‘THERE are days when I struggle with the tears and heartbreak and there are moments, such as packing away the Christmas decorations when I wonder if this could be the last time I’ll see them . . . but then I think I’ve got to give the best I’ve got, I’ve got cancer but it doesn’t have to rule my life – and what would Elsie do?”
Angie Townsend is matter-of-factly describing her life living with terminal cancer. She doesn’t look like a woman whose life is ebbing away.
Her red hair is perhaps not as vibrant as it once was, and is definitely shorter as a consequence of chemotherapy, but vitality seems to shine from her face.
Yet the 48-year-old professional storyteller’s world crumbled when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and told it had already spread to her liver, ruling out any chance of a recovery. Back in 2012 she was told she might, if she was “average”, have between two to three years left to live if the heavy bouts of chemo did what they should. “So I’m two-and-a-half years on and I’m still going but I know it’s borrowed time now,” she says. “But I’ve got to keep going, at least until after February 7 when I’ll get to tell Elsie’s story. Let me do that, afterwards doesn’t matter.”
Angie, who is mum to two daughters, Bethan, 15 and Ceri-Anne, 12, may not have a bucket list and says she has no desire to sky-dive, but she has one dream: to get on stage at the Scottish Storytelling Centre one last time and tell the real-life tale of one of Edinburgh’s heroes: Dr Elsie Inglis. Clasping Margot Lawrence’s biography of Inglis, Shadow of Swords, as if it were a religious text, she says: “I’ve got to make sure I do it, but trying to get her story into 90 minutes has been a real labour of love, and incredibly difficult with a chemo brain, but her story is so important and I feel she has been a real help to me.
“I really knew nothing about her except that there used to be a maternity hospital named after her which is really quite shocking when you know of what she did in her life.
“My friend Nicola Wright and I were asked by East Lothian Museums back in 2010 to put together a storytelling piece about suffragists, and I didn’t know of any local ones until someone suggested I read this book and I was just blown away by her – she was a suffragette, a doctor and then she went to war – when I got to the part where she was told ‘my good lady go home and sit still’ I couldn’t put it down I just wanted to know what she did next.”
From that point on Angie’s obsession with Inglis grew. She began talking about her to women’s groups and in schools.
“They would sit not believing their ears, some would even cry and tell me they’d never known what she went through and how remarkable she was. Then came the idea of telling her story here.”
She glances around the cafe of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which was once home to John Knox, who would no doubt turn in his grave at the very idea of someone like Inglis.
“But then I was diagnosed with cancer and everything changed.” Angie is a well-kent name in historical storytelling circles and in Musselburgh where she leads “fact or fiction?” walks and takes children’s writing groups, but also in the music business.
She’s also been a singer/songwriter in the past and her Scottish rock group, Seeing Red, recently reformed and began work on new material.
“But my cancer made me want to write and record different songs so I’ve been doing that as well – that will be my legacy to my daughters. It is heavily influenced by cancer and how we deal with it because I do think it’s something that even now many people find hard to come to terms with, especially to talk to people who have it.
“I’ve just been very unlucky. My cancer spread before I even knew I had it. I had been feeling run down, but that happens when I’m working a lot, and I’d had blood tests at the GP which showed nothing. But then I discovered a lump under my left arm and they found it was in my lymph nodes.
“I had a full scan and that’s when it was discovered to be on my liver already. It was absolutely heartbreaking. But I thought I can either sit at home and wallow in self pity or you do an Elsie.
“I had at least two years and I had things to do.”
However the “things” have had, at times, to be put to one side as three bouts of chemotherapy took their toll.
“My first lot of chemo was really hard, and one morning I picked the book [Shadow of Swords] up and held it tight and thought ‘look at all the things Elsie Inglis had to face and she just got on with it’, and I thought ‘so can I’. It really picked me up. I thought ‘I can’t give up on her because she wouldn’t have given up’. I have to live with cancer but it doesn’t have to rule my life.
“What I’m going through is a walk in the park compared to what she faced. She was 50 when she went to Serbia to help the troops and she herself had a ‘malignant’ as she called it, so she probably had cancer too though it wasn’t what killed her.
“So many people in the book say ‘I’ve never met anyone like her’ yet she was a woman who seemed to have no ego. She wasn’t a woman with a political family, she had no real influence, yet what she achieved was amazing.”
So Angie’s last gig on February 7 will see her rattle through Elsie’s life story, accompanied by Nicola Wright and Lee Taylor, at times dressed as her heroine in Victorian costume “and I found a Russian First World War jacket in Armstrong’s which I’ll be wearing,” she smiles. “After this I won’t be doing any more work, I just can’t do the research and that breaks my heart because I love it so much and I’ve worked so hard to get recognition as a historical storyteller.
“But I don’t want to say yes to things and then have to let people down.
“My last lot of chemo took my legs away from me, I just couldn’t move them so I had to cancel a gig.
“I need to spend time with my girls, my partner Chris and with my friends. I’ve been open and honest with my daughters from the start about what’s happening and we are able to have a good cry now and again. I’ve got some fluid on my lungs now so I’m waiting to see if that’s the cancer too or just fluid.
“But I’m fighting cancer with life. Chris has found it difficult but since we’ve been in touch with Macmillan nurses they’ve been a wonderful support. I’ve just got to make sure that my kids and friends are OK, that the album is finished for them, that I do this for Elsie.
“In Serbia she’s a hero, she should be here too.
“I’m going to keep fighting to get her story out there. It’s a story of strength, hope, determination, the belief that we can achieve – it would make a brilliant film, I think I’ll write to Meryl Streep.”
• The Story of Elsie Inglis is on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Royal Mile, on February 7 at 3pm. Tickets are £6/£4. Call 0131-556 9579 for further information.
Considered as a saint by the Serbians
SERBS said of her that “Scotland made her a doctor, but Serbia made her a saint”.
Elsie Maud Inglis was born in India where her father was serving in the Civil Service. The family first moved to Tasmania then to Edinburgh. Her mother died but, encouraged by her father, she decided to be a doctor.
Inspired by Sophia Jex-Blake who ran the Edinburgh School for Women, she began her studies, though she ultimately founded her own medical college – the Second Medical School for Women – which was devoted to helping women and children in the slums of Edinburgh.
She completed her training at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and went on to work at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s pioneering hospital for women in London and a leading maternity hospital in Dublin. Appalled at the lack of maternity facilities and the prejudice against female doctors by their male colleagues, in 1901 Elsie founded a maternity hospital in Abbeyhill staffed entirely by women.
When war broke up she wanted to help, so walked and bicycled all over Scotland giving lectures and in 1914 raised £25,000 within a month and offered her Scottish field hospital, “manned” by all-female teams to the War Office.
She was taken aback and annoyed by their response: “Go and sit quietly at home, dear lady,” they told her. Instead, she offered her services elsewhere and, when the Red Cross appealed for medical aid for Serbia, she went. Serbia’s army was in retreat, medical services had broken down and typhus raged.
Elsie tried to improve public hygiene – she was appalled at the open drains and contaminated water supply. The Austrian army advanced and Elsie’s military hospital fell into their hands, but she refused to leave her Serb patients and went into captivity with them.
She was repatriated, but formed a Scottish Women’s Hospital unit to serve in Odessa to care for the Serbs, who were now part of the Russian Army. It was due to her 13,000 Serbian soldiers were saved by Allied forces when she refused to leave them.
She died from cancer the day after returning to Britain in 1917 and thousands lined Princes Street for her funeral.