Saturday, 4 August 2007


Yesterday was a most enjoyable day. Although my Eeyore-like outlook had led me to expect stressful unmanageable days all last week because of partners being on holiday, my wife pointed out that this was by no means certain – and she was entirely correct. (She often is!) Yesterday went particularly well, I kept more-or-less to time, none of the consultations were unduly stressful, I saw some of my favourite patients and I enjoyed some social chat.

A young woman from Thailand had recently joined the list, and at the end of our consultation I told her that my father was there last Christmas, and rode on an elephant on Boxing Day. I did this not to boast about my father's globetrotting achievements but to make her feel more at home. It seemed to work, for she smiled with pleasure and told me a little about her country. The trick here is not to burden the patient with too much information about yourself. As Voltaire said: “le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire” (the way to bore people is to tell them everything). The doctor should say enough to establish a personal connection and then let the patient talk – for (s)he is the star of the consultation.

A young man came in bearing a science fiction book, having obviously anticipated a long sojourn in our waiting room. I read quite a lot of SF myself as a teenager, and mentioned this to him at the end of the consultation. He gave a fascinating summary of the genre, demonstrating once more that although we may have some expertise in medicine, our patients are frequently experts in their own areas of interest. I did end up recommending that he try Ursula Le Guin again, having been put off her by being forced to read the Earthsea trilogy at school. I remember being bowled over by The Left Hand of Darkness when I read it in my impressionable teens.

And then I saw my poetry expert. I love the poetry of Philip Larkin, and can easily get misty-eyed looking at the themes, imagery and sheer technical brilliance of a poem like “An Arundel Tomb”. Recently I had been looking again at “Toads”.
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?...

...Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts -
They don't end as paupers;...
In the poem the persona regrets that he will never be able to throw off the shackles of a tedious job because of a similar “toad” within himself, perhaps a Protestant work ethic or a fear of change. I found that this reflected a similar ambivalence within me, faced with the choice of soldiering on in the same old job for another decade before collecting my pension, or moving to France and “living on my wits”.
...Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:...
However I was having some difficulty analysing the final stanza where Larkin is a bit obscure, so I was very pleased when my poetry expert consulted me. He was able to help my analysis and, to my great joy, told me that a loblolly-man was a ship's surgeon. Perhaps this is a secret message from Uncle Philip, that as a latter-day loblolly-man it's OK for me to use my wit and drive the brute off? :-)


The Shrink said...

You know, it is human nature, but se do tend to sellectively attend to stuff we're presented with or chance upon that fits with what we want or expect to hear . . .

Why not instead muse over Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken?

Although said to be about independence and personal freedom it's also about having made a choice and time passing such that we can dream whistfully of other paths we have, but know we won't have the time to try them all.

Dr Andrew Brown said...

The Shrink: That's the great thing about poetry, isn't it. By leaving so much unsaid the poet allows us to find our own meanings which have resonance with our own lives.

I like the Frost poem (as does most of the USA, apparently) and have already used in a posting back in May.

I made a lovely Freudian slip yesterday. I went down the corridor to collect a patient thinking about the last time I saw her, when I was stressed and she smoothed my ruffled feathers. As I opened the door, instead of saying "come down" I said "calm down". :-)

Anonymous said...

I think if you feel yourself pushed for time, you could do worse than try "Pursuit" by Stephen Dobyns - when I've felt pressured it's helped...we all seek solace in our own particular ways though...

By the by, I always thought loblolly men were the surgeons assistants (not the semi-skilled surgeons mates, but the unskilled guys who'd drag the patients on to the table, hold them down during amputations etc)...

Hope you don't still see yourself as a latter day equivalent!

Dr Andrew Brown said...

Cogidubnus: Yes, my (Collins) dictionary suggests a loblolly-man was a medical orderly (assistant) who dished out the loblolly (gruel) to the patients.

I guess I dish out quite a lot of stuff. :-)

Anonymous said...

For a very Eeyore-like outlook, try the poetry of Christina Rossetti. "If I might see another spring..." is all about living for today, and regrets about the past. "Remember" is about thinking about what we leave behind after death; she muses long on this subject in other poems, some more bleak than others.

As for Ursula K Le Guin, I have my very battered 1977 copy of The Left Hand of Darkness on my bedside table at the moment. It is a book I can read and read again, and I get something new out of it every time. "It is good to have a end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end".

Her "Four Ways to Forgiveness" is also an excellent book, on racial equality and freedom. The third part of the Earthsea Quintet is also just out as an animated Japanese film.

Dr Andrew Brown said...

Nails UK: Thanks for the recommendations. I'm not sure that I ought to read too much gloomy poetry. :-)

"It is good to have a end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end". Yes indeed! And I would cap that with some T S Eliot:

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."