12 July 2023

About a week ago my friend and close neighbour, John Sandford-Smith, turned up at my door. In one hand he held a large tool I had lent him some time ago (he had forgotten I had told him I no longer needed it) and in the other a generously inscribed copy of his recently published memoirs, Against the Stream?

John, now 85, is a distinguished ophthalmologist (also qualified in general surgery) who became well known for his devotion to eye surgery in poor countries, usually in difficult and occasionally in dangerous circumstances. He was able to give even more time to this following his retirement from Leicester Royal Infirmary in 2000. In the New Year’s Honours List for 2008 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (‘OBE’) in recognition of his selfless work, and in 2016 awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Leicester.

Neither of these honours are mentioned in this memoir, which is throughout honest and inspiring, and by turns fascinating, moving, amusing and trenchant. The book is also a tribute to his wife, Sheila, who – although in good health – died at the beginning of the pandemic, the first casualty in our avenue of the opportunistic Boris Johson’s careless, Brexit-obsessed government. Sheila, who had trained as a nurse, accompanied and assisted John on many of his overseas missions. She was a delightful neighbour and I knew her for almost 30 years. We lived directly across the road from the Sandford-Smiths, and for a long period after their children had grown up and left I looked after their house when they were away.

Imagine my astonishment, therefore, when I learned only last week that Sheila was born ‘Sheila Perfect’ and was first cousin of the late Christine McVie (née Perfect), singer, songwriter and keyboardist with the legendary Fleetwood Mac, my favourite band since I had met its founder, Peter Green, when deputed to look after him in the interval of a performance one Saturday night at the University of Durham, probably sometime in 1967. And it was Christine’s father, Sheila’s uncle Cyril, who was of particular help to John in piecing together Sheila’s family history. Followers of Fleetwood Mac might, therefore, find Chapter 7 of John’s memoir (‘Sheila’s Early Life’) of some interest. It was published by the Ulverscroft Foundation, a Leicester-based charity dedicated to the prevention of visual impairment and supporting the visually impaired both in the UK and overseas, and to which any profits or royalties will go. It can be obtained here.

By way of footnote, I should add that John did not form a particularly high opinion of British diplomacy in some of the countries in which he worked, whether because he thought them ‘rather inward looking and uninspiring’, as in the case of the branch of the high commission in Kaduna (Nigeria) in the mid-1970s (p. 143), or because he judged them too quick to urge British citizens to get out when trouble was brewing and preferred instead to rely on the opinion of his trusted local colleagues, as in Yemen in 2011. On the other hand, the British Council in Nigeria scored higher marks, while in Yemen in the preceding decade John acknowledges that the embassy itself had supported the outreach work on Socotra Island in which he participated and also provided him with overnight accommodation and a lift to Sana’a airport in the ambassador’s bullet-proof Land Rover at the end of his regular visits. The ambassadors concerned, Frances Guy and Michael Gifford, I believe, thereby saved some honour for the profession.