Nicola Sturgeon told a Loose Woman that she had a kind of epiphany while watching Jacinda Ardern resign the NZ Premiership.  Ms Ardern told New Zealand that she had nothing left in the tank.  (Actually she head neigh thung leeft un tha teenk.  Such is the Great New Zealand Vowel Shift.  Or shuft.  Perhaps soon we shall be mutually incomprehensible.)  Ms Sturgeon experienced a pang of envy.  She realised that she too, was burned out, and that she too had to go.  That was the right decision for her; but was it also the right decision for the party she led, and for the nation of which she is still (at time of writing) First Minister?  She realised in short order that it was.

This reminded me of my own time-to-go epiphany, albeit from a less public stage.  I was skulking one Sunday morning, like Nicodemus, at the back of Dunblane Cathedral, when the man in the pulpit said, “What is it, that you’ve been meaning to do for quite some time now, but that you just haven’t got round to doing?  Do it now!”  I had an odd hallucination.  In a scene reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial, it was as if the entire cathedral emptied itself of everybody, save for me and the man in the pulpit, who was addressing me across a vast acreage of deserted pews.

“Do it now!”

My memory tells me that the following day I tendered my resignation. 

Yet that can’t be right.  I know that I ran my intention to depart prematurely past my accountant, to make sure that I could continue to live in the style to which I have become accustomed.  This may be met with howls of derision, because it is well known that senior doctors are so immensely wealthy and are under such an enormous tax burden that it is no longer worth our while to get up in the morning and go to work.  But you need to understand that as a younger man I wasted my substance on riotous living, and in addition spent an enormous amount on an expensive hobby, aviation.  So I know that I popped across to Dunfermline to run it all past the bean counters.  Once it was established that I was happy to quaff Oyster Bay Brut rather than Dom Perignon or Krug, I was given the nod.  I was so euphoric that I left the accountant’s, jumped into my car in the carpark beside the Abbey, and reversed smack into a neighbouring Peugeot. 

Well, I did the right thing.  I popped a note of abject apology, with contact details, under the Peugeot’s windscreen wiper.  Then I phoned my insurance company.  They took me through a checklist.  “Did you suffer an injury?”

“No, nothing like that.  I imagine I was only going at half a mile an hour.”  

“Was the occupant of the other car injured?”

“The other car was empty.  It was in a carpark.”

“Did the airbags deploy?”

“At half a mile an hour?”

“Did the police, fire, or ambulance attend?  Did extrication require cutting equipment?  Did you attend ‘A & E’?” 

“At half a mile an hour?”

“Are the injuries deemed to be life-changing?”

And so on, relentlessly.

Now if I am right that I had my epiphany on Sunday, and tendered my resignation on Monday, then I must have visited my accountant before I had my epiphany.  In other words, sitting at the back of the cathedral, I already knew I was going.  I didn’t have an epiphany at all.  It’s a confabulation.

Once you’ve made up your mind to go, there’s no going back.  The government might raise the pension pot tax threshold from £1.0m to £1.8m – they might stuff the consultants’ mouths with gold (actually I think Nye Bevan stuffed our mouths with silver) – but I doubt if it will tempt many retired surgeons to go back.  Once the working environment becomes intolerable, there is no amount of remuneration that can compensate.  For Ms Ardern and Ms Sturgeon, it was the toxicity of social media that was instrumental in compelling them to quit.  For me, it was the intrusion into my consulting room of a third party, the computer, bringing along its own agenda which was not my agenda, nor that of my patient.  Meanwhile, across the channel, M. Macron is trying to raise the pension age for the French apparently without recourse to the usual democratic processes.  Bonne chance avec ça.  Aux barricades!  The King is not crossing the channel today, not so much because of security concerns, but because of the bad optics.  M. Macron greeting His Majesty, and the Queen Consort, at the Palace of Versailles?  Too reminiscent of Louis XVI.  I feel sorry for the king.  If he is anything like his mother, he will never quit.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is unlikely to suggest to him, obliquely, across the vastness of Westminster Abbey, that he abdicate.         

Was my own epiphany a confabulation?  This week Matthew Syed talked about confabulation, in the last of his current BBC Radio 4 series Sideways, a different way of looking at the world.  He told the story of how as a young man he had given a talk to a group of 100 well paid bankers, and had bombed.  He thought he would never stand up and address a crowd of people ever again, but then he got a grip and decided to learn the art of public speaking.  He joined Toastmasters, and never looked back.  He even returned to address the same group of financiers, and was a great success. 

It’s a nice story, one of suffering a set-back, and using it as a pivotal moment in order to make a change for the better.  A salutary and inspiration tale. 

Except that it wasn’t true.  Matthew Syed had been attending Toastmasters for at least two years before he gave the disastrous talk at Goldman Sachs.  It’s not that he made the story up, or even consciously embellished it.  Confabulation and lying are not the same thing.  But we like to cast the experiences of our lives in terms of narratives that make sense. 

Perhaps Boris Johnson’s narrative, that he never attended any parties at No. 10, is a confabulation.  He told Harriet Harman et al that, as part of his work, he needed to thank the people who were giving of themselves 110%, 24/7, to save the nation.   You see, he said, with evident irritation, people just don’t understand…  I thought he was going to start thumping the table.  No epiphany there.              

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