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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Making of a Child Psychiatrist (26): Med School (4)

One of the characteristics of the course at King’s was that it serviced three London Hospitals – Westminster, Charing Cross and King’s College Hospital. For the years in which I trained, there were two clinical intakes per annum. Those who passed were sent to their respective hospitals to begin clinical studies on the wards. I think the examination cut point was probably geared to ensure roughly equal numbers for the intakes. So roughly 120 of the 140 were expected to pass eventually, with about 20 failing both their first and second attempt. The 120 were divided roughly into 20 for the first intake, and 20 for the second intake, to each of the three hospitals. I had no idea about the logistics until somewhat later in my clinical years; I guess I never gave it much thought. All I knew was that there was this ‘massive’ examination looming in March 1964, and I was really keen not to fail. I say fail, because I had no idea about the logistics; I believed that if I failed, I would have been ‘out’. So the urge to do well was strong, and I found myself studying every moment I got. In retrospect, even if I had not passed first time, I would have felt a bit like a ‘failure’; even to have been held back to a second intake.
This did not stop be getting involved with extraneous things; a feature of my life and restless brain. There was a mascot for King’s College called Reggie the Lion, a concrete filled red ‘lion rampant’ with a crown and his left foot on a golden ball. From time to time, Reggie was stolen by other colleges, and efforts had to be made to find him, rescue him, or barter for his return. Reggie always made a proud appearance at the annual Lord Major’s Show, which occurred on the 2nd Saturday in November each year. This is a procession to the Royal Courts of Justice and the presentation of the Lord Mayor to the Chief Justices. In essence it is a carnival with all sorts of floats made through the year, and shown off by various organisations vying for prizes.
I never really remember how I get into these things, but no other Faculty at King’s seemed keen to dress up a float and spend half of Saturday looking foolish, standing gawping at the London crowd lining the streets. Some fool in the Med Faculty had thought it might be hysterically funny to dress up as doctors in white coats with medical paraphernalia and stand on a flat-topped truck surrounding a coffin, showing off Reggie (and provoking possible theft). One of the group knew someone prepared to lend us a truck, and someone else had a suitable driving licence; done deal. We needed a coffin. So someone talked to a funeral director of his acquaintance somewhere near the Oval and for a small sum, a coffin was duly delivered to the College and lifted onto the truck. The décor of the truck was a bit spartan, and we all behaved like lunatics having a party, but I guess it was fun. We did not win a prize.
And then we had a problem. The truck had to be delivered home by a designated time, and this did not allow for a detour to the Oval to return the coffin by 5pm on a Saturday (to avoid incurring excess fees). We stood there in the courtyard in a quandary. The best we could come up with was for four of us who lived at Halliday Hall to take the coffin back to the Oval – after all it was on our way, so to speak. We could not afford a taxi, being poor medical students, and in any case you would not get a cab willing to have half a coffin poking out of one window. He who had hired the object assured us that the funeral parlour was within walking distance of the Oval Underground. So with bravado, the four of us shouldered the empty coffin and walked somberly, if swiftly, along The Strand to Charing Cross Underground. The coffin was upended whenever we needed to – on the platform waiting for a train, inside the train where there were few seats and we all had to stand, or simply to take a rest. We did get some bemused looks, but (in that classic English manner) not one person ever spoke to us. Nobody asked for explanations, nobody challenged our need to carry a coffin, no-one asked if there was anyone inside (even if it was somewhat obvious that the four of us were managing too well for there to be a body; even a small one). People seemed to avoid us but, as you might imagine, at close to rush hour on the underground this was a bonus. We accomplished the mission, arriving only minutes before closing time. Slightly hysterical by the time we got to Halliday Hall, we all headed for the bar, and laughingly repeated our bizarre tale to anyone who would listen. These days I guess we would have had photos on Instagram, or told the story to shocked disbelief on Facebook. But all we have is a very odd story, which seems to reflect our equally odd focus of the moment – dissecting a corpse to learn about living anatomy.
