Maggie was the first. I met her in February 1981. I was working for a UK company that manufactured synthetic fibres. There was at the time something called The Multi-Fibre Agreement, an international trade deal that restricted the ability of developing nations to export cheap fibres into Europe. It was due for renegotiation and employees of the company were naturally worried about the possible impact on their jobs. Several of us wrote to our MPs seeking support for a deal that would protect our company's position in international markets.
In a footnote to his reply the MP for Cleethorpes mentioned a meeting taking place to protest about the re-development of the old swimming pool as a modern leisure centre. I decided to go to the meeting and find out what it was all about. Although the Conservative MP had called the meeting none of the Conservative councillors bothered to attend. All 5 members of the minority Liberal Party group did attend. Their leader did his best to explain the thinking behind the scheme and to allay some of the concerns being expressed by those whose homes were close to the site of the planned development.
I had wanted to join the Liberal Party for some time and took the chance to button-hole one of the councillors after the meeting. A tall lady with dark hair and a friendly manner she introduced herself as Maggie Smith and invited me to join her and most of the others at the Liberal Club in the town. There I met her husband Brian and Norman, the leader of the group, who had so impressed me with the clarity of his explanations at the meeting.
Over the next ten years we all became close friends as well as party colleagues. Maggie acted as agent at the 1983 general election. As a member of her team I saw how hard she worked - I had already seen the extraordinary amount of effort she expended on behalf of the people she represented in a ward that consisted of a mixture of private and social housing. In 1987 our roles were reversed; I was agent, drawing heavily on her experience. By then I was also a Councillor at both County and District levels.
Throughout this period we socialised, usually at the Liberal Club where all of us also worked as volunteer bar persons as well as mucking in when the Club moved premises and a great deal of building alterations and decorating was required. We went on two or three holidays to Germany together where we were entertained by members of the FDP (German Liberals) in Cleethorpes' twin town of Konigswinter.
By 1991 changes in my career path necessitated a move away from Cleethorpes but we remained in touch. A large group, including Maggie, Brian, Norman and his wife, paid a surprise visit to our new home to celebrate my 50th birthday. It was not so long after that we had a phone call to say that Maggie was in hospital in Lincoln.
Cancer Took Them
We visited her there and were shocked to see her condition. Barely able to breathe, let alone speak, she kept apologising - for not being able to entertain us I suppose. Within days she was gone and we were joining the hundreds who attended her funeral. It was there that Maggie's sister-in-law told us that Maggie had been in pain for many months but had refused to see her doctor, perhaps in fear of the diagnosis - who knows. By the time she did it was too late; the disease had taken hold and would not be denied.
If Maggie was the first friend to be taken by cancer she was not the first in our circle. Ann was barely in her thirties. The daughter of another of the Liberal Party circle in Cleethorpes she had already lost her father to the disease and her mother had, thankfully, recovered from breast cancer. Her husband was a teacher at my son's school but soon after we got to know them they moved to Norfolk. The form of breast cancer that attacked Ann must have been much more aggressive than that suffered by her mother for she died at a tragically young age.
A few years after Maggie's death we heard that Norman was undergoing treatment for bowel cancer. He recovered, or so we thought. The last time we saw him he was full of enthusiasm for the latest plans for development of a neglected part of the sea-front, something that he had been struggling to achieve for many years. Now, it seemed, there was hope that something positive was going to happen. He showed us the plans and explained how it would be a great boost to Cleethorpes' ability to attract visitors.
The remission did not last long enough for him to see the plans brought to fruition; he was dead within weeks of that last visit. I could go on with this list; Norman's sister, several family members who I won't name and ending with a lady from Portlaoise who I knew from her work with Tidy Towns and whose death a week ago prompted this reminiscence.
Support is Vital
I think I have said enough to make clear why I try to do what little I can for cancer charities. It is a horrible disease and, whilst survival rates are improving all the time, it seems that one in every two men and one in every three women will develop cancer at some point in their lives. The work of those who support patients and their families in places like the Cuisle Centre in Portlaoise as well as researchers developing new treatments is vital if premature and painful deaths like Maggie's are to be prevented in future.