As I have been lucky enough to win the 2014 Impress New Writers Prize, Impress Books have asked me to write a blog and I promised, as a New Year resolution, to get started.
I don’t know the first thing about blogging. I am “blog naive”. So, as you can see, it’s a pretty plain vanilla operation. I will blog once weekly, and try to add a few bells and whistles as I go.
But I should say something about myself. If I were writing a blurb for the back cover of my book, one of these brief paragraphs that seems to conceal more than it reveals, it might go something like this:
James Calum Campbell was born in Glasgow. He read English at Glasgow and, subsequently, Medicine at Edinburgh, and counts himself fortunate to have practised Medicine all over the world. Thirty two years later he hung up the stethoscope to devote himself to writing. He divides his time between Scotland and New Zealand.
If that has a linear quality, put it down to the demands of Medicine. Although I have plenty of hobbies and pastimes, I have found it impossible while in practice to undertake anything else in a serious way. Medicine is a devotion. Nonsense! – I hear you say. Roger Bannister ran a four minute mile while he was a medical student. Yes, that was a remarkable achievement. But then he retired from athletics and became a neurologist.
It’s hardly surprising that I have written a book about a doctor and, to an extent, about Medicine. Somerset Maugham who studied Medicine and then went off to write, expressed regret that he had not spent some years in practice, as the experience would have afforded him a rare access to life in the raw. There is some truth in that, but it comes with caveats. The medical profession can be smug about its supposed literary skill. Medicine is inherently interesting – look at the popularity and longevity of TV medical soaps. But there is always a danger of slipping into a kind of rumbustious undergraduate style – call it “Medical Baroque” – full of pus, and sex.
Then there is the secrecy of the confessional. I have been told so much, and I can tell you none of it. Churchill’s personal physician, Lord Moran, wrote a memoir following his patient’s demise, and got into a bit of trouble.
My interest in Medicine has always been diagnostic; I love the “undifferentiated” problem posed by the acute presenting patient, so I worked in the fields of Emergency Medicine and General Practice. In the Emergency Department, the most powerful question you can ask your patient is, quite simply, “What happened?” Over the years I came to realise that all you had to do then was shut up and listen. Nine times out of ten, the diagnosis would be handed to you on a plate. But I also realised that this apparently passive activity of listening was itself a devotion. History taking is not merely a question of trafficking in information. The listening doctor offers to step into the patient’s shoes. It’s like a trance; for a moment, you become the patient. It is an experience at once rewarding, and debilitating; it comes at a cost.
It comes at the cost of silence. “What happened?” I cannot say. Everything is transmogrified. If I have buried my identity, it is because I wish to say to my patients, “This is not about you. It is not even about me.”
But I haven’t really changed my name, merely lost it somewhere in translation.
James Calum Campbell