Thursday 15 October 2015

Remembering Phoebe M. Rees

The name Gertrude Phoebe Meirion Rees OBE may not be immediately familiar to many people.  Neither would the name Phoebe M. Rees, as she was more commonly known.  But if I were to mention that for more than 60 years there has been a full-length play competition known as ‘The Phoebe Rees’ you might reasonably assume that she is a noteworthy figure in the world of drama and writing.  And you would be correct. 

When recalling eventful or interesting things that have happened in my life, I often wish I had had the foresight to make some notes at the time the experiences were taking place.  The memory is often a very fragile and capricious thing.  Some elements can be recalled with great clarity (though accuracy may sometimes be a little less certain), while others may be completely forgotten.  Regrettably, I made no notes whatsoever on the day when I met Phoebe Rees at her home in (or near) Williton, Somerset (actually in Five Bells, Watchet).

I am certain that the year was 1975.  I was eleven.  I sat with my father at a plain and somehow under-burdened table in a shadowy room.  My attention was taken by what appeared to be a commonplace transistor radio sitting upon the table.  But this was not an ordinary radio.  It was designed to receive the sound from television channels; indeed, it was a television, but without a screen.  We were in the home of a blind lady.

How my father had come to know of this lady, or what circumstances had led to us being welcomed into her home, I cannot recall.  But here we were. 

Across the width of the room was a window through which only the most subdued of light was able to enter.  The area outside the window was overgrown with burgeoning foliage, but its greenery somehow softened the gloom.  Adjacent to the window was a work surface upon which rested an ageing manual typewriter. 

Somewhere between the dim window and the table at which my father and I were perched was the seated figure of an elderly woman.  This was Phoebe Rees.  It was difficult to make out any details of her appearance in the gloom, and her face was further obscured by a pair of large dark glasses.  Some lost rays from the window alighted upon her full and silvery hair, and as she turned her head it was possible to make out a slightly weeping closed eye.

As an immature eleven-year-old I found Phoebe’s image a little unsettling, but not frightening.  She certainly gave an impression of being rather ethereal, of being not quite of this world – qualities no doubt exaggerated by the unlit uncertainty of the room.  But she was, nonetheless, friendly and very open to answering any questions that I might have for her, however indelicate or outlandish.

So, what was it about Phoebe Rees that might have invited such intoxicated questions from a young boy?  Well, prior to meeting her I was aware that she was a playwright, and I had had the opportunity to read one of her plays.  Until recently I had been unable recall the title, but I now know that it was The White Dove of Bardon.  It was an historical supernatural tale which made reference to a local house on Tower Hill – and I lived at an address in Tower Hill!  (But the memory cheats; White Dove actually makes no reference to a house on Tower Hill at all, but to Tower Hill, London!) 

I had been told that Phoebe had a certain supernatural or spiritual sensitivity, that when her writing made mention of ghosts or spirits she was sometimes writing with the benefit of personal experience.  White Dove was certainly a ghostly tale, though it is hard to see how this particular play could have been inspired by her own experience; the clear inspiration is a fascination with history, both local and national.

So out poured my questions about ghosts, about how she was able to continue writing if she was blind, and so on.  The question about writing was easily answered.  She had learnt to touch-type when much younger and sighted, and with the skill being so well developed, typing with accuracy was no challenge to her as long as her fingers started on the ‘home keys’.  But when it came to ghosts or spirits, it was as if the transparency of her words became mislaid in the intangible character of her presence and the darker niches of an overcast room.

I was under the impression that her ‘spiritual sensitivity’ was something that had developed following the onset of blindness, but it is clear from the corpus of Phoebe’s work that supernatural themes were present in some of her plays while she was still sighted.  Perhaps she had became more ‘spiritually sensitive’ after she had lost her sight, or maybe an existing interest had guided interpretation of her experiences unseeing.  Both my memory and speculation fail to produce any answer.

