I have often written in this blog about friends and colleagues who have died. But they have all been either of great age, like Dr Harry Morrow Brown, or have at least lived out their three score years and ten – Cartoon Christopher, Clarissa Dickson Wright, David Fleming. So although one can be very sad that they have gone, at least one can take comfort from their full and active lives. But when the person who has died is only in their teens there is no such consolation – only bitter regrets for what could have been.
I say this as last week we heard of the tragic death of Livvy, the daughter of one of our good friends and colleagues, Giles Christopher. Indeed, those of you who came to the FreeFrom Food Awards party this year may even have met her as she was helping us, very efficiently, to marshall interviewees after the presentation. She was only 18 and, after a slightly turbulent teenage-dom, had started a course in catering which she was really enjoying – which was why she had come to help at the awards. She had a weekend job at Waitrose and was a happy, pretty and totally delightful young woman. (This is photograph taken of her this year by her dad on Fathers’ Day.)
And then, two weekends ago, she went to a music festival. Absolutely nothing wrong with that – but what was very wrong was that she never came back. I don’t know exactly what happened but understand that she was found unconscious in her tent in the morning and never recovered from a lethal combination of Class A drugs, alcohol and dehydration.
What a terrible, terrible waste…. And for what? A bit of a ‘high’ that she did not need and probably did not even want that much. And how unimaginably dreadful for her parents who were not there – and could not ever have been there – to protect her.
Growing into adulthood is such horrendously difficult task not just for the teenagers who are doing it, but for their parents and family. Young people must explore, experiment, take risks, get into trouble – that is what growing up is all about and that is what will make them into interesting, productive, caring adults. But how to protect them without clipping their wings? How to warn them against the dangers so that they will listen – not take that warning as a challenge to go further and do more?
I was more conscious than ever of these issues last week when I heard of Livvy’s death as I had been working on talks for university caterers focusing on how dangerous a time starting university is for young people with serious food allergies. Going to uni may the be the first time that any of them have had to cope with their allergies on their own. But it is more complex than that.
Going to uni for the first time is a scary experience: it maybe the first time you have really been away from home at all, in a new city, knowing no one, starting new course. As a new student in a new environment the last thing you want to do is to stand out from the crowd as some sort of weirdo who makes a fuss about what they eat. You want to do what everybody else is doing, join in, go where they go, eat what they eat. You certainly do not want to have to spend five minutes questioning the café or burger joint about your food while everyone else watches!
And added dangers… Getting drunk, or at least drinking too much, is a vital rite of passage for most students – as so often is experimenting with drugs. But will you be as careful of what you are eating when you have had a few drinks or are on a high? And what about that first kiss? How hard is it to interrupt that first tentative kiss to ask your heart throb if he/she has just been eating peanuts?
(If any of you have not seen it, the Anaphylaxis Campaign made an excellent short film last year which covered all of these issues and focused on how important it is, if you are allergic, always to carry your adrenaline. See Take the Kit.)
My point was that university caterers could do a lot to help. They need always to have a well-allergy-trained, empathetic member of staff available to help and advise. But, more importantly, they need to provide a really good selection of tasty and very well signed allergen-free food in their restaurants and cafés. This allows allergic students to identify safe foods discreetly while eating with their friends – thus encouraging them to stay on campus rather than risking themselves in high street kebab shops or takeaways where allergen control is notoriously bad. I am delighted to say that following on from a talk I gave at the TUCO University Caterers conference last month, several universities are already planning to follow up on this – more in a future blog.
If, between us, we can prevent even one allergen-related student tragedy – stop one young life from being pointlessly and needlessly cut short – then that is immensely worth doing.