Week 106: Do No Harm

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

The idea that doctors should aim to do no harm is attributed to Hippocrates, an Iron Age resident of the Greek island of Kos. This has been a week in which doctors have been much in the news, whether taking industrial action in Britain or being deliberately bombed by President Putin in Syria (in the interests of objectivity and fairness, I should point out that the USA also bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, in Afghanistan, in November 2015. I am not sure it makes much difference to those on the receiving end whether bombs are killing you as a result of incompetence or deliberate malice, but one, at least, of these causes should be avoidable). Governments and authors alike have displayed a tendency over the years to appropriate and manipulate the public response to doctors, who have found themselves starring as heroes and villains far more often than the more mundane ground occupied by the rest of us. Why?

Let’s look at some medical heroes first. There are more than a few real-life doctors who have been mythologised during or after their lives to be godlike, capable of miracles. When I was little, the doctor-as-saint figure was Albert Schweitzer, who I suspect is now hardly known at all – a useful lesson in hubris for anyone currently venerated. An intellectually rigorous theologian, a gifted musician, and a perceptive anti-racist at a time of unthinking empire, Schweitzer gained his medical degree in three short years in order to set up a pioneering hospital in Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. You might find his The Philosophy of Civilization interesting, or his autobiography, which has the slightly unsnappy title Out of My Life and Thought.

Schweitzer was to the twentieth century what David Livingstone was to the nineteenth: so famous and yet remote that Henry Stanley’s famously nonchalant greeting, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ clearly covers up an entirely understandable case of flabbergastedness (‘Look mum! It’s me! With him!’: known in the NorthernReader household as Bowie-proximity syndrome but you can insert name of intergalactically-famous star of your choice). Livingstone has been more biographised than Schweitzer, at imagesleast in English, although many studies are quite shallow. Frankly, our old favourites, the Ladybird series, give you the bones: should you be feeling scholarly, David Livingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy, edited by Sarah Worden, would be my choice.

Now for the doctors who managed to practise medicine and write fiction. In pride of place of this week’s bookshelf we can have Dr Anton Chekhov, who once rather archly declared, ‘medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’ Never mind; if he was half as good a physician as he was a writer, his patients were blessed. And indeed they were: Chekhov devoted much of his time to caring, free of charge, for the poor. Funny, angry, heart-breaking, sometimes despairing but always ready to bring his analytical brilliance to the vital task of finding exactly the right words, the right image, to awaken his audience and his readers, his is more modern Russian voice than Tolstoy’s but every bit as compelling. In such company, pretty much everyone appears in a lesser light, but Chekhov’s almost exact contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle, is today at least as famous. Doyle had a rather splendid time as a indexyoung doctor, going to sea on a whaler and on a voyage to West Africa. How tantalising to set The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next to Moby-Dick and The Heart of Darkness (Melville was the older man, and his most famous novel was published before Doyle was born, but Conrad was another almost precise contemporary). Our third choice, working chronologically, can be William Carlos Williams, imagist, modernist, most painterly of poets, who was also a family doctor and paediatrician. Touchingly, the hospital in New Jersey where he worked has a plaque that reads ‘we walk the wards that Williams walked’ and you just know that they feel it’s an honour.

What of doctors in fiction? Setting aside Dr Zhivago, if only on the dubious grounds that (a) we’ve been quite Russian enough already this week, (b) I’ve never read it and (c) I can’t get the image of Omar Sharif out of my mind, here are two heroes and a villain. Trollope’s Dr Thomas Thorne is an absolute sweetie. How splendid it would be if the Barchester ideal of a doctor who is a trusted friend and confidant were the norm (let alone the GP-as-financial adviser: goodness, we have become a lot more wary since Trollope’s time, haven’t we?). Anything that encourages us to read more Trollope is to be welcomed. It’s quite a jump from Dr Thorne to Doc Daneeka, but the squadron physician who first articulates Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s marvellous novel is assured of his place in this week’s pantheon. Daneeka – self-seeking, venal, hypochondriacal, shifty, and entirely human – might seem an unlikely hero, but the urgent and savage point that Heller makes is that (as other writers had it in an earlier time of darkness) this is a world turned upside down: what Thomas Middleton, clearest-sighted and therefore bleakest of all the early seventeenth-century playwrights, called A Mad World, My Masters. You know, I expect, that Heller, when confronted by an ill-mannered reader who complained that he had not subsequently written anything as good as Catch-22, replied, unarguably, ‘Who has?’.

