Avoid the stupid and hardworking

Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord

I have recently – too recently – come across a rather splendid way of putting people into pigeonholes.

It’s based on the quite brilliant taxonomy of the Prussian officer class by Generaloberst Baron Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord (1878-1943).

“I distinguish four types,” he wrote. “There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage.”

Marvellous!

Here is my take.

Clever and hardworking. Reliable, meticulous, imaginative, industrious. They get things done. Inclined to be workaholics. Good friends.

Stupid and lazy. They work to live. Don’t think too much. Not over bothered about standards: “it’ll do”. Good fun.

Clever and lazy. Strategists who see the big picture but have the sense and humility to know that masterly inactivity is often the way. They don’t need to bolster fragile egos by waving their willies about. They are aware of all possibilities, all the “what ifs?”, but they don’t waste their or anyone else’s energy by imposing silly tasks. They are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and welcome wise advice – indeed they seek it. They can be firm and courageous in making difficult decisions, and neither stand nor impose nonsense. Without doubt, these people should be, but so rarely are, in charge.

Stupid and hardworking. The most dangerous. With their misplaced self-confidence linked to a combination of intensity and density, they fool people into appointing them to senior posts. Because of their arrogance and the ignorance of their own limitations, they wreak havoc and endanger others. They are like black holes, sucking the life force from all they come into contact with. They stifle initiative and surround themselves with even stupider yes-men so as not to be challenged. 

It’s not difficult to categorize people thus. The fourth group is stuffed full of politicians. I guess that most bosses fall into the first (good) and fourth (not good), whereas ideally they’d be in the third – clever and lazy. Doctors are easy to categorize too. And so are clergy. Use your imaginations, but suffice it for me to say that being a member of the fourth category seems to be a prerequisite for preferment.

Baron von Hammerstein-Equord was an interesting man. Aristocrat, Prussian then German army, and plotter against Hitler (how did the Baron survive?). At home he openly talked of planned anti-Jewish action so his many children could warn their Jewish friends. Two daughters passed information to the Soviet Union by means of the German Communist Party – indeed the whole family was somewhat cavalier about their own safety in the increasingly repressive Nazi state. He knew the Gestapo were onto him, but he bashed on.

He died of what might have been parotid cancer having ignored symptoms – typical man – for years. I suppose the cancer got him before the SS.

Two months before he died he said to a visitor “I am ashamed to have belonged in an army that witnessed and tolerated all the crimes”. 

A good and decent man, and clearly an extraordinarily shrewd judge of people.

A story for his birthday

at an Eton choral course

A summer morning in the early 1990s. He was about 15, a pupil at Wesley College, one of the rugby-playing* Protestant schools of south Dublin that both boys attended. (Victoria went to a girls’ school, Rathdown – not a rugby school unless there were some shenanigans that were well hidden.)

For some reason I was at home in Co Wicklow, skiving off work. Susan was elsewhere.

The phone rings.

Hello, is that Professor Monkhouse?

It is.

It’s Brian Duffy here, deputy head at Wesley.

What can I do for you, Mr Duffy?

Well, I’m ringing to let you know that I’ve suspended Hugh from school for the rest of the day.

Oh yes?

Silence.

Do you want to know why?

If you want to tell me, Mr Duffy, and I sense that you do.

This was not the response he expected. I had the impression that it enraged him.

He was talking and laughing in the library. I asked him to stop. I left for a few minutes and when I returned he was up to his old tricks. I didn’t care for his attitude, so I’ve sent him home.

Silence.

Well, Mr Duffy, thanks for letting me know.

Is that all you have to say? Do you have any response?

Since you ask, I think that’s rather pathetic. Infantile even.

He went ballistic. “I’ll have you know that I have only his best interests at heart … ” and more in similar vein. When he’d finished ranting I thanked him again and said goodbye.

The school was about 12 miles from home, and buses were not frequent in the middle of the day, but after a while Hugh rang me from a phone box in Enniskerry and I drove the 1.5 miles to collect him. He noted the hint of a smile on my lips. The rest of the day was pleasant enough.