Undeterred by Phoebe’s opacity, I began to offer my own ideas, some of them drawn from the language of science – or rather the pseudo-science of popular science fiction – rather than from the language of the paranormal or spiritual.  She listened patiently, but in the end what seemed to matter to Phoebe was experience rather than explanation.  To quote the character of William Leigh in The White Dove of Bardon,
I can offer you no scientific proof […].  Such things are matters of a deep, inner, spiritual experience which can be described but which cannot be shared.  
Did it matter whether the phenomena she experienced were the ghosts of the deceased? Some other kind of ‘spiritual beings’? Or something else entirely?  What was important was that these experiences were meaningful to her and that they informed some of her writing. 

So were Phoebe’s spectral experiences real?  Yes!  At the very least they were real because they had a real effect on the world through her writing.  Beyond that, who can judge the privileged experiences of another person? 

And so, in due course, my meeting with Phoebe Rees came to an end.  She gave me a slim volume in a plain pale blue cover.  It was a copy of her play Tell Mother – The Butterflies, one of her more recent plays with some supernatural content.  I took it home and enjoyed it, just as I had enjoyed White Dove.  But what endures most is the knowledge that I had the good fortune to meet such a unique, talented and affecting person.

Some of Phoebe M. Rees’ Works
in alphabetical order

The Answer. (1956). London: J Garnet Miller.

Blinds Up. (1939). London: T Nelson.
Note: A ‘modern drama’.

Breaking The Barrier. (1983). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

The Dream. (1963). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

Hide And Seek. (1937). London: H F W Deane & Sons.

Idols. (1937). London: J B Pinker & Son.

Incorruptible, or the First Dictator. (1935). London: J Garnet Miller.
Note: An historical comedy drama with chorus!

The Last Straw. (1947). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: A ‘farcical comedy’. About country life.

Marriages Are Made In Heaven. (1946). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).
Note: Television version produced by Westward TV (ITV), circa 1968-69.

The May Tree. (1939).
Notes: A supernatural radio play based on A College Mystery by A P Baker.   
Radio play broadcast on the BBC Regional Programme (Western), 11 April 1939.

The Miraculous Year, or Dorothy Wordsworth In Somerset. (1971). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

Mix-Up-Atosis. (1955). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: Comedy.

The New Jerusalem. (1966). London: J Garnet Miller.
Note: About Glastonbury legends.

Pushion and Pests (Rats). (1938).  London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: Comedy.

Rats. (1936).  London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Notes: Comedy. About country life.

Sanctuary. (1934). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Notes: Historical. About a plot to assassinate Napoleon.

Second Wedding. (1940). London: T Nelson.

The Summons. (n.d.). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

TV Thriller. (1959). London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Note: A ‘burlesque comedy’.

Tell Mother - The Butterflies. (1969). Watchet: Rees.
Notes: Supernatural. Story suggested by some events recounted in the book Things I Cannot Explain by Margaret Gordon Moore.

That Freedom. (1962). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).

That There Dog. (1931).  London: H F W Deane & Sons.
Notes: Comedy. Was given radio broadcast under title Thic Thare Dawg, BBC 5WA Cardiff, 18 June 1931.

Time Is Money. (1958).
Notes: Prose. Broadcast as a Morning Story on the BBC Light Programme, 9 January 1958.

The Trumpet Shall Sound. (1947). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).
Note: About Saul of Tarsus.

White Dove Of Bardon. (1951). London: Steele's Play Bureau (J Garnet Miller).
Notes: Historical, supernatural.  An earlier version (shorter than the published stage version) was produced by Owen Reed and broadcast on the BBC Home Service, 12 July 1948. A second radio production by Brandon Action-Bond was broadcast on the BBC Home Service, 17 October 1956.

Further Reading/Reference Materials

Allen, S. (2013, September). The Phoebe Rees life story. Spotlight: The magazine of the Somerset Fellowship of Drama, p. 6. Retrieved from

Chidgey, M. & J. (2003). The book of Stogumber, Monksilver, Nettlecombe & Elworthy. Wellington, Som.: Halsgrove.

