The journey from King’s Cross Station to the National Portrait Gallery

It’s only a short bike ride across London – I do it regularly – going down Gower Street past University College Hospital with the Rayne Institute and Changing Faces on the right in University Street, then on past Bedford Square and down through Seven Dials and St Martin’s Lane. But it’s also a highly symbolic journey for me this evening.

Back in the autumn of 1987, I had already survived the Hurricane which swept through Guernsey taking down 15 huge trees on our farm but leaving all the 70 cattle unscathed… and guided my A Level Economics classes at The Ladies College through the excitement of Black Monday, 19.10.87 when the Dow Jones dropped 22.6% in one day!

But nothing could have prepared me for the aftermath of the King’s Cross Fire that was marked solemnly last Sunday. I remember being stunned that a third huge fire disaster could dominate the headlines – Bradford City football stand fire and the Piper Alpha oil rig were hardly a year past… And the stories of death and severe burns touched me to the core.

But I had much to get on with as I tried to juggle the arduous daily round of dairy farming and teaching with being an active father to our three small children.

A week later, a letter arrived from my good friend, Paddy Downie, an editor at Faber & Faber for whom I had written a chapter in her 1983 physiotherapy textbook. Her news was good in that a new edition had just been commissioned and she’d like me to update my chapter for a small fee – of course! All income willingly accepted in our subsistence mixed economy!

But she added a hand-written footnote: after the ghastly fires, had I thought of trying again to get my book published (I’d tried in the early 80s)? Would I like her to approach Penguin?

And so it happened. By March 1988, I had signed to write a Penguin book! I delivered it after much angst a year later and it appeared in April 1990.

In it, I referred to the very good news that Britain’s first Professor of Plastic Surgery, Gus McGrouther, had been appointed at University College Hospital, funded by the Phoenix Appeal set up by Michael Brough, the surgeon on duty on the night of the King’s Cross fire. Only a few weeks after the book appeared, I received a letter from a Professor! Would I be interested in meeting him and Michael?

And so it was that I found myself in the early summer of 1990 walking into the Rayne Institute in University Street to be part of a TV film being made about burns and their treatment, including the psychological and social effects. And the three of us went for dinner afterwards… It was an important meeting because we talked fervently about what needed to change and develop – medical science, psycho-social care and public attitudes. A three-legged (milking) stool, one of my favourite visual aids, came to mind… Could the Phoenix be the vehicle for raising much-needed funds?

In the years that followed, the chrysalis of the Phoenix metamorphosed into the Healing Foundation and alongside it, emerged Changing Faces which is now based right opposite the Rayne Institute in University Street… the first 20 years of which is being celebrated in the National Portrait Gallery this evening…

It is very apt that we should celebrate amongst portraits. Their creators attempt like surgeons to knit together facial features to convey a person with respect to the world’s eyes. Changing Faces’ goal is so to influence the world’s gaze that scars and asymmetry no longer carry stigma but respect – and, as that’s bound to be a long haul, to empathise and empower in the meantime.

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More and more people with unusual faces in the public eye, please!

Wasn’t it great to see and hear John Sudworth, the BBC’s Shanghai Correspondent, Imageappearing with a unusual-looking face on the TV a few weeks ago? John has contracted Bell’s Palsy so his face has a slightly droopy look which he is understandably rather self-conscious about but which, he decided and his employer agreed, should not prevent him from doing his job… even on TV!

He tells me he has been inundated by support and applause from so many people with a similar condition – which sometimes doesn’t go away as an estimated 40,000 people in the UK can attest to. The BBC website has taken his ‘problem’ seriously and produced a really helpful resource – and Changing Faces has had a chance to publicise our guide to living confidently if you have a facial paralysis.

Listeners and viewers have added their stories and so the whole issue has been brought out of the shadows – John Sudworth, take a bow!

Telling your story can be such a powerful way of passing on your experience and helping others – and challenging the way the wider world sees you. We have recently worked with Web of Stories to enable people to tell their stories online. It only takes 5 minutes to submit your story, visit the Changing Face Channel on Web of Stories to find out more. And if you’d like to see and hear of another person whose lived most of the life with a facial paralysis, you can watch Lisa Woolley here.