Petty rules and irrational discipline in a school where prizewinners and pupils honoured at Speech Days often, inexplicably, had the same surnames as governors and members of staff. Incredible, isn’t it?

Not long afterwards Mr Duffy was appointed head of High School, another south Dublin Protestant school, though less rugby. Like Hugh, he has passed to life upon another shore. Perhaps they have met once again in that greater light.

* Before I sign off, let me tell you of an occasion when in the second form (age 13 I guess) Hugh collided with a huge sixth form rugby jock, Leinster trialist Eric Miller if memory serves. Little Hughie said, “hey you, watch where you’re going, you fat fecker”. Within seconds he’d learnt that alliterative skill does not overcome instant karma.

Psalm 119 verse 99 goes “I have more understanding than my teachers”, well known to Hugh from his chorister days. It was a maxim that he took to heart and made his own.

Happy birthday, big man.

Time traveller

Last night I dreamt about him again. 

I often do, at least once a week. He drops in on us quite unexpectedly, staying only a day or two as he takes a break from his world travels.

To say that it’s a delight to see him is a cosmic understatement. Such joy and hugs and laughter. I know that he’ll be off soon, and I know there’s no point trying to persuade him to stay longer. He does what he has to do, as always. I go with him to the airport to see him off.

Last night he turned up when we were in Bradford, a place that has pleasant associations from my childhood. Sometimes we’re in Nottingham, but mostly we’re in Co Wicklow. Of course in my dreams it’s not the real Nottingham or the real Old Longhill near Enniskerry, but that’s what my dream tells me. We’re all there – all five humans anyway: Petra the dog (he always said Petchra) hasn’t yet appeared. Despite his later adolescence in Dublin and his student days in Manchester, they haven’t yet featured, nor has Southwell where he was a chorister. 

He always looks well and is his bouncy cheerful self. I don’t know what his business is as he travels the world, but whatever it is I have no urge to ply him with questions about what he’s been doing or intends to do: I’m just ecstatic to be with him. He probably couldn’t tell me anyway, for he never was anything other than impulsive and spontaneous. 

The curious thing is that this time travelling son of mine is always somewhere between 8 and 15 years old. He’s very young to be so assuredly independent, but that’s entirely in character too. In my dream I wonder how he gets through airport red tape and security, but doubtless he charms the authorities as he charmed others.

He would have been 43 next Tuesday, and next Friday is the fifth anniversary of his death. 

Conversion: church and gym

A bit churchy but don’t be put off.

The Church of England is, to put it mildly, wetting its knickers about attendance. No punters, no moolah. In a bid to save money it’s dumping ordinary clergy and leaving posts unfilled. It’s still appointing bishops and administrators, but that’s modern management for you.

Church hierarchs – and let me assure you that I yield to no-one in my admiration for and loyalty to the church politburo – think that mission initiatives will sort it all out. There’s a whole series of blogs I could write on the idiocy of this, but though I’m convinced that there are too many people on the planet and humanity needs culling, death from boredom reading this blog is not the way to do it. So let’s move on.

In a recent Church Times piece, a senior cleric suggests that missions could be held in gyms and cafes. A retired colleague, Dean Henley, pointed out on the blog Thinking Anglicans some of the difficulties of this in a gym, bearing in mind “the sound of the thumping treadmills, the pop music, the grunting and the slamming metal of the weights machines” and that most of the participants wear headphones. “It might not be the right time to ask if someone is saved as they attempt the downward dog in a yoga class.”

He is absolutely right. I go further.

People who don’t use gyms often have a mistaken view of what goes on in them. Perhaps they see them as social clubs with people chatting, gossiping, making deals, arranging dinner parties, having a pint or a gin after sitting on a bike for 5 minutes in the latest designer gear, peering into mirrors saying “does my bum/belly look big in this?” Like a golf club, I suppose (I’m not old enough to play golf, so I wouldn’t know for sure).