Pardoe, R. (2005, September). A P Baker and A College Mystery. The ghosts & scholars M R James newsletter, 8. Retrieved from

Phoebe plays in Minehead... fifty years ago.  (2013, December). Spotlight: The magazine of the Somerset Fellowship of Drama, p. 12. Retrieved from

Phoebe Rees listings on BBC Genome. (n.d.). Retrieved from


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5

For more information visit

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Aspiring to Freedom: 
The Promise of a Sweet Word

Sometimes there are words that reach across the years which still have the power to move. Often, if those words are accompanied by a melody, they can more easily embed themselves in the unconscious, but when prompted by an external event or an inner emotion they can rise up to the surface again.

An ‘earworm’ is a catchy musical phrase which continuously repeats in the mind long after it has stopped playing. But ‘earworm’ does not adequately describe what I’m writing about now. This is something more than that. This is a musical and lyrical phrase that bubbles up from deep in the past to come alive again in the present. What is more, that phrase prompts recall of the whole message.

Around 20 to 25 years ago, when I was still a relatively young man, I was a keen follower of the band Fat and Frantic. You may not have heard of them, but they had a large and very loyal cult following in the UK; large enough to ensure that many of their concerts sold out, large enough to propel them onto radio and TV – but not quite large enough to break their music into the mainstream charts.

Among the band’s eclectic mix of novelty, jazz-flavoured pop, gospel and ‘piffle’ (punk-skiffle) were a number of songs on the theme of social justice. You could call them protest songs. One of these was ‘Freedom is a Sweet Word’ (written by Fat and Frantic vocalist and trumpet-player Jim Harris). It is this particular song that winds its way through the years (it was first released in 1987) to circulate around my consciousness today.

Anyone who has followed my intermittent blog will know that I am particularly concerned with gaining recognition for past injustices in children’s and adolescents’ mental healthcare settings. But I also have a wider concern for justice in general. I can’t help but find myself angry on behalf of those belittled and dis-empowered within our society on whatever grounds. People can – in effect – be disabled by our society and its institutions for a whole swathe of reasons. These reasons can, of course, include mental health problems – but they also include class, ethnicity, sexuality, physical health problems, religious affiliation, and so on. 

‘Freedom is a Sweet Word’ reflects back to me, and puts into clear and concise words. some of my own thoughts and feelings on this broad subject. The song has nothing to do with mental health as such, but it resonates with what I have witnessed and experienced in a mental healthcare setting. It speaks of those who limit the freedom of others because they are fortunate enough to be ‘Barclaycard carrying members of the free’, because they have the power to exercise ‘freedom without justice’. These are the people with the means (symbolised by the Barclaycard) who can dominate and control those who are denied – or who have lost – the means. These ‘members of the free’ can absolve themselves of any responsibility towards the less free; in fact, they gain their freedom from the less free. This is because those without means are labelled as failing to use their freedom as ‘constructively’ as those with the Barclaycards.

It is certainly the case that if you were ever a child in a psychiatric institution you will know what it was like to have your freedom limited by those ‘Barclaycard carrying members of the free’. These ‘members of the free’ were the adults who made the decisions, the people with the means – doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. Some of them may have exercised their means properly and responsibly, while others may have abused their means. Together, however, they gave the institution they served power: the institution had all the power; you had none.

The difficulty with not having means and power – not having that Barclaycard, so to speak – is that it’s very difficult to claw your way up from whatever belittled or dis-empowered state you are in. But as the song says, that freedom ‘shines and glistens like a star’, and so it is still something to aspire to. Furthermore, not everyone exercises ‘freedom without justice’; there are some who know both freedom and justice, and that is why I can hear that song playing in my head and find hope in it.

Freedom is a Sweet Word’ by Fat and Frantic is released by Classic Fox Records / I'll Call You Records

Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5

For more information visit

Saturday 16 March 2013

Some Words in Praise of the NHS
  and the Gift of Choice

At time of writing there has been widely reported ‘bad news’ in the British press and broadcast media concerning the NHS (National Health Service). A government adviser has pointed out that there have been 20,000 avoidable deaths in certain poorly performing hospitals over the last decade. Needless to say, this is scandalous. But my intention here is not to condemn the NHS, despite some very serious failings in some areas of the country.

