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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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How al Fayed’s love of children helped give hope to little Rhys

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: Charly and brother Rhys

Picture: CARL FOX

“I DON’T care what it costs! Just sort it out!”


These were the words of Harrods’ billionaire Mohammed Al Fayed caught in the emotion of the moment, as he shouted across his boardroom table in a battle to help a little boy with a life-threatening disease. He had been moved to tears by the plight of two-year-old Rhys Daniels after hearing about his fight for life on Sky News.


I am telling this story following the column by our dear friend Alan Frame, in which he recalled to us his memories of Al Fayed, who recently died, and his son Dodi. He touched on Al Fayed’s love of children, in particular. For me that love was genuine, and it was never a publicity act on the morning the Harrods’ boss romped with a toy donkey on his boardroom floor.


Rhys suffered from Batten’s Disease, a neurological disorder which affects one in 30,000 children in the UK and kills by the age of eight. It is an awful condition … speech goes, blindness, paralysis, deafness, just about everything follows. Dementia sets in and then death.


It was too late to save his elder sister Charly, who was already suffering from the disease, and it broke my heart to often sit with her as she lay sleeping on the sofa at the home of their parents Barry and Carmen Daniels in Epping, Essex, back in 1994, as I began to write the family’s life story for Virgin Books about the battle to try and save their son’s life. At this time, Charly could hardly hear, couldn’t see, and couldn’t speak.


I was Assistant Editor of the Express then and Charly was such a bonny and beautiful little girl. A sleeping beauty. She was the apple of Barry’s eye. Barry and I would sprawl on the lounge floor with our notes as she slept, while Rhys tumbled about in a giant playpen filled with hundreds of coloured soft balls. Losing his balance was a symptom of the disease.


For Rhys, an experimental bone marrow transplant had offered the only hope of life, although many doctors here were against it and there was no approval from hospital authorities. The problem was it had only ever been tried on dogs in Germany. The family were clutching at straws. The Press Pack were on the story, and it was making news around the world, but there was no donor. It would be a long and desperate hunt.


The other big stumbling block was money, it would cost £50,000 at least, doubling to £100,000 for special equipment at the Daniels’ home and accommodation for Barry and Carmen during the long months of hospital treatment. Newspaper readers and local businesses in Epping were offering what they could, but a fund didn’t scratch the surface of the problem.


To add to the stress, the bone marrow unit at Westminster Children’s Hospital where Rhys was being treated was being closed by Health Minister Virginia Bottomley … and there was no new base. Or any plans for one. The staff were in tears. For there was one last patient to treat – Rhys. But the doors had closed. Barry and Carmen were in tears too.


The Evening Standard ran the story on Page One with a colour picture of Charly and Rhys. The famous unit which had been opened by MP Peter Bottomley 13 years before and had performed some of the world’s pioneering transplant operations, was being closed his wife.


But then Al Fayed stepped in and opened the door to hope.


“We had just managed to get a judicial review of Rhys’s case for a transplant,” Barry said, “when TV presenter Selina Scott rang me and asked me to appear live on Sky News. She wanted to talk about our fears and hopes and the heartache we had suffered over the closure of Rhys’s ward. We did and apparently Al Fayed was watching the programme with his family. I was told it affected him greatly.”


Then came news of a mystery donor for Rhys and one morning Harrods’ PR Chief Michael Cole phoned Barry and said: ‘We’re sending a car for you! The boss wants to meet you and your family, it’s some good news.’


“I couldn’t believe it,” said Barry. “His words lifted us. We were absolutely on the floor again at that time. The mystery donor was Al Fayed. I didn’t realise it then, but Al Fayed was to become more like a father to us and not at all like the billionaire businessman he was.”


As the medical and ethical row raged on, Barry and Carmen arrived at the wood-panelled boardroom with Rhys and Charly, who could still travel at that time. They were joined by Government health officials and the surgeon in charge of the case. Everyone was amazed as Michael Cole took the chair and Al Fayed listened as he romped on the floor with Charly and Rhys.


‍ “Now bring in the donkey!” the Harrods boss ordered in the middle of discussions. The doors opened and staff wheeled a life-size donkey. Al Fayed kept pressing a button on its neck which lit up its eyes, made its head nod, tail wag and neigh. Charly and Rhys loved it and him. They all romped together.


The financial and ethical debate at the table finally ended when Al Fayed finally stood up and announced: “I don’t care what it costs! Just sort it out!” They did. Then the Harrods’ boss lifted Rhys on to the boardroom table, and the little boy stumbled around from one end to the other, over everyone’s notebooks. No one was bothered, least of all Al Fayed who roared with laughter.


A father himself, he not only paid for all the treatment and accommodation involved for Rhys, but he also made sure that Charly had the best private medical care, especially when her sight began to go. He was always on the end of a phone for them for as long as it took. And it all took months. A donor was found for Rhys following a worldwide appeal by the Daily Express and my story of the Daniels tragic battle to save their son was later featured in the paper, edited and overseen by Alan Frame, who had been moved by the family’s plight.


Sadly, Rhys, who had his first transplant in Bristol in 1993, lost his battle for life in 1998, aged just seven. Charly died a year later, aged 10.


