I have been called many things in my life and, although my memory likes to pretend otherwise, not all of them have been complimentary. However, one epithet that has cropped up several times in print over the past couple of months is that of 'literary GP'. That is one soubriquet I am happy to wear, feeling that my modest attempts at becoming known as a 'man of letters' just about scrapes through to justify the description. The part I find harder to consider is the very flattering, albeit hyped, comparison between me and great writers such as Wallace Stevens and T S Eliot; both of whom continued with day jobs whilst writing (they were a lawyer and banker respectively).
Nonetheless, the reporter who kindly made the above association within the Scunthorpe Telegraph (25 Nov 2010) not only fleetingly bolstered my ego (thank you), but additionally raised the question in my mind as to how many writers and poets are, or have been, medically qualified. A quick search of the literature revealed an estimate that, since 1930, about 0.0019% of doctors in the United States of America have also been poets (BMJ, 11 Dec 2010); which, I have to say, doesn't sound very many. Nonetheless, continuing the quest I came across several names, many of which will be commonly known.
One of the first, of course, was St Luke; a physician and writer of the gospel by the same name. Other, more contemporary names, include Oliver Goldsmith (The Vicar of Wakefield), John Keats (Ode to a Nightingale, etc.), Anton Chekhov (Russian playwright), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes stories), David Livingstone (travel writer), W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage), Axel Munthe (The Story of San Michele), William Carlos Williams (American prize-winning poet), A J Cronin (The Citadel), Graham Garden (The Goodies), Richard Gordon (Doctor in the House), and so it goes on. Needless to say, apart from the possession of a medical qualification, I cannot even begin to compare myself to any of the above (perhaps with the one tiny exception of Chekhov, whose birthday I share one hundred years later to the day). Realistically, I can only resign myself to the act of clutching at the coat tails of greatness.
Now, you may well ask where all this is leading. The answer is right back to you, the reader. For, apart from being a patron of today's newspaper, you are also, or have been, or will be, a patient. All of the aforementioned writers and poets have had the benefit of dealing with that constant conundrum of how to make sense of the human condition. Patients have been the daily source of characters, stories, insights and inspiration that have in turn encouraged the production of some wonderful works of literature. Thanks to you all, that particular mine is inexhaustible. It is said that the world of fiction only contains seven basic plots. However, you all bring your own individual variations of those themes to the doorsteps of physician-writers, for which my writer colleagues and I should be most grateful. Whether we are patients, doctors or writers (or any combination of the three), we are all trying to understand what it is to live and be human. For me, the art of poetry is to distil that quest into the fewest and richest words possible. So next time you have to attend a surgery, just remember that your woes may actually be the inspiration for a great work of literature. Failing that, you might at least be helping to keep our draughty garrets warm.
This article was first published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Wednesday 26th January 2011.