Those who have read some of my previous blog entries will know that I have often touched upon a particular issue that, by implication, incorporates criticism of the NHS. That issue is the historic abuse or inappropriate treatment of people – especially children and young people – within mental healthcare settings (and one setting in particular).

Indeed, as a result of my book Delivered Unto Lions I occasionally hear from people with their own horror stories related to past mental health treatment within the NHS. And I am also aware of one or two horror stories relating to recent or current treatment. It should be emphasised, however, that such things are not confined to the NHS. Bad things happen in the private healthcare sector too. And in any case, I’ve also heard of examples of excellent mental health treatment within the NHS.

Negative attitudes and maltreatment in mental health settings were, of course, deeply entrenched long before the creation of the NHS – if anything, such things have improved (though not nearly enough) since the 1940s when British government minister Aneurin Bevan set in motion the events that led to the creation of this system of healthcare.

One of Bevan’s assumptions was that free healthcare available to all (funded through taxation) would lead to (a) an improvement in the health of the nation, which would in turn lead to (b) the NHS being able to ‘pay for itself’ as better health led to a more efficient economy (healthy workers better contributing to a healthy economy). Needless to say, this didn’t quite happen. The health of the nation certainly improved, but the NHS did not ‘pay for itself’ – as Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a columnist for The Guardian, recently pointed out.

But whatever deficiencies may exist within the NHS, I want to say something positive about my own recent experience of treatment. This experience has included the very welcome opportunity making my own choice with regard to treatment. This isn’t a completely positive story, but it is a substantially positive story.

One of the reasons why I’ve been silent on my blog during the early part of this year is because I was given some unexpected news on the final day of last year.

On 31 December 2012 I had an appointment with a urology consultant at Worthing Hospital in West Sussex. I was expecting some ‘inconvenient’ news, but not anything especially bad. However, the consultant told me that I had cancer. It was prostate cancer. At the time I was surprised rather than shocked – not having yet hit 50 I thought I was a bit too youthful for that sort of thing! The fact that I didn’t react with panic on that occasion may have something to do with the consultant’s rather quaint and reassuring turn of phrase. That’s a good thing!

Over the following weeks I had various scans and tests before learning that my best option was surgery, which in this case meant radical prostatectomy (surgical removal of the prostate).

Less than a month after I was given my cancer diagnosis I met my prospective surgeon. He carefully described the procedure and what I should expect in terms of recovery, and then he patiently answered all my questions.

Since the beginning of this year, every one of the staff members I’ve encountered at Worthing Hospital – consultants, registrar, surgeon, specialist urology nurse, other nurses, counsellor, etc. – has treated me with professionalism and courtesy. I have experienced care of the highest standard.

Unfortunately, the surgery I need is not undertaken at Worthing. I was told I would have to go to another hospital, some 50 miles away, for the actual procedure. I won’t name the hospital where the surgery was to take place because it does not come up to the same high standard I’ve witnessed at Worthing (I’ve already said that this is a substantially positive story, not a completely positive one).

I attended a preoperative assessment at the hospital in question. I won’t go into too many of the unpleasant or off-putting details, but I will just say that I never expected to be sent home with a blank consent form to sign! (That’s the yellow CON 1 form for anyone who’s interested.) Needless to say, I came away determined that I would not sign away my consent on a form which had not been filled in. In fact, I was determined not to be operated on at that particular hospital.

The following day I did a bit of hasty research (clearly this is something that I should have done earlier!) and identified another hospital and surgeon, both with excellent reputations (not that I had any objection to my original surgeon). I then tried to see if my own GP (General Practitioner) would be willing to refer me to the hospital and surgeon of my choice. That referral has now been made with no difficulty whatsoever.

