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Features

Strife after death

Kester Brewin

The terminal cancer prognosis was grim enough - then Nic Hughes' life insurers refused to pay out to his family. Yet as his friend Kester Brewin discovered, when love and protest are amplified across a hyper-connected media, miracles can happen.

Strife After Death 2

Is there life after death? This was a question that has haunted me, walked alongside me and insisted on accompanying me for the past 18 months. Back in the winter of early 2012 a great friend found out that he had terminal cancer. Nic Hughes and I had, with others, founded and for 10 years run the experimental collective 'Vaux.' We had thus engaged in rich conversations about art, theology, design, literature and culture over more evenings and late nights than it would be sensible to try to recall. He, more than any other, had sharpened my theological thinking and then encouraged me to get busy with this new blade and start cutting. Both sons of vicars, we shared an ecclesiastic inheritance that required reshaping, coupled with a spirit of active engagement believing that, with the tools of graphic design, powerful music and radical liturgy, reshaping was possible.

And now here were a series of tumours that would not be reshaped. No knife could remove them, no laser, no matter how tightly focused nor how smartly used, could cut round them. Here was death, immanent and immovable, overpowering the horizon, an insistent and questioning darkness.

 

PRAY FOR A PRAYER

Could there be life after? Nic had always refused facile theological comforts. Not for him the easy leap to a heaven above. Who could know? Better, he believed, to build it here. God was a mysterious friend, close at times but enigmatic; perhaps imaginary but no less helpful for that. He was a fan of Jacques Derrida's idea of 'haunting' - God as an 'event' that embraced possibility of the surprise of the future and made the present tremble, spooking it, offering a beneficial instability. Nic had explored these ideas in his academic work on graphic design, but now we talked into a different sphere, about whether we should pray for a miracle. 'Pray for a prayer,' he would say, smiling, adding that unless the miraculous could happen life lacked some spark of true liberty. Miracles, we decided, were simply moments when our clockwork universe acted free of its own tight-sprung mechanisms.

Sadly the clock was always ticking and in October of 2012 Nic died, leaving a wife and twins aged eight.

He wrote: 'We cannot sustain the illusion of our self-sufficiency. We are all subject to decay, old age and death, to disappointment, loss and disease. We are all engaged in a futile struggle to maintain ourselves in our own image. The crises in our lives inevitably reveal how impossible our attempts to control our destinies really are. Cancer is vicious. Its reach is long. It stretches way beyond the limits of body - beyond the firewall of the skin. As a "destroyer of worlds", it extends and irrevocably marks those close to you too. They become collateral damage.'1

Could there be life after this death? Nic was healthily agnostic about another life for himself, but utterly committed to doing all he could to ensure that others could live once he had gone. The damage a death does is wide and deep for those close by, but his hope was that they - we - would find a way to live again.

 

FALSE FRIENDS

Resurrection, though, is never easy. As the gospels testify, it is often a fight against the powers that be. And so it was here. Years before his diagnosis, Nic had taken out an insurance policy with Friends Life. He had suffered ulcerative colitis for many years - a serious condition (totally unrelated to his subsequent cancer) that meant critical illness cover was a sensible, if costly, precaution that would mean that his family would be provided for if the worst came to the worst. When his cancer was diagnosed Nic got in touch with Friends Life to make a claim on this policy. They replied and said that his claim was being turned down and his policy cancelled. The reason? He had not told them that he had suffered episodes of pins and needles.

Nic went to his death thinking that he was doing so leaving his family in financial dire straits. Perhaps it was knowledge of this that was the spark of new life. Perhaps it was this fury, this spitting anger at a company who had made £720m profit the previous year flicking aside a family who had faithfully paid their inflated premiums year after year after year, that dragged us from the graveside and fired our determination to do justice post-mortem. Because the truth was this: Nic had considered it unnecessary to tick the box about pins and needles. He had openly declared a very serious condition of which pins and needles was a common symptom. He had expected the company to do due diligence. They didn't. They had decided to take his money; only when he applied for a payout did they then look into his files, decide that they wouldn't have given him a policy if they had done this at the beginning, and tell the family that was the end of it.

We decided that this was not the end of it. We decided, after his death, that we would fight for a better life for the family he left behind, even if it did seem, in the face of legal advice we had had, like a Sisyphean task.

 

BATTLE BEGINS

The story of the campaign that followed is really one about the interplay between the 'three dimensions' of effecting change: social media and online campaigning, mainline journalism and the law. The fight that followed is, I believe, instructive in understanding how change can still happen and how the world can still be reshaped. It thus stands in continuity with what Nic and I set out to explore in Vaux all those years ago, joined by many friends who brought their extraordinary skills and commitment to bear on what turned out to be quite a spectacular battle played out across all the major national news channels.