I’ve been a gym rat for over 40 years on and off. What I see are people with focus, determination, discipline, and commitment to healthy living. They mind what they eat and drink, so church functions with their farinaceous and sugar-laden fare are for them (and me) evil. 

For us, gym = church. There are all sorts, conditions, faiths, races, ages, shapes and sizes. The atmosphere is businesslike and purposeful. No gossip, socialising or preening – there just isn’t the time when you’ve got to be back at work. The admiration of someone with a fine physique is not accompanied by snide remarks or by belittling those without, as would often be the case in equivalent circumstances in church where cattiness can be woeful. On the contrary, in gyms there is acknowledgement of the courage it takes to start a journey: mutual encouragement.

So I ask myself: what would anyone who takes physical wellbeing seriously enough to be a gym regular want or need of church? What does church have to offer that gym does not? 

Every good thing that church provides is available at the gym: companionship, common purpose, community, ritual, discipline, time out from the daily grind. People mind their own business but are happy to help when asked. No bossy interference.

And the gym provides one thing that church does not: a sense of achievement.

Does the church offer anything that gyms do not?

Yes. The threat of damnation. Indeed, the church harps on incessantly about this: after a good sing, it has people grovelling for being miserable sinners. Now, given that many of us use the gym as therapy for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, being brought down low by this medieval control-freakery (control is what it’s all about) is not conducive to mental well-being.

Gym wins hands down.

The church politburo has it the wrong way round. If they are serious about spreading the message of Jesus Christ – life abundant – then rather than running mission initiatives in gyms, they’d be better off making gyms of all the churches. A different sort of conversion.

Cambridge exam memories 1975

I qualified as a doctor in June 1975. As I’ve explained before, since autumn 1972 I’d attended King’s College Hospital in south London but nevertheless remained a student of Cambridge, albeit one who was “using” King’s for the clinical course – a Cambridge cuckoo in a London University nest. At that time Cambridge didn’t have enough resources to look after all its own students (similarly for Oxford, but that’s a dump so we don’t mention that car factory on the upper Thames).

It was, therefore, to the city on the edge of the fens that I repaired for all exams – written, face-to-face, and exams with patients. In those days that meant taking the 36 minutes past the hour from London Liverpool Street calling at Harlow, Bishop’s Stortford, Audley End and Cambridge, then on to Ely and King’s Lynn. 

I have two vivid exam memories from summer 1975. 

The first is the Obstetrics and Gynaecology clinical exam.

“Monkhouse to the patient in bed 23”. I was instructed to take a history from her. So I did.  After about 10 minutes, the examiner hove into view to give me the third degree in front of said lady. The examiner – coincidence or what? – was one of the King’s consultants, Michael Brudenell, a descendant of the Charge of the Light Brigade Brudenells. If he recognized me, he didn’t let on.

Surprisingly, his first words to me were “why would Mrs X know more about her pregnancy than most people here?” A strange question, you might think. In those days I was a very quick thinker and I said without hesitation “because she is a librarian”. Think about that – he wanted to know if I’d been thorough enough to discover her occupation. I most certainly had – such attention to detail was drummed into us from the beginning. 

Then: “what advice would you give Mrs X about feeding her baby?” Without hesitation I said “breast, for breast is best.” “Come, come” said Mr Brudenell, “explain yourself”. “Because” says I “cow’s milk is for cows, and human’s milk is for humans”. Then I thought “you fool, Monkhouse, this is not the time for being a dick”.

Mr Brudenell looked at me for about three seconds – which is a very long time when your underpants are at risk of being soiled. “Haw, haw haw! Very good, Monkhouse. Off you go.”

And that was that.

He didn’t want to know if I’d read the latest research (I hadn’t), or knew the likely cause of a very rare disease found only in Papua New Guinea (I didn’t). All he wanted to know was that I was safe, thorough and coped under pressure. He evidently thought so. Perhaps he liked my impertinence.

