Friday, December 30, 2011

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Repetition, repetition, repetition…

It was a mantra drummed into me by one music master after another. Although whilst at school I found the process of making music to be pleasurable, the requirement for constant practice was not quite so enthralling. With the impetuosity of youth, I was keen to move to the next bar, the next page, the next piece of music, even the next instrument.

Forty years later, my attitude has changed. Now, the drive to capture every nuance of sentiment from each musical phrase is a powerful force; an irresistible compulsion; an absolute obsession. Yes, playing musical instruments feeds my obsessive-compulsive disorder to a level of sheer gluttony.

However, there is a downside to the above. Whilst the end product is often worthy of an audience, the process of rehearsal frequently drives my wife mad as she is subjected to the same phrase of music over and over again. It wouldn’t be so bad for her if I was confined to the piano; but when the saxophones follow on, and then perhaps some classical guitar, and maybe a quick blow on the clarinet for an encore, well it is sometimes a wonder that I am still alive, let alone married.

The plus side is that playing music keeps me healthy and fit. Research has demonstrated that playing a musical instrument increases the ability to memorise new information, improves the ability to reason and problem-solve, enhances time-management and organisational skills, fosters a team-spirit, develops mathematical skills, acts as physical exercise (good exercise for arthritic joints), develops lung capacity (wind instruments are good for asthmatics), cultivates self-expression, discipline, pride, concentration, communication skills, and acts as a relaxant and an anti-depressant.

Music has lasting health benefits for all ages. Even just listening to music can, in addition to some of the above, reduce blood pressure and the severity of pain, reduce the effects of loneliness and depression, and help prevent or ease the effects of dementia. Recently, it was demonstrated that listening to classical music whilst driving can decrease the chance of an accident.

For readers in their later years who didn’t have a musical education, do not despair; it is never too late. You may never become a virtuoso, but your brain will benefit nonetheless. Even an older brain has the ability to change in a positive way, developing new connections, new circuitry and new levels of neurotransmitters.

The downside is that you might get to the stage where you drive yourself mad with the enthusiastic repetition of it all. The theme tune to Downton Abbey was recently my nemesis. There was a day last week when, after a weekend of piano practice, I just could not shake the tune out of my mind. Every time I set foot in a corridor, ventured up the street, or turned the car onto a road, the mesmerizing, repetitive beat of the music flooded my brain and set the rhythm of my movement. At one stage, it got so bad that I was imagining a yellow Labrador walking by my side. The ultimate cure was to sit down and start on another piece of music (the Labrador has gone, but Nellie the Elephant is proving harder to displace).

Of course, having an enthusiasm to learn means that selecting presents for me is easy; just think of an instrument I haven’t got and I will be delighted. That said, my wife wasn’t quite so pleased when she saw the letter I sent to Lapland…’Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is a drum kit…’

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 8th December 2011)

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Medical Miscellany

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)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Praise of Eccentricity

‘Where have all the flowers gone?’

It was a question posed to a crowded lecture hall of final year medical students twenty-six years ago by a much respected consultant physician and lecturer at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, London. His name was Dr P B S Fowler, although I think that is where any tenuous personal connection ended. As we were about to set forth into the world of medicine as fully fledged doctors, Bruce Fowler was about to retire from the NHS. A huge man, who always wore an academic’s black gown when addressing the students, he was an entertaining lecturer and could fill an auditorium to over-capacity regardless of the subject of his lecture. On this particular occasion he took as his theme the demise of doctors with individual characters, lamenting the modern trend for medical schools to manipulate new undergraduates into identical clones. Those who initially showed promising signs of individuality were systematically humiliated by the teaching methods of the day, until they succumbed to a life constrained by the need to conform to the rules of professional conduct.

Of course, Britain has always been a country of eccentrics; possibly containing far more per head of population than many larger countries. The history books are full of them. Relating to behaviour considered to be unusual or odd, eccentricity is often found in the company of the artistically creative and the intellectual, and frequently invokes the concepts of genius and madness; as Mr Pickwick remarked in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, ‘Eccentricities of Genius, Sam’. This failure to conform to society’s norm is one often loved and admired from a distance, but can be quite disturbing to close members of the family. A former patient of mine was a man of great character, quite unconcerned by the community’s occasional disapproval of his behaviour to the point of being a local eccentric. I praised his individuality to his son one day, whose reply was illuminating: ‘Characters are wonderful people, as long as you don’t have to live with them’. Having an eccentric in my own family, I found myself warming to his words.

