Back through the Looking-Glass

Peter Morris

The lure of retirement for me – rightly or wrongly – was to return to where I left off when I was 13.

The unsatisfying study of topics (which did not genuinely engage my curiosity), long hours of work (which though at times mildly rewarding, were mostly tedious) and of course the urge to find a wife, all intruded rather rudely upon those rose-tinted and halcyon days of a remote childhood.

My dad was a most proficient mathematician who worked on the early decimal computers, radar, missile guidance and navigation and he just adored his work… but how many people are that lucky? I was simply not bright enough to absorb the subjects which had fascinated me – ancient languages especially.

One love though, was making things in the shed at the bottom of the garden. For most of us, the tangible wins over the abstract, the obscure over the common. The solid, the eclectic, the eccentric have depth or mystery. The timbre say of the medieval Gloucestershire artisan’s saw ‘Measure twice and cut once’ evokes a splendour, an adumbration of a fading history.

However, on leaving anaesthetics – work seldom unpleasant and not wholly unrewarding – I sensed a vague unease, as if some piece of ‘unfinished business’ lurked in the wings.

Old men often look back and regret not being bolder, not heeding their instincts.

This led me, almost unwittingly, into writing Scalpels Out. My new medical crime novel tells of three young, female doctors, who, when unfairly punished, muster enough courage and pluck to defy the little tin gods.

In a lively and, I hope, captivating way, it conveys a sub-text about not kotowing to petty despots and of not stifling the elements of your character. ‘Rebuff those subtle but callous and politically-tinged diktats and do not allow yourself to become a battery hen.’

After an ingenious and credible plot had presented itself, the next task was to choose a style and tone for this supposedly fictitious tale.

Biggles and The Wind in the Willows, if not top-end literature, do teach you the necessity of entertaining the reader.

It also had to be upbeat, about esprit de corps and steadfastness and human resolve winning through. The doctors end up happier and more alive than many of their lacklustre and dispirited former colleagues. So who might be the paradigms? Waugh, Yeats, Laurie Lee? Not the gloom of Dickens, Steinbeck or some moderns where ‘thinking’ means being pessimistic or subversive.

One interviewer surprisingly remarked that much of the book reads like a film script; a lot of dialogue with just enough description to set the scene, giving it fizz, humour and a kaleidoscopic sense of flow.

As Scalpels Out evolved, I fell increasingly in love with its three heroines. One is aesthetic, one quick and one a bit rough, yet all deserve admiration for their grit and for not buckling when the going is tough.

And once their natures are understood, you can gauge their speech more exactly. When Lady Macbeth says, ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him,’ that string of monosyllables emphasises the chilly darkness of her soul.

Pygmalion so adored his lissom and willowy statue that he asked Aphrodite to give her life. She had outer beauty. Leah, Una and Jenna – though all attractive – have a firm belief in their own intuition. They have an inner glow. They refuse to sacrifice themselves on the altar of ‘career’ and will not bow to some discoloured and unlovely mediocrities. Spirituality reduces fear and faith serves no purpose unless tested.

Pygmalion’s graceful maiden was there, hidden in the stone, before he lifted his chisel. My protagonists were there too, waiting, to be unveiled in words.

So my literary struggles, as well as being both engaging and informative, produced a finished manuscript.

Was I being picayune to stir up criticism and embarrassment for a certain coterie? No. When a clique becomes ossified, self-serving or corrupt, it needs to be exposed.

And what of the sufferers, those bound and corralled as when in those Wild West rodeos they hog-tie a steer? An unfair erasure is not say, like an illness, which simply has to be borne, but a human injustice which rankles and about which no one will feel at peace with himself until he has done something about it.

When I was a house-surgeon in North Shields in 1976, the consultants ran the hospital. There was a hospital secretary – bred and brought up in the town – and he had a young lass who was his secretary and they put the decisions into effect. Now we have armies of managers, HR staff, system analysts, safeguarding teams and these are the undisputed chiefs. Their rule though is often arbitrary because, unable to measure clinical ability, they use compliance as their method of control. They dictate what you may do, say and think and repress any forms of self-determination.

Yet there is an odd thing about this imposed uniformity. To many – and especially the younger generation – it seems to be strangely invisible.

Publishing a book these days is said to be harder than writing it and that is certainly my experience. I have had to grapple with social media, to endeavour to sound both interesting and sincere in interviews and to self-film videos for YouTube. So, like many others during this current epidemic, I have had to sharpen my I.T. talents.

With a publisher and a publicity team to keep me on the rails, I have launched my book, the first task it seems in my as yet uncharted retirement.

Would I want to be starting again in medicine today? I would never cut it. Career paths now are a complex affair, attitude being valued more than ability, which is perhaps not entirely bad. We were definitely a more morose lot back in the Seventies, though also more straight-from-the-shoulder.

Back in the Fifties my cousin went down with measles. The doctor turned up in a pony and trap, threw open the bedroom window and said to my amiable but dim aunt, ‘For heaven’s sake woman, let some fresh air in here.’ After a perfunctory examination of pulse, rash, tongue and gums, he ended with, ‘Nurse him in bed until the temperature falls and here’s a prescription… a simple linctus for that cough.’

He was no hog-tied steer.

Well, I could of course talk endlessly about all this, but forgive me… the soldering-iron is now hot enough to use.

Scalpels Out, new medical fiction by Peter Morris, published by Brown Dog Books, is out now in paperback (£10) and ebook (£4), available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

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