From anti-hero to villain. We could – should – have Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, who definitely has ….. issues; or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who does rather let the side down when it comes to giving psychiatrists a good name (although the NorthernReader Rule about names is triumphantly vindicated here, for no parent who calls their infant Hannibal – okay, no parent since the third century BC – can be surprised if they turn out badly). I am also uncomfortably aware that women are unrepresented on this week’s shelf, which is a shame: while I wait for the perfect female doctor in fiction, or her villainous alter ego (and do please point me in the right direction), I can read Jo Manton’s biography, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. But the broken caduceus award for Worst Doctor in Fiction goes to ….. well, it has to be Victor Frankenstein, doesn’t it?


PS We are losing great writers this year at an unsustainable rate.  Harper Lee could lay legitimate claim to having written The Great Twentieth-Century Novel: read, or re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend.  And mourn the departure of Umberto Eco, philosopher, semiotician, novelist and all-round man of letters (The Name of the Rose; Foucault’s Pendulum; Baudolino).  Eco lies at the heart of everything I think about our essential need to read; as the great man himself said ,’books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ Arrivaderci


Week 81: All at Sea

WP_20150304_026Thalassa! Thalassa!, Xenophon tells us thirty thousand Greek soldiers cried out when they came over the ridge and saw the Black Sea, The NorthernReader does not quite match that for volume or intensity of feeling, but it is our ritual cry on spotting when the horizon becomes all watery (pretentious? Moi?). Close to Britain’s very best coastline (tell nobody), we give ourselves the opportunity for this egregious showing-off at least once a week. Walking on empty sandy beaches, accompanied by romping dogs, with the early spring sunshine on your back and a breeze so fresh you wish you’d put heavier boots on, is one of life’s great pleasures. Is it just me (and that horde of Ancient Greeks), or have writers thought so too? Yes of course they have. And at least a couple of them know their Xenophon too (try the Penguin History of My Times and The Persian Expedition: he has a wonderfully clear and straightforward style and is full of vivid description): Buck Mulligan exclaims – or shows off to Stephen Dedalus, exclaiming in Ancient Greek and showing off never being very far apart – ‘Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look’. I have no idea whether James Joyce kept a copy of Xenophon under his pillow and liked nothing better than to read a little Greek every day, but here in Ulysses it is clear that he knew this ancient visceral response to the sea. And of course Iris Murdoch – how out of fashion she is now but once she was, more or less single-handed, England’s intelligentsia – finally collared the Booker Prize with The Sea, The Sea. If you are unfamiliar with Murdoch, be warned: her heroes are profoundly slappable and you may be as irritated as you are entranced. An ability to remain calm in the face of barrowloads of cod mysticism is a requirement for reading pretty much any Iris Murdoch, especially her later novels, but go on, give it a go.

WP_20150221_021More fun, perhaps, is some poetry we can chant as we stride along the beach. John Masefield takes some beating: not only ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) but ‘Trade Winds’ and the deliciously exotic ‘Cargoes’, where every word is gorgeous to read and – important to Masefield – to say aloud. Oh, go on then, let’s have Coleridge as well, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And after all that lurid story-telling, let’s pause to reflect with Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. I love it: I come back to it after years away and I still love it. There’s a direct simplicity with which it looks you in the eye and takes you on a journey which engages your intellect as well as your heart. And Arnold’s view of the world, that ‘hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light’, stands delicately balanced between the metaphysics of John Donne and the terrible nihilism of Edward Thomas. Worse places to be, provided you are only visiting.

