FLASHMAN AUTHOR COMES TO ERSKINE
The generosity of the Scottish public is really something to be wondered at. They never fail to respond unsparingly to appeals from charitable organisations.
Few people, including members of the Royal family, have turned down an invitation to visit Erskine but much to the disappointment of many of the patients, Dame Vera Lynn, the "Forces Sweetheart" in the second world war, repeatedly declined in the 1970s to come to Bishopton. Some of the excuses sounded rather flimsy to me. Admittedly she hasn't been asked again in recent years but as she is rather older now it is even less likely that she would honour us with a visit.
On October 11, 1995 the hospital's ruling Executive Committee approved a proposal to build a new hospital on the Erskine Estate and to create at least two satellite Erskine nursing homes in other parts of Scotland. All of them would meet, and perhaps surpass, the health care standards appropriate to the new millennium. The total cost was estimated at nearly £15 million. The decision was not taken lightly. Groups of Executive Committee members had spent two and a half years investigating and debating every conceivable option suggested to them by consultants.
My association with the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital, to give it its formal name, began in 1969 when I joined the small advertising agency of D. C. Cutbertson, which handled the hospital's advertising. David Black, the managing director, asked me if I could do some Public Relations work for the hospital and I agreed. The hospital had a total of about 400 patients and running costs of £270,000 a year. It now has fewer patients and costs £8 million pounds a year to run.
In 1974 I was elected to the Executive Committee, on which I still serve. I am also convener of the Publicity Committee. The Executive Committee members, all of whom work hard and conscientiously for the hospital without any kind of financial gain, are drawn from a wide range of skills and experience from the military, business and professional community of Scotland.
It would only embarrass them if I said any more about them but I have to record that the chairman and commandant when I joined the hospital, General Sir Gordon MacMillan of MacMillan and Colonel David Boyle were men of outstanding ability, dignity and humanity, and their contribution to the hospital is incalculable.
The hospital's vice-chairman for 15 years until his retirement in March 1995 on the brink of his 80th birthday was Brigadier Alastair Pearson, the most decorated Scottish soldier of the second world war. He died a year later.
In March 1995 Lieutenant General Sir John MacMillan, Sir Gordon's son, took over the chairmanship of the hospital from Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Baird. The hospital's Chief Executive is Colonel Martin Gibson, an energetic ex-army colonel of great experience, who also joined us in 1995.
.One of my early tasks was to devise the launch of an appeal for £200,000 for an extension to the hospital. I persuaded an old Glasgow Herald colleague, George MacDonald Fraser, a former officer in the Gordon Highlanders, to fly from his home on the Isle of Man to launch the appeal at Erskine. The money for the extension was raised in no time. George is author of the famous Flashman books and a Hollywood scriptwriter. I have always been envious of my old colleague, not only because of his success as an author but because he wrote scripts for Raquel Welch.
In 1982 the Executive Committee approved my suggestion that John Calder, another old newspaper colleague, whose father had once been a patient at Erskine, be commissioned to write a history of the hospital. This excellent book, The Vanishing Willows, has proved a steady seller ever since. The willow trees were unobtrusively acquired by Sir William Macewen, a founder of the hospital in 1916, from the grounds of Glasgow University, to make limbs for the patients.
Publicising the work of Erskine Hospital is not difficult. The hospital holds a very special place in the hearts of the Scottish public and often a great deal farther. As a journalist I very quickly realised that the hospital had more human interest stories than I could ever tell and over the years I have told some of them and I would like to think they have given the outside world a better idea what Erskine is about.
When I first started to write about Erskine David Boyle told me, "Don't try to excite pity or be melodramatic in whatever you write. Just give the facts and say we need help to carry on our work." Here then are some of the fact without the journalistic hyperbole.
It was the news media who in 1978 called the following story "the final chapter in one of the great love stories of the century" when the Lauder-Thomson ward was named at the hospital in memory of the son of Sir Harry Lauder, Captain John Lauder, and Mildred Thomson, who died unmarried in 1975 at the age of 83 and left the residue of her considerable estate to Erskine "to provide some amenity for the hospital in memory of my late fiance...".
John and Mildred, whose families had known each other since they were children, became engaged in 1916 when John was in the army. A few months later, on January 1, 1917, on the dawn of what was to be a joyful year for all of them Harry Lauder was appearing in a highly-successful review "Three Cheers" at the Shaftsbury Theatre in London when a telegram containing only two words was handed to him at his hotel. It came from his wife in Scotland and said, "John Killed."