By the way, I am right. Cow’s milk is more poisonous to humans than is generally acknowledged. Think snot, allergies, bellyache, bloating, belching, colonic dysfunction, farting, lactose intolerance, and more. As a child of the 1950s in a Cumberland village I had milk from an uncle’s cows poured down my throat. I speak from sad experience and numerous unnecessary hospitalizations. It was another hospital consultant at King’s – can’t remember the name – who said that cow’s milk should come in bottles labelled “poison”.

The other 1975 exam memory is being grilled by three eminent surgeons, all professors or Knights of the Realm. It went something like this.

Examiner: Good morning. Take a seat. Name?

Me: Monkhouse (no such thing as Christian names then).

Examiner: College?

Me: Queens’.

Examiner: And which medical school?

Me: King’s, London.

Examiner: Haw, haw, haw, a royal flush, eh? Haw, haw!

After I’d picked myself up from rolling around on the floor in fawning laughter, I was shown a radiograph (x-ray) of a wrist. There was a fracture of the bone at the base of the thumb where it meets the wrist. I recognized it.

Me: Ah, a Bennett’s fracture.

Examiner: Good, Monkhouse, very good. Pause. Tell me, who was Bennett?

Me, confidently, looking smug: a nineteenth century Dublin surgeon.

Examiner, surprised: Oh. Long pause. Quizzical look. Was he really?

Me: I’ve no idea. I was just guessing. There were so many eminent nineteenth century Dublin surgeons, so I thought the chances were good.

Examiner: Haw, haw. Very good.

Then followed a brief discussion of fractures that can result from falling on the outstretched hand, before I was dismissed. 

The irony is that Bennett was indeed a 19th century Dublin surgeon – in fact (how spooky is this?) he was one of my kind-of predecessors at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. There must be a God after all. The commonest wrist fracture, by the way, is named after Abraham Colles, another of my Dublin predecessors – perhaps the most famous of all. See what I mean.

It was very entertaining. Comedy really.

Bible, creation, evolution, science

Autumn. Churches (remember them?) mark harvest festivals and creation.

Churches are stuffed with flowers. My eyes water and my nose streams (it runs in the family).

Churchgoers bring gifts to their god and place them at the front of the church – home grown produce like tinned fruit, vegetables and soup, and packets of rice and pasta. Preachers tell how fortunate we are to be so favoured by the prodigal generosity of Creator God, but stop short of saying that therefore those whose harvests fail must be being punished by the irascible sky pixie.

The keen reader will deduce that I hate harvest festivals. I hated them as a child in Methodist Sunday School and I hated them as a vicar. Most years I managed to avoid having to preach at harvest by inviting somebody else do it. I was able therefore to listen to the infantile platitudes of others.

A friend with whom back in the day I worked at the University of Nottingham is now one of the editors of Southwell Minster (Nottinghamshire’s cathedral) magazine, and given this wonderful time of year, and my background in medicine, zoology and theology, she asked me for an 800-word piece on creation. Here it is.

The earliest Biblical “creation” story is in Genesis 2 and 3: earth, Adam and his rib, Eve, garden and talking serpent. It’s a myth – that is to say a story that expresses profound truth. Actually, I don’t think it’s really about creation. I think it’s an explanation of why humans cock-up. In short, we put on fig leaves to hide our fears, shame and insecurities and big ourselves up, the fig leaf being the first fashion accessory hiding the reality beneath. Herein lies the origin of egocentricity. 

The Genesis 1 story – “In the beginning God …” – came later. It is a glorious panoramic vision of the origin of the cosmos from big bang onwards. It is rich in meaning, with strands reaching back to even more ancient myths. You’ll see that the order of appearance of living things is pretty logical: plants, aquatic creatures, birds, land animals, then humans appearing at the last minute. In this there’s more than a hint of progressive evolution.

There is another snippet of a creation story that for me is spine-tingllng. Read Psalm 104 (preferably the Coverdale Book of Common Prayer version) and Proverbs 8 especially v 22 onwards (any version). Another character is introduced, lady wisdom, Sophia in Greek. Divine wisdom, the pre-existent Christ, present alongside the creator at creation, the unformed stardust of which the universe is made. If this Christ-wisdom is the stardust of the universe, Christ-wisdom is in every one of us. This is marvellously beautiful imagery: don’t take it literally, but let it work on your imagination. 