But there is something about the rhythm and pulse of the waves beating upon the shore that draws novelists as well as poets into lyrical writing. John Banville’s The Sea WP_20150304_022(another Booker winner) shifts its moods as fluidly as the tide. And we must have Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; an astonishing thing, woven of multiple soliloquies, shot through with the changing light of the coast across a single day. One to read while we listen to Britten’s haunting ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes – a Desert Island Discs choice if ever there was one. We could add Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to this week’s shelf, too. Not only is it a perfect gem of Modernism, but it also conjures up a sense of summer on the Isle of Skye that will have you yearning for the Hebrides (To the Lighthouse is almost the only book I can think of that sets itself in the Highlands and Islands without wallowing in clans, tartans and generalised Brigadooning). Even normally-to-be-trusted Arthur Ransome goes a bit goodness-aren’t-they-quaint on us in Great Northern?, his last novel, set in the Outer Hebrides, where all the locals hang around in kilts and beards and mutter in uncouth tongues. It’s worth reading, nonetheless, even if only to give yourself the pleasure of one last trip with the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums. Ransome’s love of the sea and passion for sailing makes him unequalled by anyone other than Joseph Conrad for giving us landlubbers a sense of life on board: try We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Missee Lee and feel that you have sailed across the English Channel at night and met with pirates in the South China Seas. And then settle back in your safely land-locked chair and immerse yourself in the pleasures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We all think we know it – The Muppets, the current National Theatre version (the opera, the ballet and a musical with Tim Minchin as Long John Silver can only be a matter of time), but there is so much more to Treasure Island than adventure and derring-do. Its subtle exploration of the very fluid nature of morality, for a start, makes it a book for our time. Ah, hoarders of gold who will stop at nothing to avoid paying taxes. There are more, and uglier, faces than Johnny Depp’s to be the poster boy for pirates these days.

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

Week 57: Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

It can be quite a melancholy time of year, if you are disposed to let such things get to you. For the last week, we have been swathed in shawls of mist: even at mid-day the light has glowed silver with a pearly sheen. The year changes gear, but there is a quiet joy to it, too. We are surrounded by beauty – glass-beaded spiders’ webs, the first golds and crimsons as the leaves change colour –and by abundance. This is a marvellous year for blackberries, hawthorns, rosehips and sloes. The garden is yielding courgettes the colour of sunshine, long French beans and satiny black bean pods too. And still the sweet peas flourish. The NorthernReader household centres on the kitchen, and the gentle rhythms of jam- and chutney-making allow plenty of time for sitting at the kitchen table, reading.

Propped up against a big bowl of apples right now is Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow. He writes like a dream, and the gorgeous photographs (by Marsha Arnold) make this a must-have book for all us hopeful gardeners filled with good intentions. Time, too, to re-read his The Jewel Garden, which is at once one of the most enjoyable books about making a garden and one of the best books about depression that I know. Not the most alluring of subjects, you might think – though part of the point that Don wants to make is that we have to give up stigmatising depression – but his is the most absorbing account of what it is like to suffer from depression that I have ever come across. If you know anyone who is affected (and you probably do, because practically everyone experiences depression at some point in their lives), read The Jewel Garden: it will help you to understand.

Now is the time, too, for the vintage (a word that seems to including more and more of my own lifetime these days: perhaps I could join a Vintage Person Rally somewhere) Ladybird book, What To Look For In Autumn. It is only in researching him for you this week that I have discovered that the author, the really rather impressively named Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson, was – to use a technical critical term – a really interesting chap.   A novelist, essayist, philosopher, and poet, his scientific interests included ethnography and biology. It is quite hard not to feel a tiny bit envious of a life that brought friendship with Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein, DH Lawrence, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas. It had fswallowsor some reason never previously occurred to me that – well, real people wrote Ladybird books, so I am grateful to you. And the illustrations, printed in the slightly gloomy greyish colours that were part and parcel of the Ladybird books’ charm, are by Charles Tunnicliffe, which means that they are accurate, unwhimsical and altogether splendid (should you happen to be passing, Oriel Ynys Mon – Anglesey to those of you baffled by a bit of the language of heaven – is holding an exhibition of his work until the end of the year).

