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http://news.scotsman.com/politics.cfm?id=259292007

CLAIRE SMITH

KIRSTY Wark reckons no-one bats an eyelid when they find her selling home-made banana bread at the Partick Farmers' Market in aid of Maggie's Centres. She is one of the most recognisable and formidable women in the country, with a schedule which involves spending half a week in London, looking after her family and writing a novel. But within the charity she has a reputation for being an approachable and surprisingly hands-on patron who says raising money for Maggie's keeps her grounded.

While some charity patrons limit themselves to high-profile appearances and formal dinners, Wark is delighted to devote herself to more down-to-earth pursuits - baking her own-recipe banana bread and cheerfully fronting the stall during the Mayfest and Christmas markets.

It might not fit her rather stern public image, but the chance to do this sort of everyday community stuff is, for Wark, one of the great benefits of being involved with the cancer care charity.

This interview with The Scotsman has been cancelled twice, because of unexpected commitments in London, and the broadcaster is all apologies as she welcomes us into her Kelvinside home. But there has never been any doubt the interview will go ahead - the aim is to talk about her work for Maggie's Centres in support of The Scotsman's campaign to encourage people to sign up as Friends of the cancer care centres. And, in her voluntary support for Maggie's, Wark shows the same dedication and commitment which have made her one of Scotland's most powerful media figures.

The broadcaster first became aware of Maggie's when she was invited to the original centre in Edinburgh and she became a key figure in the campaign to open a centre in Dumbarton Road just around the corner from her home.

Sam Gibson, head of media for Maggie's, says: "She has always been willing to roll up her sleeves and to bring her personality and her connections to raise awareness of what we do. She is very busy, but the Glasgow Centre is a cause close to her heart and she goes above and beyond what we might expect from a patron."

As well as hosting and helping to organise a fund-raising dinner at the Kelvingrove, hosting meetings and cheering on fun-runs, the Newsnight presenter is always on the lookout for opportunities to raise the profile of Maggie's Centres.

Wark persuaded Gwyneth Paltrow to put on a white Maggie's Centre Backing Life bracelet when she went on Loose Women. And she talked LK Bennett into stocking the bracelets in her shops.

Like many fund-raisers, Kirsty Wark's involvement with the cancer care centres was inspired by an experience of the disease in her own family - which opened her eyes to how much help and support cancer sufferers need. Her father, James, a lawyer, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1994, an experience which brought home the need all cancer sufferers and their families have for help, advice and support.

"You are all at sea when someone who is close to you has cancer and you need to know what is the best thing to do for them. When it happens, people become experts in a very short time. You have to find out about treatments, about drugs, about diet.

"Even for those in the position of being a relative of someone with cancer, there's a paradigm shift in your life. You're left thinking: 'I need to know all these answers. I need to know how cancer may affect my family.' Then you think: 'I need to know how I can help'."

In an irony Wark believes might have appealed to her father's dry sense of humour, it wasn't the cancer which killed him. "There is often a sort of black humour in these things. Dad was a very active person, who loved being outside.

"The danger was the cancer could have been very debilitating which he would have found very difficult to bear. He was never a man who liked to be kept waiting. His first chemotherapy session went like a dream, but the second he had to wait for four hours and he had a heart attack.

"Although we had three traumatic weeks in intensive care, it was probably better for him, because it would have been an awful way to have ended his life."

Wark, who is in weekly contact with the Glasgow Centre, is particularly pleased that men are now finding it easier to approach places like Maggie's Centres to ask for help. "The numbers of men using the Dumbarton Road centre is incredible - which is very important because men are often reluctant to talk about these things. They hold a regular prostate cancer support group which is very popular.

"It is great they have been so successful in attracting men to come, although I'm still not sure if my Dad would have gone."

As one of Scotland's most recognisable faces, the broadcaster gets approached by charities all the time. "There is so much pressure on people's time these days. In my position it is very hard - so many people write to me and say: 'We know you are involved with Maggie's, but could you just do this for us.' Sometimes I can."

Wark is no longer involved in Wark Clements, the television company she set up with her husband, Alan Clements, which became IWC and was sold in 2005. But, as well as presenting Newsnight two nights a week, she still puts together programme proposals. She tries to be at home at least three nights a week for the sake of her teenage children and she is in the throes of writing a novel - which will assuredly not be chicklit.

She is a regular panellist on the discussion programme Loose Women and relished her recent appearance with Tam Cowan on the football talk show Off the Ball, which gave viewers a chance to see her lighter side.

"There's no such thing as a typical week for me. At the moment I usually write on Monday, have meetings on Tuesday and I try not to go to London until Wednesday. I'm always at home two or three days a week.

"But I try to work with the fund-raising team at Maggie's. They call me if they need something - I could do a stall, or I could have a meeting with someone." She believes volunteering, in some form, is an important part of a healthy and active life. "People do it in all different ways. It might be that somebody visits an elderly person or works in a charity shop. But, in some way, giving back or, in some way, helping others, from my point of view, should be part of your life."

It is an ethic Wark has passed on to her children. James, 14, has helped her on the stall during Glasgow Mayfest, while Caitlin, 16, has raised money for Maggie's at her school. "Increasingly, we are all wrapped up in our lives and it is good to have a reminder of other people's needs. It means you are thinking about people other than yourself."

A belief in the benefits of good design is another thing which strikes a chord with Wark who shares the Maggie's Centres' philosophy of the transformative power of architecture. "Because Maggie Keswick Jencks had a lot of influential friends in art and in architecture, these people still stump up for Maggie's. It's a relatively small charity, but it unites two things I'm passionate about - holistic cancer care and architecture."

She is keen to play it down, but a few years ago Wark underwent her own cancer scare which left her with an insight into how grim hospital environments can be. "I had to go for a mammogram and then go back for a biopsy at a hospital in Glasgow. It was nothing - everything was fine. But it shows you your surroundings do matter. We started off in the most depressing waiting room and then ended up in this dark, dusty corridor. There were four old copies of some weekly magazine. You were looking at people's faces and they were terrified. The medical staff were doing their best, but I just thought: 'This is awful.' People were sitting there and thinking: 'Am I going to be alive in six months' time?'

"I'm not saying beautiful surroundings are a panacea. But the whole thing is that the quality of the space and the atmosphere matters. Tranquillity and privacy are important. And Maggie's services are all offered free of charge - and no-one is ever turned away. These things are very important."

Wark believes Maggie's Centres have made a huge difference to cancer sufferers in Scotland. There are now five centres north of the Border and one in London. Each one costs an estimated £100,000 a year to run, but the benefits are enormous. "The range of services they offer is incredible. It's a place where people can go, have a talk, have a cry, have a wig fitting, talk about the impact on their family. People can also come in, enjoy the space and say nothing - they can do anything they want. There should be a Maggie's Centre in every place where there is a cancer-treatment centre."

She would like to see a centre in the Borders and believes there is a case for expanding the service in northern Scotland and on the islands. Because almost everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, the army of people who have used Maggie's Centres and who become fund-raisers is ever growing.

Cancer touches almost everyone at some point in their lives, which is why even one of Scotland's most successful women is happy to do anything to help - even by baking banana bread.

"When we run the stall at the Partick Farmers' Market, the number of people who had used the centre and who donated goods was phenomenal. I'm very happy to do things like that because I think you have to stay grounded in what you do and in what the charity does.

"Cancer is no respecter of class, race, creed or income. It's a great leveller."

This article: http://news.scotsman.com/politics.cfm?id=259292007

Last updated: 17-Feb-07 00:26 GMT

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