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Accepting The Odd Goat

More about Accepting The Odd Goat


    These irreverent pieces centre on amusing or bizarre episodes from my career as a hospital doctor. Why should anybody else be interested? The answer is because they put into perspective just how far doctoring has changed over the past decade or so, only sometimes for the better. If that seems of no concern to you at the moment, it probably will one day.
    The stories are true. What you will read in them happened to me, exactly as I describe. Many cover aspects of medical life which are likely to be unfamiliar but others, regrettably, may not be – medical misbehaviour for instance (including, I fear, my own). A majority, however, simply illustrate an ethos which once was accepted but now seems extraordinary, in every sense. Soon it will be history. I want to record it before that happens. Stories may be unrepresentative, and biased – in fact they usually are. But they are also uncensored and memorable. Official histories and newspaper articles tell only part of the truth, whether as the broad view or the hard case. Nothing replaces an individual account, honestly set down, even if this one does tend to concentrate on the more picaresque of my experiences. It is the novelist’s approach rather than the historian’s, and it shares his or her aim – to entertain as well as illuminate, to better effect.
    Picaresque is a word which summons visions of roguish playfulness. I am being kind. Many of my stories show institutions and individuals behaving badly; on occasion, very badly. The former, which I identify, may take reasonable refuge in the fact that all these things happened a long time ago, and everything is quite different nowadays. In fact, it will be impossible to stop them doing do – we live in an age of self-justification – but people, I believe, are entitled to more understanding. They acted then as, maybe, everyone else did. So since I cannot be sure about that it would be invidious to name or shame them. You can see how out of date I am; I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt. But were my experiences unique? They can’t have been. Which makes me wonder, and should make you wonder too, that if such things happened then, what may be going on now, when life in the NHS – or can this be age speaking? – has become appreciably odder.
    I have included some episodes of my time during National Service. This bulked so large in every young man’s life at the time it would feel unnatural to omit any reference to it, especially as we doctors did it as medical officers, which enabled us to extract rather more amusement from the two years than most conscripts managed. For us it was, in general, a respite from the wrath that was past and the wrath that was yet to come, and as a change of scenery it serves a parallel purpose in this book. That doesn’t mean my experiences were unprofitable. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that familiarity with the military administrative mind was a helpful preparation for the absurdities in store from the NHS one.
    Some pieces are mostly story; some use one as a peg; a minority have no real story at all. Many speak for themselves; others I comment on. The result is a miscellany. I don’t think that matters. It provides a portrait of a time long gone, against which the present can be judged and to an extent, explained. What that portrait shows, and just how far it merits nostalgia rather than condemnation, I leave you to judge. Don’t expect me not to take sides, however. I have views on what doctoring is about. Still, I have tried to be open-minded. I am just as likely as anybody else to be mistaken, but unlike too many people these days, say so.
    When material is second-hand, I make that clear. Hearsay or speculation are also well flagged. Of course, all stories can be improved in the telling and I won’t pretend I can recall conversations which are forty years old with absolute accuracy. Some, however, the important ones, are pretty clear in my recollection. Naturally, anyone who has been married to one person for as long as I have is familiar with that faculty being challenged on a regular basis, so I shall hedge this far: if those weren’t the exact words, then they were words which were very similar. Besides, she wasn’t there most of the time.
    What may be an embellishment, however, is the amusement I now feel in revisiting these events. I doubt if I necessarily felt that quite as keenly closer to them, despite my lifelong irrepressible sense of the ridiculous. But the passing of the years, and an awareness of having got away with things rather better than I had any right to expect, have led me – largely – to forget whatever anger or frustration possessed me at the time. Genuinely, I see most of the episodes as something to be laughed at, especially at my own expense.
    Readers, if indeed I ever have any, may be mildly irritated by title cross references to other chapters. I apologise, but I am only trying to be helpful. The truth is I rather doubt if anyone will choose to read this book from end to end, as opposed to dipping into it when temporarily at leisure – on the lavatory, say, or waiting for Strictly Come Dancing to give place to the News. The occasional reference, however, to my second set of pieces on medical life (Is There A Doctor On Board?) is less innocent – pure commerce, in fact.
    I have been uncertain how to describe these pieces, and in the end have settled for sketches, which does at least convey their modest ambition. Most refer to events in the earlier part of my career, a period likely, I guess, to be of greater interest to readers anyway, given the present day taste for medieval history. I enjoyed my later years, but seemed to have encountered fewer such blackly comic experiences. That may be, of course, because I was unknowingly providing them for others. Any such victims can repeat the exercise – preferably after I’m dead, please.
    One encouragement: though these pieces are about medicine they are not full of technicalities. After all, they’re supposed to be entertaining. I have also kept gore to a minimum, but couldn’t avoid it altogether. Sorry. Some contain fragments of history, of interest in context – and who knows, also to some yet-to-be-conceived chronicler of the NHS in search, understandably, of a little light relief. For convenience I have arranged them in rough autobiographical order, but my life has not been remarkable. Really, all you need to know is that in the end, by virtue of considerable luck, I became a consultant cardiologist. Still, if you hanker to know how, or to provide a context for my pieces, I append a brief resumé. All of it will seem as from another world, even to recent medical graduates. Careers are now tailored and organised by central authority. But after all that is true of most of my experiences. I parade them for most readers to marvel at, not to recognise, apart from my medical contemporaries.
    Nevertheless, however unwillingly, I have not been able to escape giving a portrait of my character. I wish it were more flattering. Unfortunately, actions and attitudes, like fictional characters, tend to gain a life of their own. What I thought was drive has emerged as arrogance, just as tenacity has mutated into bloody-mindedness, caution has degenerated into cowardice, and enterprise has been exposed as opportunism. But I set out to be truthful and must accept the result. If that is how I was (wife’s amendment deleted) it is too late to do anything about it. Where I am able to defend myself I try. Where I can’t, I hope nobody else will notice. I can only repeat what I have claimed all my life: that as long as I’m not crossed and everyone sees things my way I sometimes pass as almost agreeable, if I really make an effort.
    Paradoxically, the self-deprecation which is also a feature of my account – well, here and there – is not an affectation. Nor is it false humility or masochism. You won’t believe me, of course, but please try. Like many people who present a mask of confidence to the world I have often been extremely dubious about my abilities. However, it has not always been politic to show it, especially to patients, because there was nobody else around onto whose more capable shoulders I could easily shift the burden, which is why few people (again, apart from the obvious one I live with) have guessed.

    NB This introduction is currently also chosen by Google in Book Search as part of the contents displayed, but bears repeating here as the best explanation of the purpose of this book.