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The discreet pleasures of bad books

By Mindo - 20th Aug 2021

I prefer doctor memoirs that are stylish and witty, but those that are pompous and self-serving offer their own pleasures

The best political memoirists never achieved high office: Alan Clark, Chips Channon, Chris Mullin. They were observers rather than leaders, too ironical and detached to take it all seriously.

The autobiographies of presidents and prime ministers, in contrast, are nearly always earnest and worthy, too long (David Cameron allegedly had to cut 100,000 words from his memoir For the Record, which still came in at 752 pages), and humourless (Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher).

Medical memoirs are thought to be a new phenomenon, but they’ve been around since Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici was published in 1643. Like their political counterparts, the best doctor memoirists are those who did not rise to eminence within the profession: Adam Kay’s best-selling This is Going to Hurt describes the traumatic events leading up to his decision, when he was a specialist registrar, to give up doctoring; A J Cronin’s Adventures in Two Worlds concludes with his abandonment of medicine in his mid-30s for novel writing.

Like their political counterparts,

the best doctor memoirists

are those who did not rise to

eminence within the profession

I am an avid reader of doctor memoirs. Although I naturally prefer those that are honest, stylish and witty, I can also enjoy those that are pompous, self-serving, boring, and badly written. These books, when read in the right spirit, can be laugh-out-loud funny. The acknowledged apotheosis of the sub-genre of the unintentionally hilarious medical autobiography is The Spice of Life: From Northumbria to World Neurology (1993) by Lord Walton of Detchant. Walton, an expert in muscular dystrophy, was Professor of Neurology at Newcastle medical school, a man who accumulated titles, chairmanships, and presidencies over a long career. Even though the book was published by the British Medical Journal Group, Richard Smith, then editor of the BMJ, concluded that because the book was so dull and so long (643 pages) that to review it in the journal would be “unkind”.

Walton, however, phoned the BMJ twice, demanding that his book be reviewed. Richard Smith recalled: “On the first occasion I avoided any commitment, but the second time he rang me he laid it on thick: ‘I’ve been president of the BMA twice, president of the GMC, and I think I have a right to have my book reviewed.’ Lord Walton, who always called me ‘Smith’, and I had run-ins before.”

‘Smith’ acquiesced and asked the journal’s books editor Ruth Holland to review Lord Walton’s memoir. “It was wicked of me,” he confessed. Here is an excerpt from Holland’s review:

“Lord Walton, bless him, tells you everything you never wanted to know about the rise and rise of a lad from Spennymoor to the heights of the medical trade,

not failing to mention that his mother’s mother was well cared for by a companion called Mabel, that he spent much time in the church choir hoping for a glimpse of his future wife’s knees as she swung round on the organ stool, that his elder daughter was a wakeful baby, that Dulwich has a splendid picture gallery and Liechenstein lovely mountain scenery, that Holland is flat and that in 1963 he and Betty (of the knees) while house hunting in Newcastle found that several ‘were attractive, but had significant disadvantages, even including some in Elmfiled and in Graham Park Road’.

“This is a glorious book, a 1990s equivalent of the Diary of a Nobody, with its unerring eye for daily trivia and its grasp of the function of the commonplace in human relationships. It only needs some enterprising Radio 4 producer to find the right slot for it and The Spice of Life could become a cult of Adrian Mole proportions and its author a media hero.”

On the day this review was published, Lord Walton – deaf to the bat-squeak of her mockery – phoned Ruth Holland to tell her how pleased he was with the review. However, he called her again later that day, now distinctly less than pleased when somebody explained to him that the review was a very subtle
kind of ridicule.

The book became a kind of sacred text in the BMJ office: When Ruth Holland felt her spirits flagging, she would take down the book, open a page at random, read a sentence and erupt with laughter. She died at the age of 54 less than three years later, on the 8 August 1996, when she was a passenger in a train which crashed near Watford Junction. Of 70 injured people, she was the only fatality. Although 20 years her senior, Lord Walton outlived Ruth Holland by nearly 20 years, dying in 2016 at the age of 93. Richard Smith retired in 2004 after 13 years as editor of the BMJ; he concluded that the funniest piece the journal published under his watch was Ruth Holland’s review of The Spice of Life.

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