This weeks Observer Review contains an interview (below) with Mikey Argy (above) to link up with the release of Attacking the Devil, a movie about the thalidomide story. The photo of Mikey here doesn’t show what the photo in the print edition shows.
Almost two years ago RxISK featured the thalidomiders behind this movie in Thalidomide: From Disaster to Recovery. This post included the following:
To be in the company of Thalidomiders is to be seduced, transfixed, manipulated and generally aware that you are in presence of a life force.
They are no angels. They make mistakes in relationships, are likely petty and difficult to live with in lots of ways but in their company you see exuberance and wisdom rather than damaged goods. You see that being human is about more than having the right shaped body or the latest accessory.
In the interview below Katie Kellaway brings out that Mikey has politicians eating out of her hand. She opens the door to a wonderful comment about carrying five coffee cups as well that is absolutely typical of Mikey. What KK doesn’t bring out is how extraordinarily attractive (seductive) Mikey is. There is a reason why politicians are eating out of her hand – and likely not just the men.
This is true of many of the thalidomiders, male and female. They have a way transcending not just their own limitations but ours also and revealing things about the human spirit that the rest of life conceals.
To some extent this is true of all the people who grapple with serious adverse effects from drugs. The challenge is to become a SSRIder or Statinider – someone who can rise above a horror. Not everyone can be a Nelson Mandela but there is a greater concentration of Nelson Mandelas among thalidomiders than there is a among any other marginalized group on earth and perhaps in history. This may be because they were forced into a community (to be musketeers). But everyone with a serious adverse event gets brushed by whatever it was that touched the thalidomiders.
What is the main message of new documentary Attacking the Devil, about Harold Evans’s Sunday Times campaign to win compensation for thalidomide families?
It is that one person can make a difference – I get goosebumps thinking about it. When you meet Harold Evans, you can’t believe he’s 87. His mind is so sharp. Many people would like to do the right thing but don’t know how to do it. He knows what the right thing is and how to go about it. But at first nobody knew what to do about thalidomide.
Was there denial from Distillers, the pharmaceutical company that sold thalidomide in the UK?
They knew what they’d done but it was financially expedient to blame the parents.
Did your mother blame herself for taking the drug?
All mothers feel responsible. She blamed herself yet knew it wasn’t her fault. My little brother had been given cough medicine containing thalidomide to help him sleep. My mother was pregnant with me and wasn’t sleeping. The doctor said: why don’t you take that stuff your son is taking? She finished the bottle – there wasn’t much in it. It was December, 1961. When my father went to the chemist to get more, the chemist said: “Sorry, we don’t stock that, it’s just been removed from the shelves.”
So did your mother talk about what happened?
My mother left home when I was four. She had a nervous breakdown. I was brought up by my father. My father said my mother would come back to us. She came back to England [she had gone to Australia] when I was 15. I was aware of the case against the pharmaceutical company because I had to be assessed. I hated being made to wear a shower cap by Dad for photographs. I had to keep my hair off my shoulders so they could see as much damage as possible.
What was your parents’ attitude towards the first (meagre) compensation?
My father sent money to my mother in Australia. My relatives questioned whether she should have it but I was aware my mother had gone through the trauma – it was right she have the money. She should have had more.
Thalidomiders are known as a supportive community…
In 1962, the Thalidomide Society was set up. At 15, I went to one of their parties with my father, who died of a heart problem soon afterwards. The following year, there was a weekend get-together in a hotel. When we came down to breakfast, many parents were slumped over the table – they hadn’t made it to bed! We had great times growing up: there was such relief in not having to explain yourself.
You are a single mother of teenagers. What is their take on thalidomide?
I’m just their mum. But recently, a trustee of the Thalidomide Trust who has heard me briefing MPs in Westminster told my older daughter that I was really good at what I do. What was nice was that this had nothing to do with having short arms.
You are involved in a new campaign to get money from the German government?
During the criminal trial (1968-1970) against the manufacturers of thalidomide, the German government brought about the trial’s early termination. Because evidence was never heard, we were unable to prove criminal negligence in the UK trial and settled out of court.
How have you assessed thalidomiders’ living costs?
Forty thalidomiders noted all the times they ordered takeaways because they were too tired to cook, took taxis because they were too exhausted to drive, the cost of wheelchairs – even the purchasing of prepared vegetables. Our health needs work out at about £42,000 a year, per head.
How have you earned a living?
I trained as a computer programmer. But when I went for interviews in the 80s, I was turned away. They said I couldn’t type (I could). I didn’t know how to fight. I didn’t have much of a relationship with my mother. I was out in the world on my own. I worked for a job centre off the Edgware Road and, later, for Westminster City council. In every temp job I did, I got invited to stay.
The film’s saddest fact is that so many parents rejected their babies…
Doctors advised parents to put children in homes. One child was brought up in a well-to-do family yet raised in a separate wing. I don’t blame those parents. I hope they now have relationships with their children.
Have you felt bitter?
Not bitter but frustrated when I can’t do stuff. I’ve been angry: why me? But then I can’t be bothered because I’m enjoying a cuppa or there’s something funny on TV.
The film reveals that thalidomide was developed in Nazi concentration camps as an antidote to nerve gas. Were you shocked by this?
It makes you go still. I’m Jewish. I remember going home on the train when I learnt of this and crying. I wasn’t shocked, I was disappointed.
Is there a risk of your life being defined by thalidomide?
You live the story of thalidomide when you campaign. When parliament is in recess, you go back to normal. Other people define you. A woman I worked with stopped me to say: “You’re amazing”. I was only walking down the blinking corridor! If she’d seen me walking back, holding five cups of coffee – now that was clever.
All kinds of Christian activists – John Wesley, William Booth – have claimed for several centuries that the Devil has all the best tunes but that this need not be the case. This became a twentieth century establishment theme with the emergence of jazz, rhythm and blues and rock. Whether the new music was actually better than Bach it came with a patina of Cool that the establishment never has.
It feels all wrong to me to talk of the thalidomiders as good guys as in the good guys Against the Devil. What feels right though would be to call them Cool. Probably the most Cool bunch of people I have ever met. Compared with which Chemie-Grunenthal are as close to the extreme opposite to Cool as it is possible to get.