Barry devoted his life to raising £10million for housing accommodation for other parents and loved ones of Battens’ Disease victims to be near their treatments. So many stars helped his appeal … Bill Wyman, Brian May, Status Quo, and Chris Tarrant among them.


But tragedy struck on October 18, 2017, when Barry died too, of cancer, aged 58. His charity now provides home-from-home care for children in 14 properties, split between six specialist childrens’ hospitals across our country.


He always said to me: “My children are my life. When bad things happen, you think you can cut it. But sometimes you can’t.”

*****

WHO REALLY CARES?

OK, I know Rishi Sunak has put the brakes on the Net Zero costs for families, probably because there is an election in the wind. He claims to be caring about the nation’s struggling households who can’t afford new boilers, electric cars and even horses to get around. I would like to think he means it.


For wouldn’t it be nice if, just for once, more people cared about others in our totally uncaring and hateful society. Even the Tory Party could do with a little dollop of socialism for once and so could some newspaper journalists and editors too, especially on some websites where there appears to be a growing new breed of untrained, young wannabes writing stories with prejudices. I did say some, not all.


We have doctors who signed an oath to help the sick and elderly, joking with each other on the picket line as people are racked with pain or even dying and cancer ops are postponed. Striking train drivers leaving passengers unable to get to work, hospitals, or catch flights. The Green elite obsessed with unrealistic climate targets, blocking roads, offices, and garages to enforce their will on others.


Meanwhile, the so-called socialist and Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan slaps a punitive penalty on cars he doesn’t like without a thought for their owners’ weekly shopping bill and greedy landlords throw rental families and the elderly on to the street if they don’t pay more every time interest rates rise. No wonder 130,000 British children are homeless. Not to mention the endless attacks and silly envy over the Triple Lock, sometimes fostered by sensational headlines inferring that pensioners have never had it so good … even though many are among the poorest in Europe.


And let’s not forget the hatred from some against people who democratically decided to vote Tory or, God forbid, work for the Party. Didn’t Labour’s Angela Rayner, the voice of the Brothers seeking power over us, call them “scum?” She’s like a Red Flag to a bull, eh? What kind of a society are we heading towards?

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TAKING THE MICK


How wonderful to see my idol Mick Jagger mingling with the great and good, including the King of England and the President of France at a State Banquet in the Palace of Versailles last week. 


Perhaps the current World King of Rock was thinking of buying it. He is already a sort of neighbour when he is at home in his 17th century castle some 200 miles down the road. Weeks earlier he had joined his bandmates at a theatre press conference in London that looked like an upmarket funeral parlour for the rich. He gets about that lad.


The boy from Kent has certainly come a long way from the newspaper stories of him urinating on a garage wall, filling himself up with illegal substances and wrecking hotel rooms with The Rolling Stones in the Swinging Sixties. Not to mention stories of his rather robust love affair with Baroness’s daughter Marianne Faithful. And now he is a knight of the realm too.


I saw the Stones at the Marquee Club in Soho’s Wardour Street during those heady years. I say ‘saw them’ I really mean mostly their heads and shoulders through the smoke that made my eyes water.


Guitarist and founder Brian Jones was with them then of course, and he spent as much time staring at the ceiling in his striped Eton boating jacket, (Buffy Watkins has one in his wardrobe with his straw hat, I expect), as Mick spent on the tambourine and harmonica. They were the days when bands such as Led Zeppelin; Alexis Korner and Pink Floyd sold the place out. Great bands.


And just down the street you could pop in and rock with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames or Rod Stewart at the Flamingo. If you went upstairs at the Flamingo of course, you entered the world of the Whiskey A Go Go. More great days.


The Stones are like furniture to many of us, just like a cosy armchair we have kept for sentimental reasons. I, probably like you, remember all the newspaper stories about them.


One involved a reporter mate of mine who conned his way into Mick’s Chelsea home in Cheyne Walk, to interview his ‘wife’ Jerry Hall after they split in 1999. Jerry had agreed only to talk about her new acting career. They were sitting by the fireplace when there was a timid knock on the lounge door, and it slowly opened. Jagger’s worried face peered in.


“Sorry to bother you, Jerry, but have you got any food, I’m starving,” he said. My mate had no idea he was in the house. This was at the height of their so-called acrimonious divorce, even though it turned out they were never legally married anyway.


“Look in the fridge, darling,” she replied, “there should be something there.” The door closed but five minutes later there was another knock and it eased open. Jagger’s worried face appeared again, His arm and hand extended into the room. He was holding a tiny square of cheese. “The fridge is empty. There’s only this mouldy bit of cheese,” he said. “No bread either. I’m starving. He was irritated now.”


‍ Jerry was unfazed. “Don’t worry, I won’t be long,” she said, “and I’ll pop to the shops for you.” Jagger nodded and closed the door, and all my mate could do was wonder where a star like her would go to get the King of Rock a lump of cheese and some bread … a taxi to Harrods? Fortnum and Mason perhaps? No wonder he was so thin.