So what makes someone an eccentric? In a 1995 study of ‘sanity and strangeness’, Dr David Weeks and Jamie James concluded that the principal characteristics an eccentric possesses are: non-conformity, creativity, being motivated by curiosity, idealism, an obsession with one or more hobbyhorses, an awareness from early childhood of being different, higher than average intelligence, a tendency to be opinionated and outspoken, a love of solitude, and a mischievous sense of humour. Do you know anybody like that? I suspect that younger readers are more likely to say yes, as eccentrics are nearly always older than ourselves, and of course we never recognise eccentricity in our own behaviour; after all, for an eccentric it is the rest of society who has got it all wrong.

I was reminded of Bruce Fowler’s lecture recently by a wonderful coincidence of timing. Sadly, in August this year he died, albeit at the age of 90. His obituary appeared in the BMJ on the 29th October. It just so happened that the Ancient Order of Eccentrics was reformed on the very same day, with eccentric guests travelling from all over the British Isles to attend a banquet in Lincoln. First founded over two centuries ago, the Eccentric Club exists to celebrate ‘Great British eccentrics and original thinking, flying in the face of the bland modern world’. I am sure that Dr P B S Fowler would be overjoyed to know that the flowers he once lamented are in fact alive and blooming in the 21st century. If only I was an eccentric, I would be tempted to become a member.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 24th November 2011.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fiction Today, Reality Tomorrow?

How many readers remember the television programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’? The presenters’ mantra on this forward looking weekly survey of the cutting edge of scientific development could almost have been ‘today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality’. In many cases that has indeed been the case, especially if you consider the modern technology behind mobile telephones, computers, satellite navigation, the ability to carry around hundreds of books on a Kindle, MP3 players that can store an entire music collection, cloning Dolly the sheep, the space shuttle, micro-surgery, and so.

Such thoughts recently took my mind back to a book I read when I was fifteen years old. It was called ‘Colossus’ by D.F. Jones. Published in 1966, the book was hailed as a ‘horrifying instalment of the man versus machine competition’ by the New York Times, and ‘hellishly plausible’ by the Sun. Colossus was about man creating the ultimate machine; a computer (as we would now call it) about the size of a large room, which took on its own personality and assumed responsibility for the defence of the free world. It was captivating stuff for a teenager in a pre-computer era; so much so that I still have the aged paperback in my library.

I was recently reminded about Colossus when two separate headlines caught my attention and connected my thoughts to a column I wrote last year, when I invited you all to my 120th birthday party in 2080 (Scunthorpe Telegraph, 20 Oct 10). The first headline was ‘Breakthrough brings human cloning a step closer’ (The Daily Telegraph, 6 Oct 11); the second was ‘by 2040 you will be able to upload your brain…’ (The Independent, 7 Oct 11). Ah! I can almost hear the penny dropping with your realisation as to where this preamble is taking us…

Suspend your disbelief (and possibly your cerebral discomfort) for a moment and consider this: scientists have developed a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, whereby they take the nucleus from a cell of a piece of human skin and transfer it to an egg cell. A wave of a magic pipette later and you have an embryo; and in theory, just like acorns and oak trees, from little embryos big people could grow. Now, needless to say, various international ethical committees are not about to allow some mad scientist to grow a real-life soft-tissue version of Frankenstein’s monster; nonetheless, the whiff of the possibility of replicating your own body is there on the borders between today’s scientific fiction and tomorrow’s reality.

However, what use is a personalised clone if it doesn’t really think like you? Well, a scientist called Ray Kurzwell may have the solution. He believes that by the end of the 1930s we will have the ability to upload the entire contents of the human brain to a computer; thereby salvaging, in Kurzwell’s words, ‘a person’s entire personality, memory, skills and history’. Kurzwell is internationally respected by senior scientific figures and his work is taken very seriously. Whether that uploaded personalised database is then installed into a mechanical android or a real-life soft-tissue clone, the fact is the end result is as near to immortality as our present mortal frames will ever get.

Now, returning to my stated intention of living to 120, I will be eighty in 2040; just about the right time to take on a youthful transformation for my second innings, therefore I shall be making contact with Kurzwell in the near future to book my place at the front of the queue. So, to all those of you who diligently saved my column from the Scunthorpe Telegraph of the 20 October 2010 as proof of your invitation to my 120th birthday party (and I know for a fact that some of you have done so), well done and I will see you in January 2080. As for the rest of you cynics, I am sure the editor may have a few back copies he will let you have…at a price, of course. Immortality doesn’t come cheaply.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 17th November 2011)

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for...