I said above that the first creation story hints at evolution. Of course writers of Hebrew scripture knew nothing of modern notions of evolution, but given that I do not accept Biblical creation stories as historical fact, I see no incompatibility with what they try to explain and what modern science tries to explain. Did you know that the first few days of mammalian development (yes, we are mammals – apes in fact – get used to it) are a kind of speeded-up evolution as things like tails appear then (usually) disappear, to give but one example. As the 19th/20th century zoologist Haeckel put it, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (look it up if you’re interested). 

The Biblical stories are poetry, allegory. No more. They attempt to explain what we observe and experience. They are rich sources for speculation and reflection, particularly in relation to Greek and Roman myths and folk tales of all cultures. 

Some people believe them to be scientifically accurate, despite the fact that they were written in a different language by humans with a different world view in a different cultural milieu from today’s – people who believed that the sun orbited the earth and that there were seas under the earth and above the skies. I can tell you that some “Bible-believing” medical students were aghast to discover that women and men have the same number of ribs. The idiocy of fundamentalism.

Arguments about creationism versus evolution are not worth wasting your time on. If people want to insist the Bible is a scientific manual, that the earth was created about 6000 years ago, and that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, good luck with that. Don’t bother me with it, and stop abusing children by teaching it.

What is much more important is something that I’ve already touched upon: “If this Christ-wisdom is the stardust of the universe, Christ-wisdom is in every one of us” and indeed in every living thing. We humans are creatures of this earth, no more and no less, along with “all things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts” and – note this – plants and fungi and bacteria and archaea – and viruses. 

Unfortunately we’ve got this out of kilter, and I’m sorry to say that our reading of the Bible must take the blame. In Genesis 1:28 God reportedly tells humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”. The way we have interpreted this amounts to a criminal misrepresentation of the Hebrew. The message should be that we are to be responsible for, to nurture, to be good stewards of, to enable the earth and its creatures to flourish. The idea that the earth is ours to plunder as we like is utterly evil. 

As a race, humans have a woeful record in this regard. We see around us the fruits of our unbridled greed and arrogance. 

In the coming season of creation and harvest, stick that up your smoke and pipe it.

The stirrer stirred

I became a Clerk in Holy Orders at the end of June 2006, just over 14 years ago. 

When I was accepted for ordination I was working as the Foundation Anatomist in the new Graduate Entry Medical School of the University of Nottingham, sited in Derby. It was the plan that I continue in that job and in my “spare time” be an unpaid clergyman, a bit like the post-WW2 French worker priests (Mr Google will tell you more).

Shortly after beginning training in 2004 I began to feel that this wasn’t right. Given a personality with more than a few obsessive traits, I could see that I would want to do both jobs too well for my own good, and would therefore do neither properly. I applied for a change in status from non-stipendiary (unpaid) to stipendiary. After a bit of huffing and puffing and form filling I was sent for two more interviews at one of which the interviewer’s first words to me on opening her front door were “are you insane?” I was accepted for full-time ministry and in July 2006 I began as Assistant Curate – jargon for apprentice – in Wirksworth.

People confuse Wirksworth with Worksop. Wirksworth is an ancient lead mining village near Matlock on the edge of the Peak District. It’s a bit like a northern version of Rye in Sussex, full of nooks and crannies, curious houses (semidetached, one above the other, not next to it), tightly packed lanes and hills. It has a remarkable artistic presence displayed at the annual Wirksworth Festival. It attracts retired professionals, artists and academics thus providing a thriving intellectual life, far exceeding what you’d expect from a population of under 5500. 

Hidden away in the middle of town (village really, but they have notions) is the large cruciform church. When you find your way through one of the ginnels you are confronted by a charming cathedral close in miniature, so unexpected it quite takes your breath away.

