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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 27 October 2014

A Fortunate Man 1

On Saturday I picked up for a trifle a copy of John Berger and Jean Mohr's A Fortunate Man. I'd not come across the book before but I've a soft spot for John Berger and had a few loose coins in my pocket. In this collaboration Berger wrote the text and Mohr took the photographs which, as you might expect, don't just illustrate the words but constitute a visual essay in their own right.

The subject, the fortunate man,  is a GP  with a practice in the Forest of Dean called John Eskell (given the name John Sassall in the book) that Berger got to know while living in St Briavel in the late 50s and early 60s. Berger writes about Sassall's life as a naval surgeon, a country doctor, the community he serves, his approach to general practice and  gives his interpretation of what makes him who he is and do what he does. It is, in a sense, a sociological study of the general practitioner with an N of 1. Of course being Berger there is more to it than that. Some of it is Sartrean hokey with an admixture of Freudian bunkum, though the latter is more defensible because Eskell/Sassall is a believer in psychotherapy himself and sees it as one of the weapons he uses to treat the whole patient. Some consists of outlandish comparisons with Conrad's novels of the sea.

In both text and photographs we are allowed to accompany Sassall on his rounds, sit in his consulting room and learn about his hopes and fears. He sees people into the world and some of them he sees out. In a telling metaphor Berger calls him the clerk of the community's records. 

There are one or two revelations in these records like the story of being called  by an elderly woman's husband who is worried that his wife is bleeding down below. Sassall has known the couple for years but on attendance he discovers  that the "wife" has male genitalia and that her problem is haemorrhoids. Nothing more is said just as nothing had ever been said in the traditional, inward looking, community itself. 

The last photograph in the book shows Sassall walking up a steep track to his isolated house. He has his back to us and appears to be exiting stage left. Nothing is really  concluded and he is given the last words: "Whenever I am reminded of death - and it happens every day - I think of my own, and this makes me try to work harder". There is a terrible poignancy about this. In 1982 Eskell shot himself. He was 63 years of age.

I  was astonished to learn that A Fortunate Man is regarded by the medical profession as one of the most insightful accounts of the GP's life. You can see some of the photographs here.

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