Christmas: a strange occasion when time seems to slow whilst people enjoy a few days of enforced relaxation and normal routines are put on hold. For some (including myself) it can induce a mild anxiety. Being used to a life-style that is frenetic, I greet the Christmas break with trepidation. The unease comes from the sudden indecision as to what to do with days free from packed surgeries, medical meetings and deadlines. It seems an opportunity too good to waste on relaxation. With all those hours to fill with something of personal interest, letting them seep through my fingers with nothing to remember but too much food, drink, television, party games and company…well, yes ok I admit it, bah humbug!
Nonetheless, I usually manage to rescue myself from the horrors of compulsory socialisation by diving into the calming pages of a good book. With any luck, Father Christmas will have squeezed the odd tome or two down the chimney, and I can pretend to be entering the Christmas spirit by playing with my favourite presents. As books are my favourite presents (closely followed by malt whisky, in case anyone is interested), such a ploy means escaping into a different world altogether (clever, eh?).
So what might a doctor read at Christmas? We all vary of course. However, one section of my library reads like a collection of the medical ghosts of Christmas Past, with each book reminiscent of a different year. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak is one of my all-time favourites; a heady mix of dashing doctor and anguished poet, with a lashing of passion thrown in. Does that remind you of anyone? Well, one can dream.
Another firm favourite is The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe; the classic and absorbing memoir of a 19th century Swedish doctor who, via the high society of Paris, built a villa on the island of Anacapri. A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel is another classical ‘must’; whilst Ask Sir James by Michaela Reid is a fascinating tale of Queen Victoria’s physician. Will Pickles of Wensleydale, by John Pemberton, returns us to the ordinary with the story of a GP from North Yorkshire whose research helped in understanding the spread of infectious disease, and who was a founder of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
Patrick Devlin adds some intrigue in Easing the Passing, as he relates his account of being the judge at the 1957 trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams, a forerunner of Dr Shipman. Alternatively, John Berger’s A Fortunate Man is another classic story of a country doctor; or there is always A Ring at the Door, providing the personal experiences of George Sava, a Harley Street surgeon of the 1930s.
Reminiscent of one of my recent columns is a 1953 book entitled A Doctor Heals by Faith, by Christopher Woodward; not that I could let the General Medical Council know that I have been reading that one. The Doctor by Isabel Cameron is in a similar league, albeit fictitious, and featuring a Doctor of Divinity rather than medicine. The book, a Scottish classic in the early 1900s, sold 240,000 copies.
For those with a military interest, The Red and Green Life Machine by Rick Jolly is a Royal Navy surgeon’s absorbing account of the bravery of medical personnel in a field hospital during the Falklands War. Finally, and to balance the last, no reading list should be without some humour, and Richard Gordon provides just that with his Doctor in the House series of uproariously funny tales from the wards.
I could go on (as indeed does my collection of medical literary miscellanea). However, I am sure you have mistletoe to hang and presents to wrap. Speaking of which, I can see a least one book-shaped parcel with my name on, alongside something that could easily be a bottle of malt whisky. I think I’ll just position them next to this armchair in preparation. With that, a very happy and healthy Christmas to you all.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 22nd December 2011)