Here it was in 2006 where under the watchful eye of the Rector David Truby I began to learn the ropes of being a parish priest. Some Assistant Curates have a terrible time with trainers who are inadequate or feel threatened. Not so David – the prospect of having a trainee (me) seven years older fazed him not one iota. He knew his job, and I my place—and it was a good place.

Though a brief curacy, only 20 months, it was a time of extraordinary richness. It seems incredible that so much happened in so short a time. Without a doubt the highlight was the explosion of ideas at the theology discussions at the Curate’s House, and the gin afterwards. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I began to see that rather than a priest (whatever that means, and nobody knows in the C of E these days), but a rabbi and a prophet, comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. I have spent my entire working life provoking others to think and learn, and shake them out of their complacency, and – let’s face it – there’s no more apposite word for the C of E. 

After about 18 months, the Bishop invited me to go as incumbent to parishes in west Chesterfield. Perhaps wrongly I felt that an invitation from the Bishop was not to be ignored – wrongly for maybe that post was not right for me. I recall being grilled at an introductory meeting by a host of posh people in twinsets, pearls and blue rinses (and that’s the men) and thinking “beam me back to Wirksworth” with a good few profanities thrown in. I could have said no, and maybe I should have, but back then I was more inclined to heed the “advice” of bishops than I am now.

West Chesterfield is wealthy and socially very conservative: expensive properties behind electric gates: they are inclosed in their own fat and their mouth speaketh proud things. Yes, I know I shouldn’t judge, but my response was visceral. I had a similar response – worse – when a couple of years later I applied for the post of Vicar of Helmsley and associated villages. After having been driven around the area and told of the local landowners – Sir This, Lady That, and Lord Howsyourfather, my guts screamed “get out of this hellhole”.

Despite the many good things and lovely people in west Chesterfield it would be true to say that I spent much of the time railing like an Old Testament prophet (Amos – read chapters 4 & 5). Paradoxically – and maybe because of this – my time there bore fruit in, I’m told, the loosening of attitudes, the widening of vision, the involvement of more people than just the elect few, and most particularly in the nurturing of vocations. I was moved at a Derby Cathedral ordination in 2019 to meet six Chesterfield people who said that I’d kicked them up the backside on the journey to ordination or readership. 

We need people to stir us up, but it comes at a cost to the stirrer.

Unexpectedly, 2011 saw our daughter in Dublin having problems such that we felt we should be closer at hand. There was no point looking for a job in the diocese of Dublin: those jobs tend to be reserved for the up-and-coming with a great future in front of them, rather than a 61-year-old has-been with a great future behind him. However, the diocese that covers the south east of Ireland had a few vacancies. I contacted the Bishop and was offered the incumbency of Portlaoise, one hour from Dublin. 

My intention was to stay there, for there is much about Irish life that is good: the Irish look forwards, outwards, onwards, and are well educated. Unfortunately I found myself in the midst of a huge row between one of my parishes and the diocese. I was aware that there was a problem, but in my arrogance I felt that my experience enabled me to handle it. I was wrong. You cannot begin to appreciate the bloody mindedness and bone-headedness of some Church of Ireland farmers. As time went by, with solicitors’ letters flying in every direction, and Susan becoming more and more affected by what it was doing to me, the writing was on the wall. The crunch came when the diocesan policy that caused the problem was rescinded. My work had been in vain, the rug pulled from under my feet. I was livid. My successor didn’t last as long as I did, and neither did his.

Fortunately, the post in Burton hove into view. It has been a good end. It has included civic and town centre ministry to which I took like a duck to water, never losing an opportunity to berate MPs and fat men in swords and uniforms on civic occasions. I also had charge of an Anglo-Catholic church in an urban priority area, where I developed a real sense of anger at the way in which the C of E – and society – ignores the poor, not least the white poor. To my great satisfaction the church became the venue for the Burton night shelter for the homeless. Despite all the goodness of my ministry in Burton, though, I felt that I could have done more: I’d been in post only 14 months when our elder son died. I was never the same again.