And we can dust down the cookery books with recipes for preserves. For a guide that works, I turn to Pam Corbin and The River Cottage Handbook. For fascination, I am delving into the pages of Florence White and Dorothy Hartley. We should, perhaps, think of Florence White as the pioneer of the Slow Movement. She founded the English Folk Cookery Association in 1928, and jolly sad it is too that it no longer exists: and in 1932 she published Good Things in England, a wonderfully self-explanatory title and a collection of recipes which are both historically interesting and standard-settingly clearly written. Hurray, hurray, Persephone Books have reprinted it. Dorothy Hartley, an artist and social historian, wrote (at her home in Wales) A History of English Food, which, published in 1954, was and still is the undisputed masterwork on the subject. If that makes it sound dry, I have failed you. It is packed with opinion, anecdote and illustrations, and no-one should be without a copy.

All this talk of food! Well, autumn, as Squirrel Nutkin will tell you, is the time to fill larders, count your stores and make ready for the lean times ahead. Writing this has made me realise that, supreme naturalist Miss Potter apart, very few children’s books take autumn as their setting. The reason in simple: children’s adventures tend to happen when they are released from the awful confines of school. Only school stories follow their young heroes and heroines into September, and in them the emphasis is firmly on the perils and conspiracies of a closed community rather than long nature walks. The Walker, Blackett and Callum children, for example, slip completely off the radar between summer (Swallows and Amazons­, Pigeon Post and so on) and winter (Winter Holiday – a bracing re-reading treat to look forward to in somewhat austere January). But we must have Antonia Forest’s Autumn Term on our shelf this week. If you haven’t, do.

This is the time for golds and russets, the purple of heather and the slate blue of the evening sky. This is the time for poetry, then. Despite borrowing from him for this week’s title, I have to confess that Keats still doesn’t make it onto my Desert Island list. Go and re-read ‘Ode to Autumn’ and tell me you don’t find it clunky. And Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ isn’t for me, either. I’d rather have Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Autumn Fires’ and remember all those delicious bonfires of a country childhood.

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfiresbonfire
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!



Fitting, this weekend, to celebrate a Scottish poet. After all the breath-holding of the referendum, the NorthernReader household is so grateful not have been deserted.  Thank you, Scotland.

better together

Week 31: Scotland Stay With Us

where some of me is from

where some of me is from

In 1898, a young mining engineer set sail from England to Cape Town.  He had already travelled the length of Britain, having left behind him his father’s Manse in Aberdeenshire.  In South Africa, he quickly became the manager of a gold mine, and almost equally quickly found himself swept up in the South African Wars.  As a Transvaal Highlander, and wounded in battle, he was nursed by a beautiful young woman who had also made the long journey south, the daughter, grand-daughter and great grand-daughter of rugged Highland gamekeepers.  Geographically and socially, they would never have met in Scotland, but in South Africa they met, married, and produced four remarkable daughters.  Dearest reader, I am one of the grand-daughters of one of them, and therefore full to the brim with good Scottish blood.  My DNA draws me to the uplands, gives me a taste for haggis (although not for some of the recipes in my great-grandmother’s cookery book: see Week 21) and – the infallible sign of true Scottishness, as unfailing as a pea under the mattress for a princess – equips me with a real love of the sound of the pipes.  I belong to the Great Scottish Diaspora of the last three centuries or more, and I am therefore the proud and fond cousin of splendid, free-thinking, outspoken and long-headed people on every continent on earth.  But I have never lived in Scotland, and so I have to stand idly by while the heart of me talks of packing its bags and leaving.

