April, and who knows what celebrity guests he will conjure up to participate? He's divulged that the coffin will be made of oak from the Royal Windsor forest and that there will be a 21-car cortège. It's all beginning to sound like a state funeral.

Jade was partly responsible for her condition – failing to respond to hospital letters telling her that her smear tests were abnormal and she should urgently seek medical help. She should have been on her guard after pre-cancerous cells were removed when she was just 16. Yes, there has been a huge increase in the number of young girls going for check-ups since her condition was made public, with the Government reviewing the age at which the NHS starts screening in England, which is currently 25, as opposed to 20 in the rest of the UK.

Yes, Jade had every right to exploit the media interest in her progress to raise as much money as possible for the upkeep of her young sons. But can we move on and consider other, equally distressing deaths – people born with challenges in life which certainly matched those of Jade.

I cried when I read that Martin Ryan had died in Kingston Hospital at the age of just 43, after a breakdown in communication with staff led to a failure to feed him not for a week, but 26 days. Martin was born with Down's syndrome and epilepsy. He died because he couldn't tell anyone what was happening to him. I hope the staff who were working on that ward never forget the image of Martin dying. Martin was brave. The cause of death was listed as pneumonia, but many would disagree. His parents have been offered just £40,000 compensation – a pittance compared to the deals Max Clifford secured for Jade.

Mark Cannon, an epileptic with learning difficulties, died at the age of 30, in Barking, Havering and Redbridge NHS hospital. He was admitted in agony with a broken leg, and it took three days for a pain team to attend to him. He died eight and a half weeks later, having lost 40 per cent of his blood. Mark was brave. A report has said his death was unnecessary but I'm sure that's not a lot of help to his grieving parents.

The Health and Local government Ombudsman has compiled a damning report on the levels of care given to six adults with learning difficulties who died at the hands of the NHS. It finds "distressing failures", and serious deficits in the way complaints were dealt with.

Can we please adjust our values? The avoidable death of just one person is appalling. But when that person has learning difficulties, it's criminal. Needless to say, no one has lost their jobs as a result of the deaths of Mark, and Martin.

Me, Spandau Ballet and an outbreak of flowing scarves

*They're back together, and going on tour – the Eighties band that fell out spectacularly but have finally buried their differences. It seems only yesterday that I made a film with Spandau Ballet, then an unsigned group from Islington, north London.

Back in June 1980 I was producing my first television series, Twentieth-Century Box, and I'd heard about the Spands through a chap called Ollie who worked at my hairdresser's. The boys took themselves very seriously and were deeply pretentious. They must have changed their clothes dozens of times during the day we filmed them, finally opting for kilts, feathered berets and flowing scarves for the secret gig at the Scala cinema in London's Fitzrovia, attended by Steve Strange and all the leading lights of London's New Romantic movement. The band were introduced by a poem from their mate, the writer and DJ Robert Elms, and the crowd included Sara Dallin from Bananarama. She's still a friend, and has worn rather better than the Spands. Sadly, I don't think Tony Hadley, and Martin and Gary Kemp have got enough hair to recreate the quiffs of yesteryear – but that won't stop their loyal fans turning up in droves for their gigs.

Berkoff shows how to do it

*The new trend in theatre is to turn a cult movie into a stage play. In recent years both The 39 Steps and Brief Encounter have been reinvented, with a considerable degree of critical and box-office success.

I've just seen Steven Berkoff's stage version of On The Waterfront, in which he uses a dozen actors as a chorus, playing everything from longshoremen to pigeons. There are moments in the evening when the pace sags, but there is no denying that it's a worthwhile experiment, with brilliant choreography and lighting. Berkoff, as usual, steals the show as the evil gangster boss.

Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, on the other hand, seems to have fallen flat on its feathers. One critic described the musical, which opened this week, left, as "more costume than content". We'll have to wait and see if it becomes the show of choice for discerning hen parties – in which case, count me out.

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