I was thinking of staying in post until I was 70 in June 2020 but I had such a bad chest infection in early 2019 that I reconsidered. When you’re single-handed in town centre parishes with schools, Advent and Christmas are relentless. So I retired in October 2019. I said to Susan that since she’d followed me around for decades, it was her turn to decide where we ended up. With friends in Burton, Derby, Wirksworth, Chesterfield and Nottingham, good train, air and bus connexions (this matters since my eyesight is very poor and Susan’s deteriorating) we moved across the road.

The C of E does not look kindly on retired incumbents staying in the parish where they were last at work because of the possibility of interfering with a successor. There’s no chance. I need seemly liturgy, decent music and thoughtful preaching. In today’s C of E you’re more likely to get second-rate game-show hosts who are purveyors of doggerel songs, playschool prayers and infantile preaching.

So I’m thinking of becoming a pagan.

It’ll take me back to maypole dancing at Langwathby May Day in the 50s and 60s, only this time naked. What a prospect.

Sarf London medic

In previous posts, I’ve explained why going to see the doctor can be dangerous, and why we should treat mental illness with compassion without embarrassment. This piece is much more personal.

The Cambridge medical course was and is six years long, three in Cambridge 1969-1972, three on the wards 1972-1975. In my day the hospital at Cambridge couldn’t cope with 250 medics each year, so it was the custom for almost all of us towards the end of second year to apply for a clinical place in another medical school for years 3-6. Most of us went to one of the London schools, and I ended up at King’s College Hospital on Denmark Hill (Camberwell), not too far from the Peckham of Del-boy. Peckham has now been well gentrified, but it most certainly was not so then.

In late summer 1972, a couple of weeks before the course was due to start, I arrived in London on the overnight sleeper from Carlisle, and met up with David and Steve, two more Cambridge medics, in search of student bedsit(s). We stayed in north Clapham with another friend who had already begun work in the Bank of England. I remember most vividly the invertebrates slowly sliming across the “bathroom” wall. Salubrious, huh? 

King’s was in south London but my two mates were attending more central medical schools: David in Whitechapel, east London, and Steve in Hammersmith/Fulham, so wherever we ended up, we would have to travel. We allotted ourselves search areas: mine was Paddington and north Kensington (think Grenfell but long before).

After a few days up and down the smelly and stained staircarpets of shifty letting agents, we settled on renting a basement flat on the South Circular road between Clapham Common and Balham (gateway to the south). It had its good points. It was a short walk to Clapham South tube, the living room and bedroom were spacious, and the gaff had its own side entrance. Less good were the fact that the bathroom and bog were just an incompletely partitioned area of the kitchen, culinary and other smells blending appetisingly, and the second bedroom was actually a cupboard under the stairs up to the ground floor. 

We were not in the least put off by any of this, not even by the flock wall paper that I see in my mind’s eye in the living room with its scenic eye-level view from the bay window of discarded cans and dog turds on the pavement. We invited a nonmedic friend of Steve’s to share the rent. He was a Nigel Planer (The Young Ones) type – lanky, lugubrious, long black hair – and was supposed to be at some college or other but as far as I could see spent most of his time on a mattress in the tiny, smelly, windowless under-stair cupboard with his girlfriend, doubtless engaged in mind-improving activities with mind-altering substances.

This meant that David, Steve and I shared the bedroom. Three blokes. We got to know each other pretty well. Single beds before you ask.

I had a daily commute across town of 3.5 miles each way. No car in those days. I knew nothing about London buses, but as a rail nerd I had a working knowledge of tube and rail networks, so my journey was 100 yards walk to the tube, two stops on the Northern Line to Clapham North, across the road to Clapham railway station, two stops to Denmark Hill station, 200 yards walk to King’s. I did it on foot sometimes along Acre Lane through Brixton – pleasant enough if I wasn’t pressed for time.

My first student attachment was at Dulwich Hospital, a couple of miles from King’s, up and over Dog Kennel Hill, one of the steepest in south London. A year later, after Susan and I were married, I cycled a fair bit, and up and over the hill got me quite fit.

Three things I remember quite clearly from my time at Dulwich.