Before he had died Nic had been in touch with a reporter, but he didn't live long enough to see the piece that kick-started the campaign. It was The Observer who finally published the story of Friends Life's cruel treatment of the Hughes family in early November, just 4 weeks after his death. Another friend of Nic's prompted Paul Lewis, a journalist who had made his name with coverage of the London riots, to tweet about the story, which went to his 50,000 followers. Seeing this made me wonder who else might be willing to push it, so that Monday afternoon I contacted Stephen Fry's 'tweet team', and two hours later was emailed to say that he would be tweeting about the story. In an instant this story was going to reach over 5 million people. At the time all I had was a page on Facebook with a link to the article, but someone quickly posted a message saying that we ought to start an online petition. Putting dinner on hold I did a Google search and hit upon change.org - a free-to-use online petition tool that allows anyone to muster support for their cause.

 

CHANGE.ORG

I had signed petitions with them before and knew that they had achieved remarkable results with other campaigns. Copying and pasting the bulk of the text a friend had written to express his disgust at Friends Life's behaviour, I cobbled together an online petition and directed people there as quickly as I could.

Nic's friends spread the word quickly through their social networks, online and off, and by that evening change.org had called me to ask about the campaign. Noticing how it was accelerating they offered to make it their 'lead' campaign for the following day. This turned out to be hugely significant. Firstly, it gave us enormous encouragement that we were getting somewhere, but secondly it meant that, having been sparked by a piece in the mainline news media, the social media campaign now transitioned back towards more traditional media outlets where the 'real' weight is still carried. The (brilliant) people at change.org were able to email tens of thousands of their supporters and simultaneously put press releases out to journalists they knew. Hence, within 24 hours of starting the petition I was getting ready to do a telephone interview with the Daily Mail. Nic, I mused, would be finding it all very funny that, on his behalf, we had ended up in bed with a paper that carried the opposite of his own political views.

 

LEGAL EYES

At this point the third 'dimension' of the campaign became absolutely vital. A great mutual friend is a respected human rights lawyer who has worked on high profile cases against the police and British government. Aware that, with a legal challenge to Friends Life's decision being planned in parallel, I needed to tread very carefully when talking to journalists and the media, I spoke at length to him in order to prepare a set of carefully scripted answers and rewrote the petition text to make sure that it did not disadvantage the legal work that he had already been doing. We had no idea of the battle that was to come, but looking back I can't emphasise enough how reassuring and important it was to have all of the information we had disseminated checked by good legal eyes. Friends Life, we now know, were throwing top level lawyers at the case, and they would have jumped on anything that was misleading.

The next couple of weeks turned into a frenzy of media activity, all while I was trying to hold down a full time teaching job. Two moments stand out: being chased around South London by an ITV news van as I took a group of students on a school trip, the reporter texting desperately to ask if we could delay the trip for an hour while I waited for them to arrive and interview me, then, a day or so later, having twenty seconds to decide one afternoon whether putting Nic's widow into an interview with Jon Snow on that night's Channel 4 News would break the terms of the exclusive we had signed with The Sun. I bit the bullet and decided any extra coverage was good; thankfully The Sun were understanding. Normal life seemed a distant memory.

 

LEARNING CURVES

Everyone involved in the campaign learned a huge amount in a very short period of time. Much of the news media cares hugely about stories in general, but not necessarily about people in particular. If you are not available, if you cannot provide the exact picture they are looking for, they will move on. But there are those who still care greatly about justice and seeing good done. All who met Nic's widow were blown away by her courage and strength, and we were all hugely indebted to these reporters who tenaciously followed the campaign.

As the story grew we worked to keep pressure up on Friends Life. Through the campaign experts at change. org we arranged mass emails and calls to the company, taking down their email servers and telephones. Friends and family of Nic rallied magnificently and worked tirelessly to hassle 'celebs' to retweet links to the petition, which pushed signatures to over 60,000. Others created websites, wrote copy, designed fliers, leaned on contacts, wrote letters, spoke to MPs and bishops, all of us in awe of the extraordinary network of talent that Nic counted as close friends and family. We had one focus, one simple aim: we wanted Friends Life to sit down with the family to discuss how to settle this without going through protracted legal processes. They utterly refused.

What was particularly shocking about their intransigence was that we knew that this was a company that had been founded by Quakers - specifically to support the widow of a teacher who had died young. Recently bought out by a hedge fund (who saw the insurance industry as a place to leverage easy profit increases) the culture of the firm had changed and, we found out, staff were now told to resist payouts as much as possible.