I love tales like that and when it comes to Jagger there are quite a few. Last week, the Daily Mail looked at comedian Adrian Edmonson’s new book Berserkers. Adrian tells of accompanying his wife Jennifer Saunders to a dinner at Mick and Jerry’s Chelsea pad. Jennifer’s hit TV show Absolutely Fabulous is to be remade in America and Jerry has got wind of it. She wants to play Patsy, so she invites them round to talk about it.


Jerry opens the door to their house dressed for the part and looks like Joanna Lumley. It was like they have arrived to watch an audition. She explains that Mick won’t be long. He is upstairs having his eyebrows dyed. They make small talk and after what seems like hours, a Filipina maid calls them in for dinner.


Still no Mick as they sit down at the table in ‘a dingy basement’. When he finally arrives, he makes it obvious he doesn’t really want to be there. He is sulky and obviously doing his duty on the orders of Jerry. Hardly says a word. He doesn’t even know who Jennifer is and seems to think she is a writer or something. When he does speak, he thinks husband Adrian is her manager or agent. Everyone wriggles in their seats as the maid serves up what looks like a school dinner. There is no drink at the table.


Suddenly Mick, eyebrows sparkling, comes to life. He doesn’t drink wine but asks if Jennifer, a keen imbiber apparently, would like some. Jennifer says yes and Jerry looks worried. She leaves the room and after a while, as her dinner gets cold, returns carrying a half empty bottle of plonk with cling film wrapped around the top.


“Does wine go off?” she asks, picking off the cling film and pouring. To ease the embarrassing moment, Adrian explains that a good wine can last hundreds of years … and they drink what tastes like flat cooking sherry. They can’t wait to bring the evening to a close and head home. Jerry never got the part. What a lovely insight into Mick’s life, eh?


‍ We don’t see much of him of course, as he spends most of his time now in one of his luxury properties abroad. So, when The (crinkly but mind-bogglingly rich) Stones appeared at the Hackney Empire to launch their new album Hackney Diamonds the other week, I quickly tuned into YouTube to catch their act, which went live around the world.


And my goodness, wasn’t it boring? Apart from the video clip of their new single Angry, which was vintage Stones, using a long lens to dismiss the signs of ageing. It was super cool, as they say. But who cares anyway? No matter how boring they can be, they are just … watchable. History in the making every time. I, like the audience, loved them.


The multi-millionaires plonked themselves down in red velvet chairs on a stage with a red velvet curtain, red carpet and little red lamps on red tables. It looked like an upmarket funeral parlour for them. They were interviewed by US TV host Jimmy Fallon, flown in especially for the historic encounter at huge expense. (Mick probably had the American market in mind). Fallon was the only genuinely funny person there, breaking into his version of one of their rock songs. Very good.


Lots of laughter from the Stones though as they made unfunny jokes followed with finger pointing at the audience; Mick and Ronnie wobbled around on stage a bit … and kept jumping up from their chairs to show they’d still got it. Ronnie Wood twiddled his fingers as if playing guitar and joked: “At our age you’ve got to keep everything moving or you lose it!” Not really meaning fingers at all, if you get my drift. The packed house loved it. At one point Mick and Ronnie even tottered around in a brief dance together. But Ronnie was no Tina Turner.


The sum total of their revelations about anything was the fact that the album had been called Hackney Diamonds because of vandalised and shattered windscreens around Hackney that left thousands of little glass diamonds on the street. I think that was it, although none of them seemed sure. And the host Fallon couldn’t get to grip with the title of their single and theme of their album … Angry was it or Anger? But who cared?


It was the iconic Stones. And we would all much rather see and listen to them than not. Even though Jagger told us making records wasn’t his favourite thing or where the money really was … it was property. 


A final word from my big mate Buffy, as he tidied up his immaculate wardrobe this morning. He reckons that back in the day we were all split … you were either a Stones fan or nuts about The Beatles. Not both. Two camps.


I’ve ordered my copy of Hackney Diamonds in limited edition red vinyl.

*****

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK

‘There are more planets than there are stars. And more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth.’ British astronaut Tim Peake speaking of the possibility of life in the solar system in his new TV series ‘Secrets of our Universe’.

*****

DRAWING A BLANK


I’m still trying to figure out the mind of Danish artist Jens Haaning, who was paid to submit an artwork to Denmark’s Kunsten Museum. No doubt you saw it in the Press last week. It was blank. 


Now he has been ordered by a court to repay a museum £60,000 after almost two years of litigation. I struggled for ages looking at the canvas trying to figure out how it reflects his work and commission brief which was: “… to highlight the existing structures of power and communication in the global society and necessitate a debate around subjects such as migration, displacement, nationalist and other aspects related to human co-existence … ” 


Got it? As another of my mates, Drone columnist Dick Dismore would say: “What a load of bollocks!”


Perhaps I will leave the artist to explain it himself. Jens says: “It’s not theft, it’s a breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work. I am encouraging other people who have working conditions as miserable as mine to do the same. If they’re sitting in some shitty job and not getting paid enough, then grab what you can and beat it!”

‍ Got it? I thought not.

*****

“Down the orifice, please Harry!”


TERRY MANNERS

25 September 2023