At present this story doesn’t have an end. But it does have a message. The NHS provides free treatment to UK citizens at the point of delivery. In many countries a cancer patient would be reliant on private insurance to pay for a radical prostatectomy. With the best surgeons at the best hospitals charging thousands more than their less experienced and less well-regarded counterparts, it’s easy to see where many insurance providers would steer their policy holders.

Like any very large institution, the NHS it has its dark corners. But there is also light. This will be no comfort for those who have not received the best treatment, those who have lost loved ones to poor treatment, and especially to those who have done so without realising there was a possibility of choice (at least in some cases). But for those yet to need treatment, this could well be an encouragement.

While my operation will now be delayed a little – due to my ‘eleventh hour’ exercise of choice – I now know that I will undergo the procedure at a centre of excellence performed by one of the best surgeons. This is a true privilege for which I am very grateful.

Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5

For more information visit

Thursday 20 December 2012

Stepping into Rivers

To say that everything changes would hardly be an original comment. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (circa 535-475 BC) supposedly said, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ He also said much the same thing in another way: ‘Everything flows, nothing stands still.’

One of the biggest concerns and controversies of our time is the issue of climate change. As I understand it, there is an almost universal concensus among scientists (in the relevant fields) that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity – the burning of fossel fuels to bring much needed energy to our modern human societies is leading to massive environmental destruction brought about by ‘global warming’.

There are, of course, those who deny this, those who simply do not believe what the majority of climate change scientists tell us. Many of these people are willing to accept that climate change is indeed taking place, but they deny that it has a human cause. After all, some of them say, our planet has a history of climate change dating back long before human beings walked the earth.

I started this piece by quoting a philosopher, and I’m very tempted to carry on in a philosophical vein by talking about a branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’ (that’s a good word to slip into any conversation!). Epistemology is to do with the theory of knowledge. It asks, How do we know what we know? For those of us who are convinced that climate change is indeed caused by human beings, the obvious question is, How do we know? The same question applies to those of us who are just as convinced that climate change does not have a human cause. How do we know?

If you are a scientist who specialises in climage change, you can make careful observations, compare them, and then try to develop a theory. You can then test that theory by making further observations to see if there’s anything happening that might prove it wrong. But if you continue to observe the same patterns repeatedly with no exceptions (if you establish an ‘empirical regularity’), then you can be pretty sure that your theory is right.

But, there is a problem. Did you do all this work on your own? Did you conduct all the observations yourself? Did you do all the analysis of these observations yourself? Or did you have to rely to some extent on work undertaken by other scientists or technicians, work that you weren’t in a position to supervise personally? If it’s the latter, then you only know what you know because you are convinced by the work of other people. And that is the same for all of us. In most cases, we only know what we know because we are convinced by what other people have told us. We are not always (or even usually) able to test things out for ourselves.

For what it’s worth, I am convinced that the changes currently taking place in the world’s climate are indeed a reality and that human behaviour is responsible. But how do I know? That fact is, I don’t know, I’m just sufficiently persuaded to accept what a particular kind of authoritative figure tells me. (I also think it’s not worth taking a chance over something so potentially catastrophic.) For someone who denies climate change, the situation is pretty much the same. The denier doesn’t actually know that climate change is false, he or she just happens to be persuaded by the arguments of a different kind of authoritative figure.

But, as Hereclitus said, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Hereclitus knew this (I assume) because he had experienced or observed it (or something similar) for himself. ‘And this I knew experimentally,’ said the seventeenth century figure George Fox. He was speaking of personal religious ‘revelation’ (not the sort of thing you can prove to anyone else), and he knew what he knew ‘experimentally’. Like Hereclitus (so I assume), Fox was convinced by something because he had experienced or observed it for himself; he was not convinced because someone else had told him what to believe.

In fact, we all know about change ‘experimentally’ (or so I’m told!). We may not know very much about climate change – apart from seasonal variations – but we do know about change in general. Change happens. It’s reliable. We know this experimentally.

Given the often difficult subject matter I try to address in my writing, I find it very encouraging that the one thing that we can all rely on is change: some things may deteriorate and get worse, but there are many things that can develop and improve.

Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5

For more information visit