Thursday, January 28, 2016
I want to help you
I'll sit down, shut up, listen
Find shared solution
A mental health day
Quietly sifting the week
All the help I need
Some help can do harm
Like gratuitous advice
Need help with tangles?
Think we need to brush your hair
I will be careful
He crooked a finger
And the old sheep came trotting
She knew the shepherd
His crooked body
Hid a brilliant twisted mind
No one thought to ask
From the beginning
The house always looked crooked
Old male doctor
Wannabe haiku poet
Shorthand label box
An address label
Name, number, destination
Helps the post office
Words cannot define
The essence of the true me
Labels don't come close
Tiny wind blown seed
Took root in a rock fissure
'No', a tiny word
Staccato and rejecting
Yet so powerful
Tiny little thought
Crossed my mind the other day
Think I trod on it
You could be forgiven for asking if I ever seriously got down to the study of medicine. I would have to admit that I was not someone who rushed home in the evening and spent several hours writing notes about the happenings of the day. In those early days of clinical learning, despite the thrill of being a medical student, I was not studious. I certainly had relevant textbooks, and would on occasion dip into a particularly fascinating clinical issue. I gained all of my early knowledge from patients, ward round discussions, and the ongoing course of lectures (which I never missed, and during which I did take notes). Sadly I have to admit that even though I had an emotional attachment to the King’s library left over from that very first interview, I rarely went into the place – even though it had early texts dating back centuries (which these days would fascinate me), and was filled with first editions of work by Joseph Lister and others (a veritable history of medicine). My days of being a library monitor were over.
As I have mentioned before, today we have the Internet and Google, and can find brilliant summaries of most of life on Wikipedia. It is so easy to get instant information when necessary, and I am guilty in recent years of quite openly checking up some medical fact on ‘Dr. Google’, when I am presented with something from a patient about which I am unclear.
But in those first few years of medical training, I had retained my practice of ‘cramming’ on a topic in the weeks before a test or major examination. There was a natural advantage in this, which may already have become clear from earlier chapters. I was someone who had lots of time for the fun of being at medical school. Some would call my activities ‘diversions’. For me they were central to my life.
Not only did I play bridge and lots of sport, but there were opportunities to continue my interest in theatre. So, I took the opportunity to audition for a part in the KCH version of ‘The Beaux' Stratagem’ a rollicking comedy by George Farquhar, first produced at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, London, on March 8, 1707 (according to Wikipedia). I found myself playing Archer, one of a pair of rogue gentlemen, the other being Aimwell (played by one Graeme Garden). The story was of dissolute young men who had blown their fortunes. Debt-ridden, they flee London to provincial Litchfield, with the idea of marrying for money (their ‘stratagem’).
At that point Graeme was not yet famous, although he had done pre-med at Cambridge University where he was a member of the Footlights Club, and performed with the 1964 Footlights revue, ‘Stuff What Dreams Are Made Of’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In my usual naïve way, I knew nothing about Graeme or his past; all I knew was that he was a good actor, a delightful and generous person, someone who occasionally was hysterically funny in his rather dry way during rehearsals.
The show ran for two nights before Christmas on the stage of the refectory at King’s, was great fun to do, and seemed to go down well. Whether that was Farquhar’s funny script or the rather frequent innuendo (picked up very easily by a medical audience of course), or how well we did as actors, I cannot remember.
In retrospect, and having not been part of Graeme’s immediate circle, I had no idea about his emerging pressure from possible success in radio, and the decision that loomed large for him in 1965 as we neared finals.
All I knew was that Graeme and another student from Cambridge, the rather sombre ex priest Andrew Cardwell, and I found ourselves discussing a possible pantomime for the next Christmas (1965). Graeme had it in mind to adapt Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ with Caliban as a two-part pantomime horse. The ideas flowed thick and fast. I offered to direct the pantomime, and Graeme accepted. In fact Andrew and I shared duties of Director/Producer/Stage Manager, the sort of thing you do at these events for Med Schools. It ended up being one of those extraordinary processes which included devising a shipwreck scene on a stage that offered little, and working with a cast of what seemed like hundreds of people who wanted to be part of the fun, some actors with little stage experience, and some dancers with little background in dance. One of the delightful personal bits for me was that I was able to get Jan into the cast, given her prior training in theatre. She has little memory of her time being ‘a nymph’, except some residual embarrassment about ‘flailing limbs’ not being quite in sync with everyone else. I also had a small walk-on part as the bosun during the early shipwreck scene, enjoying all the ‘Argh me hearties’. The show was hysterical (as might be expected given what we now know about Graeme) and ended up being as much fun for the audience as it was for the crew (always a bonus).