As well as, indirectly, giving the world – well, me, Scotland has come up with pretty much everything over the years: the Education Act of 1496, for example – yup, that’s right, a little less than four hundred years before Westminster came round to the idea that educating the poppets might make life better for all. Oh, and the Enlightenment, of course, or, to give it its proper title, the Scottish Enlightenment, the rays of which shone into all the corners of the world in time.  I think we’d better get reading.

the-skating-ministerA good place to start is with The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman.  The title rather more than hints at the thesis, and it is a case well-made as well as well-written.  We can add an excellent study of the first king of the two countries, Alan Stewart’s The Cradle King, and then decide not to follow up the Stuart family tree with banging on about kings over the water and bonnie princes traipsing through the heather.  There are two compelling reasons for this resolution of grown-upness and common sense: one, that what happened, happened, and that we have all moved on since James VII and II scuttled off, having given a first-class demonstration of not being a first-class monarch; and, two, that the whole Old-Pretender-Young-Pretender-Flora-MacDonald malarkey is hopelessly, dangerously, romantic.  And as you know, the NorthernReader has no truck with Romanticism.

So, having sorted out three hundred and more years of waly waly, we can move on to stocking our shelves with some treasures of Scottish literature. I’m not completely certain that anyone reads Scott any more, which is probably a pity, as his novels have the most splendidly gripping stories to tell.  But they are unfashionably long.  On the other hand, the BBC sometimes dramatises them for radio with David Tennant in them, a circumstance which makes length a virtue, I’d have said.  And if it wasn’t for Scott, Edinburgh would not be the proud possessor of the only railway station in the world to be named after a novel, which, you have to admit, is seriously cool: how very much more interesting Oxford would be, for example, if its station were to be known as Jude.  Or even, I suppose, Morse.

Oh, of course you remember this scene in the book

Oh, of course you remember this scene in the book

Next to Waverley, Ivanhoe and The Bride of Lammermoor I’m going to have Robert Louis Stevenson: and if you happen not to have read any, I am seriously jealous of the treat you have in store. But of course you have. You will have started when small with A Child’s Garden of Verses, full of the just the right sort of poems that slip easily into your mind and stay there.  And you’ll have thrilled to Kidnapped and – perhaps best of all, although that is a very hotly-contested field – Treasure Island.  But there is a chance that, although you know the story, you have never actually read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Do so.

How about some poetry now?  Well, of course we must have Robert Burns, because he did what Chaucer did before him: said To Hell with the idea that poetry has to use some special, insipid, rarified voice as if it had its spine surgically removed at birth, and used the language of the everyday and the voice of the people around him. Burns’ poems are radical political acts that assert the equal rights of words on these islands.  Have a listen to the poems being read by Scottish actors, or enjoy a beautiful sung version of Ae Fond Kiss.  But don’t run away with the notion that poetry in Scotland begins and ends with Burns.  Let’s start with ‘Sir Patrick Spens’: ‘The king sits in Dunfermline town/ Drinking the blude-red wine’ – and don’t tell me that doesn’t make you yearn to know what happens next – and work steadily forward through the centuries, at least until we come to Edwin Muir and ‘The Confirmation’:  ‘Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face/ I in my mind had waited for this long’. Scotland, we’ve been together now so very long, in sickness and in health: please don’t go.scotland

Week 25: Books for Walkers

walkingI was so struck when I read about Emily’s Walking Book Club in London (see the lovely EmilyBooks blog) that I immediately wanted to have something like that here in glorious Hadrian’s Wall country.  So, while we start to get that – well, off the ground, how about limbering up with some books about walks and walking?

