Good Grief!

Zoe and Chris in Venice

Chris Martin was the Director General of 10 Downing Street when he died of cancer at the age of 42. His death, two years ago, caused an outpouring of grief in Westminster. An emotional David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, paid tribute to him at the Dispatch Box. Here his wife Zoe talks about the event she organised in Chris’ memory.

Guests at the Chris Martin quiz fundraising for Sarcoma UK, including BBC journalist Sarah Smith

An awful lot of twaddle is spoken when somebody dies. There seems to be this need to look for silver linings – but I don’t really buy it. There is no upside to my husband being dead; my life would be better with him in it. I think the government would be better with him in it; he was an outstanding civil servant who was respected, admired and loved by colleagues across Whitehall. So I’m rather of the view that nothing good will come from the death of Chris Martin; but I want to try and make sure that plenty of good comes from the fact that he lived. That’s what has motivated me, and a group of Chris’ friends, to organise this fundraiser.

I knew what I wanted:  an intimate, warm, joyful event that celebrated his life and included people from all the different stages of his life – from his comprehensive school in the New Forest to 10 Downing Street. But finding a venue became a nightmare. Everywhere around Westminster wanted a fortune. That would have meant raising thousands of pounds in corporate sponsorship which felt wrong for the kind of informal event I was aiming for. And then I struck gold: I met the owner of the Westminster Kitchen restaurant, Ibrahim Dogus, and he said we could use his restaurant for the night. A man who follows politics closely, who stood for Parliament at the last election, Ibrahim was delighted to be able to host a group of deeply committed public servants and politicos.

Chris was so loved, that when word got out we were organising a quiz, his friends clamoured to help. A team of people who were important to him in his life agreed to write and present a quiz round: they included historian, Sir Anthony Seldon; BBC journalist, Nick Robinson; Government Minister,

Zoe gives a speech at the event

Baroness Liz Sugg; Labour MP Stella Creasy; Labour Peer Lord Stewart Wood; and Permanent Secretary, Melanie Dawes CB. And then, through a friend, we managed to get the brilliant satirist and writer Armando Iannucci on board. From the moment our host, Ed Balls, opened our event, I realised how lucky we were. He burst with energy, humour and, of course, dance moves. He had worked with Chris at the Treasury and they had greatly admired each other; he made sure to weave in stories about Chris as he guided us through the quiz. In fact, wonderfully, we talked about Chris all night. It was a beautiful but at times overwhelming few hours for me and Chris’ family.


Applause from guests in the Westminster Kitchen

Our quizmasters are a clever bunch. They decided not to hide this fact. Put it this way, if you didn’t know how many housing units were built in 1967 or which American President didn’t play golf then you did badly; which was the majority of us, in fact. It was quite a sight to watch so many intelligent and gifted people completely out of their depth. I fear some may never recover.


The event raised £21,000 for Sarcoma UK. Thanks to Ibrahim Dogus’ generosity, every penny raised in ticket sales went to the charity. And thanks to some very clever manoeuvring by Ed Balls, we raised £11,000 at the auction, which included a bottle of Champagne signed by all five living Prime Ministers. Chris would have loved every minute: the intellectual challenge, the humour, the sense of purpose, the camaraderie. For that is how he lived his life, right up to the very end.

Ed Balls and Sarcoma UK Chief Executive Lindsey Bennister at Chris Martin Quiz Night


In his final days, he was still reading government papers, still offering advice to his colleagues and paying close attention to the Prime Minister’s schedule. In fact, one day, confused by morphine, he was convinced the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was about the pay a visit to our front room. Instead, he had to settle for me and our lovely carer. Chris had a very good life. It is preposterous that he isn’t here. The grief is at times unbearable. The least I can do is to try and make the grief do some good.


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