I lived on the top floor of Halliday Hall, one of sixteen young men from a wide variety of multicultural backgrounds. One such was Joe de Mello, a quietly serious and respectable young man whose parents were of Indian origin living in South Africa. Joe studied hard, and whenever I was struggling with a something, I found Joe to be a mine of information. But he was somewhat reserved, and although I would count us as friends, I never really felt we were close. In contrast was a friend I became quite close to. Bikhu Unadket again had Indian parents, living in Kenya where there was ongoing turmoil. He was always a little anxious, and I know very little of his family’s background on which to base any reasons for this. We were both studying medicine, enjoying what we were doing and struggling with the same things. Whenever he was perplexed by some issue I was able to pass on some of Joe’s wisdom. He had been reticent to join in Hall activities, but gradually thawed and came to the centre of life somewhere between the television and the bar, even though he did not drink. We got to talking little bits of culture, and shared differences in ways of thinking. Bikhu was in many ways my introduction to Hindu ways of thinking, and I am sure he planted a seed around meditation as a way of controlling self and anxieties, a seed that was to lead to our seeking to learn Transcendal Meditation some twenty years or so later.
Bikhu got to know Jan on one of her visits to the hall, and was obviously intrigued and delighted by our closeness. Out of the blue one day he invited us to attend a forthcoming Saraswati Puja Celebrations (“A devotional evening dedicated to the goddess of knowledge, music, art and culture”, January 1964). We accepted with a mix of curiosity and delight and honour.
I cannot now remember where the celebration took place, but I guess Bikhu had given us clear directions to the nearest Underground station, and had met us there. We walked into what looked like a concert with an enormous hall set up with row after row of high backed seats. Everywhere we walked we were greeted with smiles and hands clasped together and small bows. I looked around, and could see almost no-one who was not Indian, and slowly it dawned what an enormous privilege had been bestowed. Bikhu sat us about ten rows from the front, and gradually the night unfolded on stage in front of an enormous statue of Saraswati with her multiple arms. I am not sure either Jan or I had listened closely to much Indian music, and it was yet to be popularised by the Beatles some years later. It took time for us to get used to the alien beat of the tabla and other drums, and the ethereal mix of several sitars, and the sarangi, and the flutes and bagpipes. We settled into the rhythm of the night, applauding when those around us applauded, and trying vaguely to match the beat tapping on our laps. When people prayed, we fell respectfully quiet, understanding little of the words, but gaining the full sentiment of a large number of people. Bikhu, bless him, tried to explain the process and content as best he could; I am not sure we got it, but I am sure we didn’t care to understand – we just cared to share the experience. It was beautiful, we were transported, and the evening has never been forgotten. I still know next to nothing about Hindu culture, despite the fact I have continued over the years to have many wonderful Indian colleagues. But I have always had a strange sense of connection with Saraswati.
Let me close this section with a slightly wry note. There were only two bathrooms on the top floor of Halliday and nobody had heard of showers, so they were literally boringly green tiled somewhat chilly and empty ‘bath rooms with toilets’. Sixteen of us shared, so there was always a crush to get to a toilet in the mornings. The baths were less used, in that way of young Englishmen of the time. So on one occasion I went to have a bath, and the damned thing was absolutely filthy with scummy rings and the remans of somewhat filthy water. I was a little incensed. I went next door and to my surprise was met with the same vision – a filthy bath. I reflected that I had noted this several ties before, and had always had to clean the bath before having a bath. I cleaned up the bath with some vigour, then ran a bath and soaked myself thoroughly with no interruptions. Still somewhat irritated by having to be a cleaning lady, I went back to my room and penned ‘An ode to the bathroom’ (later published in the King’s College Hospital Gazette, of which I was to become a deputy editor).

When you have finished your ablutions
and leave the aftermath
Regard the scum and soap solutions
Left slopping in the bath

At home your Mum may clean the stain
From rings left by ‘Our Garth’
But here we clean the porcelain
When we have had our bath

So when you twist upon the mat
And steam upon your hearth
Think, return, and contemplate
And wipe the bloody bath!

OK, a bit of doggerel. Does not scan well. But I made two careful copies and, armed with some Sellotape, I marched into each bathroom and ceremoniously stuck a copy on the wall above the bath. They lasted a couple of weeks, got a bit tatty and smudged from steam, but they did the trick. The baths remained quite clean for weeks. Not sure who I offended…

More later…

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