Harry Lauder was numb with grief. A steady stream of London society came to his hotel to offer him sympathy but the man who had made millions laugh all over the world was unable to see any of them - with one exception, the girl who was to have been his daughter-in-law.
She stayed with him for several days intercepting the many telegrams and letters of condolence delivered to the hotel. Among the sympathisers were Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward the Seventh, Prime Minister Lloyd George, The Earl of Derby, Geroge Robey, Vesta Tilley, Sir Thomas Dewar, Sir Thomas Lipton, founder of the world's first grocery chain, and others from every class of society. Only hours after being given the tragic news Mildred had received John's last letter from France.
Mildred never recovered from her grief. For 58 years she kept a leather bound scrapbook containing 280 newspaper cuttings about John's death. An accompanying book of poems from Lady Lauder was inscribed "To darling Mildred in loving memory of the dearest boy that once lived, my son Capain John Lauder."
Harry Lauder's love for his son was legendary. The two embraced emotionally when they met. In December 1911, when John was studying law at Cambridge University, he caught a bad cold while returning to Laudervale, the family's palatial home in Dunoon.
Harry was in pantomime in Manchester and was so anxious to see his son that after a Saturday night show he caught the midnight train north. He arrived at Gourock at 8.30 am on Sunday and as there was no steamer or motor boat he paid two fishermen to take him the five miles across the Firth of Forth.
The weather was so rough they had to turn back, but the anxious father was persistent and persuaded the fishermen to try again later. After a three-hour struggle in heavy seas the three men reached Dunoon numbed by cold and sodden clothing. But father and son were united, which was all that mattered to Harry.
When Harry Lauder was knighted in 1919 for his work for the troops and the Allied cause his wife said, "How my boy would have rejoiced at this royal recognition of his father's worth and work." Lady Lauder died in 1927 and her husband in 1950 at the age of 80. But the story of his love for his son and Mildred Thomson's undying devotion to the 22-year-old Argyll and Sutherland Highlander live on.
Understandably this story received massive coverage in the news media throughout Britain. Mary Marquis, anchor woman on BBC television news in Scotland, had tears in her eyes as the camera moved back to her after a reporter told the story.
Roddy McLeod is an expert crossword solver and drives about the hospital in his motorised wheelchair. Mr McLeod has been paralysed from the neck down since 1965. A Bachelor of Science and former physics teacher, he gained an honours degree in mathematics from the Open University within days of his 65th birthday in 1987.
The written work for his degree was done with a computerised typewriter, the keys of which are activated by a highly complex series of sucks and blows into a tube in Mr MacLeod's mouth. The typewriter does not have all the mathematical symbols involved in Mr MacLeod's studies so he did many of the calculations mentally and got someone to write down the answers.
Two years later he started an honours course. Among the subjects were complex analysis, number theory and logic, graph theory and design, and numerical computation. Because of his paralysis all Mr MacLeod's reading is done with the help of automatic page turners. Books are supported on a plastic and metal frame. Two other smaller tubes into which Mr MacLeod blows controls the guidance system for his wheelchair.
Mr MacLeod served in the Royal Corps of Signals during the 1939-45 war. He had to give up teaching at Johnstone High School in l958 because of multiple sclerosis. By 1965 he was completed paralysed and was admitted to Erskine Hospital.
George Collins was 23 in 1972 when an army vehicle in which he was patrolling the border between Northern and Southern Ireland was blown up by a 500 pound bomb. He lay in a Belfast hospital for six months sightless, speechless and motionless and was moved to a second hospital before going to Erskine in 1974 where, as he puts it, "I was brought back to life."
He now lives in a cottage at Erskine Hospital with his wife Joy and children Lyndsey (11) and Amanda (9). George, a former Argyll and Sutherland Highlander, works in the hospital workshops.
Erskine has looked after something like 60,000 men and women since 1916. Almost two decades ago I wrote that in the year 2000 when man's ingenuity has pushed back the frontiers of human knowledge and hopefully found cures for some of the world's ills, there will still be sick men and women waiting for a place in Erskine Hospital.
I was right, too. I don't know how far the frontiers have been pushed back but I do know there have been 60 conflicts since the end of the second world war in which British personnel have been involved so there is not likely to be a shortage of patients for a long time to come.