Now that Dr No is out, he can write more freely of his past. Details he before kept back can now be brought forward, free of the anxiety of unintentional exposure. Indeed, this was one of a number of reasons why Dr No lifted the veil. He can now write of where he trained, the places he has worked, and the doctors, some outstanding and some rather less so, that he has known over the years; and of the capers and calamities that have lightened and darkened his career. For with a name comes the history. Anonymity, like virginity, once lost, is forever gone; that which was hidden has now become known. And – he might add, for those who detected a valedictory note in Dr No’s last post – let him assure them that, just as the ex-virgin rarely forsakes future carnal knowledge, so the ex-anonymous Dr No has no plans to forsake further appearances. Rather the opposite, in fact, but never, of course, to the extent of wanton promiscuity…
Earlier this week, the BBC screened a three-parter featuring the young James Herriot at Glasgow Veterinary College. Shot through a formaldehyde filter, the grey Glaswegian granite took on a cadaverous tint. The fumes penetrated, as they do, just about everything. A pet sheep got the vapours, and was put to its bed; elsewhere, a lame dray was put to sleep, only more finally. On the sets, paint peeled, and even some of the characters peeled, revealing layers of cattiness and bitchiness, not to mention vampiness, that quite out-catted, out-bitched and out-vamped the docile formaldehyde stunned animals. This wasn’t so much the usual Sunday evening Lark Rise fare, as Lark Fall. Viewers tuning in for some light-hearted sheep-diddling in the Yorkshire Dales were, it seems, sorely disappointed.
Dr No, on the other hand, was nostalgically reminded of his medical school days. Although he trained in London, starting in the late nineteen seventies, he was struck by how much the atmosphere of a nineteen thirties Glasgow veterinary college resembled the London medical school he came to know half a century later. He saw the same Edwardian décor, with its high glazed tiles on the walls and hand painted signage on the doors, and the long wooden laboratory benches strewn with the apparatus of chemistry and the inanimate remains of the once animate. All in all, Dr No suspects he would have felt more at home in that distant Glaswegian college than he would in one of today’s medical schools. Even the feminist sub-plot felt familiar: Dr No trained at the Royal Free, the first British hospital to allow women access to the wards to train and qualify as doctors.
The physical milieu was not the only familiar facet of the veterinary college. Dr No was reminded too of the cohesion and closeness that existed between students and, on occasions senior staff. A number of the staff were of course rozzers: one even threatened to sue the young Dr No for libel, over an article he had written in the student magazine. But it was one of the school’s professors, the stern but always brilliant and quite wonderful Ruth Bowden, who, on a matter of principle, came to the vulnerable young Dr No’s defence. The young student gave thanks by taking the great professor to dinner, at a bijou French restaurant in London’s West End – a stunt of such presumption that to this day he has no idea how he did it – but the great professor had already given the young student far more, something that would last long after the detailed anatomy of the peripheral nerves had faded: a nascent understanding of what it means to be a doctor.
By coincidence, also this week, Max Pemberton, writing in the Telegraph, picked up on a paper that describes how today’s caring and sharing medical school courses, which have displaced much of the traditional material students learnt, leave today’s young doctors feeling ill-prepared for the realities of serious illness on the wards. Dr No can’t help wondering whether, notwithstanding the wonders of caring and sharing excellence, the visceral hands-on training he received, and the gift of cohesion between a good teacher and a willing student, better prepares the student for the wards; for while an ability to care and share a patient’s pain may be good, knowing how to diagnose and treat that pain is even better; for that, above all else, is the essence of doctoring.