Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (71) The General Practitioner (16); Characters
Tucked in English villages all around the country are amazing characters with fascinating histories and stories to tell. One such man in his early 50s was an artist of whom Birchington locals were in some awe; either that or they dismissed him as slightly mad. I first came across him in the high street one morning after surgery.
We needed some vegetables, and Jan had asked me to pop into the local greengrocer’s. That was always just a little bit complicated, and whenever I was in the village I always carried my prescription pad in my pocket. Sure enough, after I had ordered what we needed and ‘the girl’ was wrapping it all up, in front of the other customers the greengrocer used those fateful words: “While you're here, Doc… You know that eye ointment you prescribed? Could I possibly have some more – if you have your pad with you?” I chuckled. This was an old game, and one to be played lightheartedly. Of course, I said, pulling out my pen and pad and suffering visions of the rest of the queue lining up for me rather than the oranges. “ Have you got the old tube with you?” “Sure have” he responded, reaching deep into a pocket with a slightly grubby hand. I did the necessary and turned to find a couple with somewhat bemused smiles. Perhaps they were new to the village.
As I emerged onto the street, I was nearly bowled over by a vision in a dark purple velvet suit with a wide brimmed matching hat and silver boots. He was being dragged along by a Great Dane and a Wolfhound both straining at the leash, while a tiny Yorkshire terrier scurried along behind. There was no acknowledgment or apology; just the onward progress of someone living in his own world, someone I came to know had been (and maybe still was) a bit of a local rake. This was Henry Campbell, larger than life artist in the style of da Vinci, and local icon. It was probably a year before I got to know much about him; in part because we were engrossed in our own lives, but also because he and his family were patients of John’s.
Henry and his wife Cynthia owned a very large three-storey house just round the corner from us. They had made suitable conversions, employed a number of young teachers, and ran an English language school for the children of wealthy parents from the Middle East. From time to time the students were seen in small groups in the village but mostly kept to themselves, and were rarely ill. I understand the school had a very good reputation. In part this was due to Cynthia (or ‘Cyn’ as she preferred to be called). Hers was the steadying hand; she was the organiser. Henry did much of the negotiation, and taught some subjects, but at times would disappear or simply be unable to teach. I was only called round to the school on a couple of occasions, but gradually came to know and enjoy the company of Henry and Cyn.
He had been a fighter pilot during the 2nd World War, and was left severely traumatised. Almost immediately the war was over, he sought out a Benedictine order of monks with the intent of becoming one of their number. The order must have suited his needs for solitude, and had an ability to heal, because over some years, Henry began to recover. I believe it was during this time that he began to write about his life, but more than that he discovered his talent for music and art. Like many, he was intrigued by the old masters, and fascinated by their techniques.
I understand that when he left the Monastery, Henry spent several years in Italy learning his craft from a long tradition of artists. His paintings of that era seem to be full of exquisite and glowing still life. But behind that his skill at drawing was profound, and highly reminiscent of the da Vinci school. He attempted somewhat obsessively to stick as closely as possible to Da Vinci’s original methods. So sketches were transferred to canvas using pinprick. All paint was made from the original pigments, using egg yolk and water (Egg Tempera). Henry sought authenticity in all things.
For some bizarre reason I had at some time acquired a foot pedal organ, and now cannot remember whether it was a gift. I am pretty sure I did not buy it at auction. My memory is that it came as part of a job lot with an extremely large and solid 16 person leaved solid oak table, with turned legs from a couple who were downsizing and moving. I guess they thought that if our house could accommodate the table, then the organ would always find a place; which it did. It was the sort of small (but not exactly portable) organ you may have seen in small country churches. I can’t really think why I accepted, except it was rather unique and idiosyncratic, and we had a large house to fill and did not own a piano. Perhaps there were fantasies of having Jan pick up her music again, or of the boys learning to play music. There were a couple of minor mechanical problems that need work, but it was usable.
I must have spoken with Henry about the organ on one of my home visits, and he was intrigued enough to ask to come round to the house ‘to see what he could do to fix it’. True to his word, he appeared at the front door early one evening, and was shown to ‘the blue room’ accompanied by two shy little boys. They watched fascinated as he tried the organ out, pulled various stops and proceeded to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Old Gates and the neighbours would have would have heard nothing like that before or since. I had this momentary vision of a mad monk in full robes back in his monastery. It was thrilling, overwhelming and deeply emotional.
Henry came round several times after that ‘to play the organ’, often watched by wide-eyed boys. Out of the blue he offered to do so some sketches of them as well as Jan; three precious life size ochre drawings in High Renaissance style (and treasured to this day). From time to time in conversation he would broach small bits of his history, particularly after he learned that my father and his brothers and their father had all served in the RAF. I wish I could have shared with him that Pop Martin had written the first book on air navigation ("Martin's Air Navigation", 1937), based on an RAF manual that Pop had developed between the wars and from which Henry may well have been trained; but this was a piece of family history that was to come to light much later. I never was to hear the worst bits of Henry’s story, but he always left cheerfully, whistling down the road.