The first is that there’s nothing new under the sun. Peter Friedlander, a most delightful and gentle consultant physician in his late 60s, told us that his first line treatment for any stomach upset was liquorice. “Oh sure”, thought we, “what would an old codger who was at medical school in the 1930s know of modern all-singing-all-dancing medicine?” Well, boys and girls, he was absolutely right in this as in so much else. Liquorice root is indeed the active ingredient of several therapies. Just because it comes from a plant and not a laboratory doesn’t mean it’s no use—the opposite in fact. Also from plants come aspirin, morphine and digitalis, and from mould, penicillin. Dr Grundy in Cambridge drilled into us that these drugs are four of the five essentials you need to have if stranded on a desert island. The fifth is insulin. (By morphine people actually mean heroin – diamorphine – but they have a fit if you call it that.)

Dr Friedlander also taught us that for patients on a lot of drugs, it’s often wise to stop the lot and see what happens. You see, the trouble is that drugs interact with each other, and when several are taken together they have unpredictable effects that make things worse. That message—keep it simple—still informs just about everything I do.

The other Dulwich realisation was that sometimes—often in fact—the best thing to do is let someone die. Too often I saw patients suffer unnecessarily just for the sake of being kept alive for an extra week or two or month or two, often in great distress. Why? Well sometimes it makes the doctors feel they’re doing something (doctors like you to think they’re omnipotent), but also sometimes—and I saw this in ordained ministry too—because family members use someone else’s pain as a weapon to score points off each other.

It was while I was living in Clapham South that Susan and I rekindled our school friendship. By then she was a primary school teacher in Droylsden, east Manchester, and one weekend in late 1972 she came to visit the grubby basement. An evening walk to Clapham Common found us in the Windmill tavern. I, then a junior clinical medical student, asked her to marry me. The wedding would have to wait four years, said I, until I was earning. 

So, dear reader, we were married within months in August 1973.  But all that’s another story. Until then, I leave you with this vignette from my bachelor social life at that time.

The year is 1973, the time Friday evening. The story concerns four young men attending King’s College Hospital Medical School who were taking an evening stroll. As they proceeded from Camberwell in a north-westerly direction towards The Oval, a thirst descended upon them somewhere in salubrious north Brixton.

“Behold, seest thou yonder hostelry?”
“Yea, verily. Let us hie thither and slake our thirst.”
“Aye, aye. Come, let us make haste.”

It was the Skinners’ Arms on Camberwell New Road. The four knights did enter.

“If it be thy pleasure, fair wench, we parchèd wanderers each desire a tankard of thy most toothsome nectar.”
“Most certainly, wandering knaves,” quoth she.

Some time and several flagons later, behold the lights did dim. Music rang forth and lo, a lady materialized on the podium. The knaves salivated in eager expectation. The performing lady gradually divested herself of her habiliments until she stood before the assembled company in a two-piece bikini that didst cover only the barest of essentials. She had a midline scar below the umbilicus.

“Ah, comrades, spiest-ye the scar?” saith I (for yes, I was one of the four). “Perhaps the lady hath undergone an hysterectomy.”

It was not that the utterance itself was foolish, but rather the volume at which it rang forth, for the intended whisper cameth more as proclamation. If thou understandest that, thou dost apprehend the nub of the issue.

“Thou art mistaken, fair friend,” quoth the lady, “for ‘tis an appendix scar.”

And having uttered those very words the bikini-clad performer hied herself to the bench at which the knaves sat, and reclined on the knee of the writer, and polished his spectacles with one of her removèd undergarments.

Now, the knaves were, admittedly, very junior medical students, but they possess’d enough anatomical knowledge to know that appendicectomy requirest not a midline incision but rather a right-sided incision. Nevertheless, they sensed that circumstances were not propitious for elucidation. They felt that discretion was in their interests, and without further quaffing or quoting they legged it back to their lodgings. The young men were lucky, methinks, not to have been set upon by the lady’s supporters. 

The moral of the story? To draw conclusions from observations is good, but proclamation of same should be judicious if one wants to avoid getting one’s head kicked in.