Graeme, through late 1964 and early 1965, had been developing the radio show ‘I’m sorry, I’ll read that again’ with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie (the first of which went to air in April 1964). Jan and I have a delightful later memory of sitting in the middle of the front row at one of the recordings (on complimentary tickets thanks to Graeme) watching the three of them with John Cleese, Jo Kendall and David Hatch. Hysterical!
Let me just finish this piece about theatre. An opportunity arose in 1966 to enter The University of London One Act Play competition. For the life of me I cannot remember how it all came about, but a small group of us got talking, got excited, and made a decision to do it. Harold Pinter’s ‘The Lover’ was a brand new one-act play first performed in 1965, and someone had seen it and enthused. We read it and enthused. Given my recent history I offered to direct (though I had an unexpressed wish to be the male lead). I do not have a program on file, and embarrassingly cannot remember the names of our actors. I have looked on the Internet, but on this occasion it failed me. Doubtless it will all come to me before this book gets published. The female lead was the young woman who had played our Miranda in the pantomime Tempest - good actress, blond and beautiful. I cannot remember the male actor. Hopefully someone will remind me in due course.
The script, of course, is brilliant:
“RICHARD (amiably'). Is your lover coming today?
RICHARD. What time?
RICHARD. Will you be going out ... or staying in?
SARAH. Oh ... I think we'll stay in.
RICHARD. I thought you wanted to go to that exhibition. SARAH. I did, yes ... but I think I'd prefer to stay in with him today.
RICHARD. Mmn-hmmn. Well, I must be off.”
Of course (spoiler alert) we find out that Richard is both the husband and the lover in this rich interplay of subtle emotion.
There were always problems getting enough rehearsal time, but we ended up feeling we had done our best. We had a stage manager, but most of the props were culled from people’s flats. Jan remembers that our bright pink bedspread was used to cover the bed in the play!
Taking on a new play by Pinter was just so ambitious, and personally I always felt that our rehearsals were a bit underdone. But, in life you do what can be managed, and pray that everyone else had the same problems. The only night of the play was performed in front of an audience at the Med School Refectory, and adjudicated formally by someone important. We were thrilled to find out after some weeks that we had won. I never did find out if we were the only entrant. I believe I was away in Plymouth doing midwifery when the award was made; I think our ‘Sarah’ collected the cup on our behalf. It was subsequently placed in the KCH library (that I rarely visited) for the rest of the year before the next competition. I believe I saw the cup once, but by then life and marriage and examinations and medicine had taken over, so the event was spectacular and fun, but just part of a passing show (which is probably why, irritatingly, I cannot remember the associated names).
Just a small rider to the above. I did keep in some intermittent contact with Graeme over the years, albeit we were both busy in the extreme and our paths divergent, with him in England and me in Australia. When he did a tour to Australia in 2005, and included Brisbane, I invited a group of Brisbane locals (emigrés from our years at King’s) to lunch with Graeme at a restaurant on Southbank – Allan Askew (a retired surgeon), Mike Ward (Professor of Gastroenterology, now retired and a sculptor), Lucy Ward (née Dawson, now a retired GP, and an internationally known artist). We reminisced about our times and fortunes. And Jan and I caught the show with Graeme and Tim and Bill (‘The Goodies’) and went backstage and reminisced some more.
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
After a year, we moved flats. I think 4, Melon Road was scheduled for demolition. It certainly looked like it at times, especially after a Saturday night. But someone had found a really great flat – the bottom half of a much larger house in Cosbycote Ave in Herne Hill. This was a manageable walk from King’s up Denmark Hill past Ruskin Park. The flat was in much better condition, quite well furnished and clean, and had a quaint kitchen down in the cellar. Upstairs lived five nurses who worked at King’s, so although many of us already had partners, it was a lively environment, and someone was always organising a party. In addition, we had inside information about events at King’s to which we might not have been privy, so our social lives became quite spectacular.
From memory, only Jim had a car at that stage, and Barry had purchased a Vespa scooter. The more lifts I had on the back of the scooter, the more I began to appreciate this as a convenient form of transport, easily parked, and gentle on petrol. I began to see Jan and I scooting around London, and using our cheap transport to go down to Thanet to see family more often.
At some stage, we broached the topic at home, and Jan’s father Reg helped me with a loan. We bought a rather fetching, if underpowered, lilac scooter – sadly not a Vespa because I could not afford one. It was a British made Triumph Tina, fully automatic and with no gears - fun, cheap on petrol, got me to med school each day. It was not cool however (and now, I can look back and think it must have looked a bit ‘girlie’), but it was transport.
