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 workIn 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”.
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:
Losels, loblolly-men, louts -
They don't end as paupers;...
...Ah, were I courageous enoughHowever 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? :-)
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:...