I wrote to journalist and future doctor Lucy Mathen as a child when she presented Newsround. More than 30 years later we met. I wrote a feature about it for The Guardian. And as a result of learning about how she gave up reporting for medicine, and the charity Second Sight she set up, I chose to interview her for my series on Radio 4’s One To One. (Listen to it here). This is my review of the book she wrote about her charity. Every penny from sales of the book goes to Second Sight.
A review of The Runaway Goat by Lucy Mathen
“Don’t go there, Lady”. The thought flashes through Lucy Mathen’s mind early on
in A Runaway Goat as she bites her tongue, dealing with another officious official, standing in her way. And it sums up the boldness, the energy and the humour with which she’s made her remarkable journey through life. She has gone where others never
tried or gave up. Mathen was one of the main inspirations behing me going into
journalism. A pioneering young reporter who just happened to be Asian and
female, Mathen powered her way into the ranks of BBC news and current affairs
in the mid 70s, challenging prejudices and chauvinism every step of the way.
A Runaway Goat starts with the story behind her career change; realising
that reporting on the plight of women and children in Afghanistan and then walking away was no longer enough. Told with wit and humour, Mathen’s journey aged 36, through medical school into opthamology was to lead into an even more unexpected world – that of challenging major NGOs on how they delivered aid, supposedly to “transform” the lives of the most disadvantaged people in rural India.
Her lively tale is packed with moments of righteous indignation at the Kafkaesque illogic of big charities and government departments, here and abroad, that make you gasp – the charity which tells her it’s better to leave expensive surgical equipment gathering dust than send Western doctors (at their own expense) to use it to cure blindness. It’s not “empowering” a DFID official tells her.
With all the skills of a TV journalist who knows that when it comes to words less can be more, the book balances a narrative of building up the story of the Second Sight charity, with the character portraits of the medics and workers, in India and in Britain, who quietly get on with changing lives. Along the way she seeks out potential donors from kindly rock stars to India’s super rich, has to deal with rich, corrupt and self serving government officials, arrogant charity administrators; but also tells honest tales of the remarkable men and women, old and young whose lives are transformed by simple cataract surgery. Her recognition of the importance of a rural girls’ football team near one of the hospitals proves a symbol of her lateral thinking, energy and spirit. In one sense it should be required reading in governance and business schools as a case study in how to get things done.
At a time when more and more attention is being focussed on the gap between the First World aspirations of developing nations and the poverty of a huge proportion of their citizens, A Runaway Goat is a warm and inspiring tale of how journalistic persistence , investigative skills and powers of persuasion can transform lives, one person at a time.
Further reading: buy the book