As a rather lonely child who spent most days playing by myself in the woods near our house (my, how times have changed), there was something about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes that just spoke to me.  I can’t say it has left me with a life-long love of recalcitrant donkeys – although the unforgettable Modestine is one of the great four-legged characters in literature – but it did fix in my young mind an indelible picture of freedom.  Whether I was ever going to stride the length of one of the lesser-known ravishing areas of France might have been, and remains, a moot point, but Stevenson planted the idea that to get out there, into the countryside, is the thing (this week’s blog is probably not aimed at the Woody Allens among you – by which I only mean the convinced, bred-in-the-bone urbanite: although why should you not be your own Dr Livingstone in the concrete jungle?).

From Travels with a Donkey I moved on to Laurie Lee.  As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is of course, as you would hope from a poet, a lyrical description of his journey through the south of England and in Spain, but there is rather more to it than that.  Lee, as I’m sure you know, walked into the Spanish Civil War, and his is as good an evocation of that perilous and terrible time as anything from Hemingway or Orwell. It is disturbingly easy, by the way, to get the impression that Spaniards – especially the non-literary ones – had quite a job of it getting a look-in in their own struggle against a monstrous dictator, being at least as much imposed upon by dewy-eyed writers following their own agenda.  I like Jessica Mitford’s account in Hons and Rebels, not least because its sense of muddle and confusion sounds believable. But it is a strange phenomenon – and possibly one we should talk about some time – that some wars seem fated to become literary landmarks, whereas others get left to hack each other wearily and horribly to death without poets clustering round.

jade_seaWe’ve talked a little about Patrick Leigh-Fermor before, so here let me just remind you of your intention to read him if you haven’t and re-read him if you have: you won’t regret it.   But there is a chance that you haven’t read John Hillaby, because I suspect he is out of fashion as well as out of print.  Once the Zoological Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (and I tell you that only because I rather yearn for a time when that sort of job existed), Hillaby popped on his walking boots to make the trek across Kenya to Lake Turkana, a trip of about a thousand miles which therefore puts the Proclaimers’ pledge to walk a measly five hundred miles somewhat in the shade.  Journey to the Jade Sea was not specifically undertaken as an act of love, but in his later Journey Through Britain, Journey Through Europe and Journey Through Love  Hillaby was increasingly able to interweave his sentimental education with his other observations as he walked.

The idea of walking with a philosophical purpose is of course not new.  To walk to somewhere in order to experience the journey rather than simply to get to your destination might be as good a definition of pilgrimage as any other.  O good; that’s Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into the rucksack then.  And we Umberto Eco fans can slip a copy of his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods in there as well.  Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, would be a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which can be guaranteed to put any moaning about blisters to shame.  Any sort of journey lends itself to being a metaphor, of course: we’re back with our old friend Dante as he finds himself in the middle of the journey of his life standing in a dark wood with no clear path forward.  Sounds familiar?

Lee, Leigh-Fermor, Hillaby and Christian all walked alone, on the whole, but company is allowable: indeed, if you are going to join us in the NorthernReader Walking Book Club, company is mandatory.  It doesn’t have to be human, I suppose: as a dog-owner, Miles Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies painted an appallingly recognisable picture of the highs and lows of choosing as your companion in life a drooling fur-ball with serious personal hygiene issues.  Better, perhaps, to set out for the day with compass, grog and pemmican and your siblings and friends like the Swallows and the Amazons, who seem to undertake forced route marches the length and breadth of the fells without turning a hair.  They brought children up to be sturdier then, is all I can say.  Today’s valedictory picture shows that increasingly rare sight, children released into the wild and enjoying themselves.  They survived their up-bringing and even claim to have enjoyed it.  One of them grew up to be KatePonders, so clearly all that fresh air and exercise did some good.Wales

PS The NorthernReader Walking Book Club is going to stride out soon.  Watch this space, as they say, and I’ll email, tweet (or, to be honest, get KatePonders to tweet for me) and put up nice old-fashioned posters in Cogito Books, Hexham Library and local village shops as well.