I still lusted after a Vespa. Somehow I got to know a fellow who ran a motorbike repair and second hand shop down on Camberwell New Road. He was 10 years older and worldly wise (apart, perhaps, from the fact that he lived in a small squalid room at the back of his shop). He helped out with some minor repairs at some stage, and I liked him and his attitudes. He told his stories of his life, and I told stories of being a student. He got invited to parties, and I seemed to get some privileges down at the shop; I am sure he would agree he got the better part of the bargain (but I didn’t care).
Over the months, my underpowered transport increasingly irritated me - especially if there were two of us on board. So eventually I badgered my friend. He being in business, persuaded me to buy a scooter he had in the shop – a large British Racing Green four-stroke Triumph Tigress that had gears, power and performance, but was a bit of a brute. I traded in my girlie bike for the real thing. Of course, over the following months, it began to go wrong - apparently a feature of the bike (on which production was stopped in 1964). I have heard it said that it was a ‘great bike for the enthusiast as long as someone else was paying the bills’. Over time it spent more hours in the shop than on the road and I spent hours walking backwards and forwards, agitating about progress and the possible cost; as a student I just did not have disposable income to keep shelling out. Eventually my friend found a decent Vespa in good shape, but my grant and other resources were very stretched, and in those days you could not just go to the bank and borrow money for something as frivolous as a scooter. And bankcards had not been invented.
I began to plan my finances, casting around until I got a part time after hours job in a local garage as a pump attendant.
Shifts selling petrol were a bit erratic, and took up whole evenings but, with my eye on the prize, I kept it up for several months. It was an eye opener. The customer service was no problem; I liked people and had always been able to start up conversations with almost anyone. But learning the ropes was not quite as easy. Garages in those days were not mini supermarkets, but did sell cigarettes and matches and lighters and chewing gum and other sweet delights. So I had to learn how to manage the till, (and gain the trust of the manager), and also had to ensure that everything tallied up by the end of my shift. Knowing what I know about the dangers to health in cigarettes, I cannot imagine (now) selling the damned things, but around that time I had begun to smoke the occasional cigarette, and it was not till much later that solid research began to emerge and I began to understand the risks.
There was a small ‘lurk’ that also now causes me some discomfort. When you work in an environment, you fit in and do what others do; you don’t necessarily make instant ethical judgments. I was let in on a secret. When filling a customer’s oil, there was a way of not quite emptying the plastic bottle. It was really quite rare for a driver to be interested in watching what was happening under their bonnet, or interested in getting their hands dirty. They just wanted the job done quickly, and were quite happy to leave it up to us lackies. The plastic bottles, with their precious residue, were then taken to a quiet dark part of the garage and left to drain thoroughly into another bottle. By the end of an average evening, we could have saved enough oil for two complete refills. And the cash from this would be shared – usually between just two people. It was not doing much harm, was not stealing from the owners of the garage, and went into my kitty towards a new Vespa. Dishonest? Yes, I am afraid so. The honesty you might expect from a future doctor? Mmm, not quite.
The other job I took on a couple of nights a week was as a temporary part time barman at a pub called ‘The Cricketers’ on Kennington Oval, right next to The Oval Cricket Club. Sadly this is now one of the ‘lost pubs of England’, but in its heyday was a well-known venue with live music. It attracted a rather interesting clientele, and I count it as a priceless part of my education. Tuesday night was ‘drag night’, and no-one had forewarned me.
At first I did not notice. It did seem a bit busy, but then it was a very busy pub and, as a relative novice, I was too engrossed in ‘pulling pints’ and making sure change was correct. To noisy acclaim, on the stage appeared a couple of over-dressed, over made up, women who launched into a series of covers of popular songs (you know the sort of thing: Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’, the Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’, Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy’, the Beatles’ ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Love Me Do’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Wishin' And Hopin'). The customers were going wild, and hearing orders over the raucous banter was nigh impossible. One woman customer paid for drinks for her male friend, and I sort of noticed that she had rather large hands – even for a tall woman. The veins on the back of her hand stood out, and when I looked up into her face, the features were rather large, and the make-up a bit over the top. ‘She’ was the one who drank the Gin and tonic. Finally it dawned on me. While the members of the band were all male, the two singers were also males in drag, and singing falsetto. Ah well. My job was to serve drinks. In any case, the atmosphere was happy, nobody got roughed up, and I was never propositioned. It was all just fun, and for the weeks I was standing in for my friend and colleague, I enjoyed Tuesday nights, and was somewhat sorry when he returned. But by then I had scraped together enough money to make up the shortfall on my precious scooter. And learned several life lessons along the way.