 

PR DISASTER

What was clear though was that the company were in the midst of an unmitigated PR disaster. They put out one press release of a couple of sentences, and were effectively hounded off social media by campaign supporters who inundated them with messages of support for what had become '#NicsFight.' To be clear: we had decided early on that this would be a positive campaign, and resisted any temptation to express our point in a rude or impolite way. But Friends Life were burying their heads in the sand, refusing to meet the family, deaf even to the requests of retail giants John Lewis (who used them for their own insurance products) and insisting that it would only be through the legal system that they would change their minds. All the while their name was becoming mud and, we know from contacts who were at industry events at the time, the whole sector was watching how this played out. One receptionist at the company admitted that they wished they had paid the family early on, as this would have been such an easy (and cheap) PR win for them, but now they were very stuck. Here was a company that had completely misunderstood the power of social networks to do reputational damage.

As Christmas came round the media frenzy calmed. With no movement from the company we had no choice but to make a submission to the Financial Ombudsman. It's important to understand why we hadn't gone this route from the off: getting the submission ready took Nic's lawyer friend scores of hours. It also demanded a huge amount of work for his widow who had lost her husband only months before and, because of the lack of pay out, had had to continue working full time. However, after Herculean efforts by both of them, the submission did go in. Then we simply had to wait.

 

VICTORY SCREAM

Months later I received a phone call from Nic's widow. I'd given up expecting news each time we spoke, so it was a total surprise to hear her scream that the Ombudsman had ruled entirely in her favour. Friends Life sent her the money (without so much as a word of apology or best wishes) and were once again trashed online and in the national news media as word of the victory spread. We will never know if the media campaign swayed the verdict of the Ombudsman in any way. What is clear is that it amplified their decision so that the entire nation knew Friends Life had been wrong.

Is there life after death? In the theological writing that has been so influenced by my conversations with Nic I have reflected often on the question of resurrection. The divine resurrection of Christ falls into the Derridean concept of 'event' - the 'perhaps' of God that theologian-philosophers like John Caputo have explored as the risky, life-expanding fuel of faith.

Whatever this 'event' meant celestially, at a more earthy level it is quite clear that the death of Jesus brought new life to his band of followers and it is this everyday resurrection that has become so profoundly important for us as a group of friends. Brought together in grief and angered by injustice, who Nic was and what he stood for has remained very much alive for us. Caring for a widow, love as practical action, fighting against unjust systems, exploring a new economics of gift and learning to see the wounds common to all - these are the manifestations of a life still present, even though it is an absence that we gather around.

 

THE BIG OTHER

At Greenbelt festival this year I programmed a short stream of talks on 'radical theology.' Radical theology takes seriously the idea of the death of the god who is 'big other.' It is 'radical' in the sense that it gets right down to the roots, challenging us not only religiously but politically, economically and culturally. It takes seriously the idea that the church is the resurrected body of Christ: there is no 'big other' who is going to act on our behalf. We are the resurrection and are thus compelled by an unjust, young death to live and act to bring love and justice. But because we refuse to collapse the 'perhaps' of heaven into unshakeable certainty, these actions insist on moving beyond the shrinking domain of church life as focused on 'the above' to the political, legal and economic spheres focused on the here and now.

But this theological expression is only now catching up with the ways that people are already living this stuff. For me, NicsFight was perhaps the best living example of this. Refusing to be cowed by a capitalist behemoth, it drew on the good of common people connected digitally to activate the best heart of professional journalism that, despite phone-hacking scandals, does remain - while simultaneously pushing the legal system to make just decisions. This is practical, transformative activism. This is my church.

 

A WIDOW'S MITE

Since our victory I have also thought a great deal about the insurance industry. It should be about a means of sharing the cost of support; instead it has increasingly become about raw profit. The traditional interpretation of the 'widow's mite' parable is that she should be honoured for giving all, but in the context of the other parables that surround it, it makes more sense that Jesus is, in fact, lamenting her actions. As theologian Darryl Schafer has put it, 'his tone is not one of admiration; rather, it is at once one of incredulity toward her offering and anger towards those who demand it.'2 Back then Jesus saw the religious authorities as 'devouring widow's houses.'3 Now it is an ever-hungry capitalism that feasts on the vulnerable.

Grief and sorrow at the loss of a wonderful friend continues. But this has been Nic's resurrection, his own peculiar life after death: the very ways he challenged us while alive have continued to inspire action post-mortem; the very people this remarkable man gathered through his life and work continue to be connected in his absence, empowered by new-media tools like change.org, encouraged that great journalism still exists and determined to see law challenged, refined and upheld. In this way death has lost its sting, but delivered us a sword. Perhaps, as Caputo and Derrida would put it, that is the core of Christianity itself. Perhaps, perhaps there will be life after death.

 

NOTES

1 See 'Cancer' - 18th June 2012 entry on Nic's blog http://hauntedgeographies.typepad.com/

2 From a forthcoming paper collected from presentations at the US 'Subverting the Norm' conference in April.

3 Mark 12:40.