Twenty years ago today

Tuesday 26th May 1992 was the day after the May Bank Holiday Monday, a quiet day in the newsrooms of London – and about 10 journalists and the BBC TV News team turned up for a press conference in the Kings Fund Centre in Camden Town to launch a new charity, Changing Faces. The TV news at lunchtime and at 6pm carried the news and that evening a short film by Martin Lucas appeared on ITV’s early evening news digest. The following day all the nationals carried items about the charity: “a new charity has been launched to develop new services to help people with disfigurements from any cause live full and confident lives and to challenge public attitudes”. In one or two, like The Guardian and The Times, there were longer pieces with interviews with the founder and his supporters.

That’s it in a paragraph! But what was it like? I can remember going early into our tiny and ill-equipped office behind Old Street station which I had sub-leased from a friend and leaving about 9.30am to get the tube up to Camden Town. Nervous, anxious to see if anyone would come.

The day was the culmination of about 8 months work since the previous September when I had decided, with my wife’s blessing, to have a go at creating the charity. We had raised a little money, found Trustees, registered with the Charity Commission, found the office and commissioned a PR company to create a launch.

More importantly, the ideas which I was determined to develop with academic evaluation had already been tested in three preliminary workshops – and the feedback had been very good. About 25 people, all with facial disfigurements from a variety of causes, had had the chance to meet each other, to share notes and feelings, to explore how they faced the world and to learn some new skills for doing so. They liked the experience and I had powerful quotes in my papers for the launch.

I also had the close support of an academic psychologist, Dr Nichola Rumsey, whose PhD thesis had become half of the seminal work, ‘The Social Psychology of Facial Appearance’ (Springer Verlag) with Ray Bull a few years earlier. She had endorsed my ideas, outlined in my 1990 Penguin book (Changing Faces: the Challenge of Facial Disfigurement), that people who acquire a disfigurement from any cause needed more help to live in a looks-obsessed culture – which also needed to change its attitudes. That help should not just be surgical and medical but needed to have a strong psycho-social component too which should strengthen their self-esteem and give them the social skills to manage other people’s reactions, thereby building confidence.

So we knew we had a case and there was a huge deficit in what help was available. Public attitudes would take years to shift but maybe… Could we get a new charity off the ground?

The Joan Scott PR team was certain we could – with luck! And we had it, I think, that day. The press release cited Simon Weston, the Falklands soldier, giving his strong support for the charity and seemingly suggested he would be at the press conference. He wasn’t. But we had a strong turn-out: Sir Campbell Adamson, our first Chairman and also Chairman of Abbey National, hosted the event inviting Dr Rumsey, plastic surgeon John Gowar FRCS, and me to speak and take questions. A leading medical journalist from the BBC, Barbara Myers, interviewed me very empathetically and I knew then we were in with a chance.

It was all over in a couple of hours and we all went our separate ways. I went back to my tiny room with a phone, a chair and a make-do desk… and the phone starting ringing… and it didn’t stop for days, weeks, months, years…

I have many many people to be grateful to – thank you all! Changing Faces today is strong, empathetic, determined, passionate about fairness and a voice that is being heard and listened to. And, despite all our efforts, there is so very much still to be done.

Losing Face

I have just finished a rather remarkable novel which is going to be a great addition to the literature about the impact of a disfigurement in adolescence and especially because it provides a teenage girl’s angle – a nice complement to Benjamin Zephaniah’s Face.

Angie Try’s Losing Face hits the bookshops today and I think it should sell well – and should become a must-read on the GCSE reading list too.

The story follows a young woman who gets injured, badly, in a car crash and her friend who has been hurt in other ways. They go through testing times together, finding their own courage and reconciliations – and it’s all done through a very modern genre, speckled with sharp insight and sparkled with humour.

It hits many notes very cleverly (I liked the music theme especially) and, with the writer’s psychology background, she has managed ingeniously to wind in much intelligence – like comments about how clever psychologists are about getting you to talk!

And she’s dealt with some of the key issues in adjustment and recovery after disfigurement very subtly too: the role of close friends, handling internal dialogue and external reactions (especially from little children), family pain relief and much more… and I loved the “I hate visible difference… and facial disfigurement” – such ugly words, we all agree.

There is much here for all readers, not just teenagers… insights about facing adversity, dealing with medics and family strains, facing loss and losing face. I like!

Losing Face, Annie Try, Roundfire Books, ISBN 978-1-78099-119-1, £9.99