When doctors were our friends


IT is more than two years since my doctor at the health centre in Clitheroe retired. I still don’t know if her replacement is any good, or indeed what he looks like. What a contrast to my past life, when I was lucky to have a series of excellent GPs, all of whom I came to regard as friends.

Especially a young Welshman, whom I shall call Dr Evans, who belonged to a group practice in Beckenham, Kent. He was kind, understanding and brilliant at his job. One day my wife Margaret turned up at his surgery unannounced feeling terrible and with a badly swollen leg. He immediately realised she was seriously ill with septicaemia and called an ambulance; prompt action which saved her life.

On an earlier occasion he was swiftly on hand after Margaret found her father dead in his bathroom. Dr Evans carried out the body, placed him in bed, made my wife a cup of tea and helped start the funeral arrangements.

He was not one of your lecturing doctors; once when I was having trouble sleeping he told me: ‘The best prescription I can offer is a nightcap of single malt whisky, the finest you can afford.’

Dr Evans was married to a nurse and doted on their two children. The last time I saw him he asked how Margaret was and I said she was feeling very down – a combination of post-natal depression and grief at losing both her parents within a couple of years. ‘Tell her I understand,’ he said. ‘The world is a horrible place.’

A few days later, he was found hanged in the garage of the family home. We discovered that his wife had been having an affair.

Angered and grieving at this senseless loss of life, I told the story to the Daily Mail news editor at the time, Tony Gallagher. He sent a reporter to the home of Dr Evans’s parents in South Wales. When the GP’s mother opened the door she had just prepared some tea, and dropped the tray she was carrying in shock. It turned out that the reporter was virtually the double of her only child.

The Evanses made him welcome and had a long chat about their beloved son. However they begged him not to write a story because they feared that, if she read it, their errant daughter-in-law would never let them see their grandchildren again.

He passed this message on to Gallagher who, to his eternal credit, agreed not to publish. He went on to edit the Telegraph and the Sun, and is now deputy editor of the Times. Like Dr Evans, one of the good guys.

The world of Peter Simple

AFTER writing the above I needed a bit of cheering up so I resorted to The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of satirical works written by Michael Wharton for the Telegraph. The Way of the World column, under the pseudonym Peter Simple, was started in 1955 by Colin Welch. He it was who created the character of Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the fabulously wealthy Stalinist whose Hampstead mansion is named Marxmount and who also owns a house in the west of Ireland called Leninmore. Her name is a combination of R Palme Dutt, the Suedo-Bengali theorist of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Ana Pauker, the post-war Romanian Communist leader who lamented: ‘Not nearly enough middle-class people are committing suicide.’

After two years as Peter Simple, Welch took on Wharton as an assistant. It was an inspired choice. As well as inventing a grandson for Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the precociously bearded Maoist toddler and noted political theorist Bert Brecht Mao Rudy Che Odinga (or Mao Banana), and his sister Sus, whose first thrilling cry as she entered the world, like Bert before her, was ‘Boycott South African oranges!’ Wharton would go on to make the column his own and give us a wonderful array of hilarious stereotypes.

My favourite is Alderman Jabez Foodbotham, the 25-stone, iron-watch-chained, crag-visaged, grim-booted Lord Mayor of Bradford and perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee. Officially he died in 1928 but legend says that he lies asleep in a mountain cave near Northowram, awaiting the summons to save his city in its hour of supreme danger.

Leftie archbishops such as Rowan Williams are anticipated by Wharton’s Dr Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon in the Stretchford Conurbation.

At the bottom of a disused lead mine in Derbyshire lives Julian Birdbath, ‘last citizen of the Republic of Letters’. He discovered a fourth Brontë sister, Doreen, and he ghostwrote Up Sticks and Away!, the autobiography of General Tiger Nidgett, but never received the fame or fortune he deserved. He retired down the mine to work on a biography of Stephen Spender with his only company a pet toad named Amiel. Mr Shuttleworth, a poultry farmer and part-time literary agent, is Birdbath’s nearest neighbour and sometimes relays items of literary news by shouting down the mineshaft.

Harry and Janet Nodule, from Brassgrove Park, south London, are traffic-jam fans and will travel far and wide in search of a ‘good snarl-up’.

Sir Herbert Trance is head of the British Boring Board of Control based at Lethargy House. The BBBC organises boring competitions whose competitors include Antonin Bvorak from Czechoslovakia, the American Grant Coma Jr, Shloime ben Chloroform from Israel, the Indian R S Nattacharya and Ron Stupor from Australia. Their soporific exploits are chronicled by Narcolept.

I always enjoyed the periodical appearance of ‘Mr G H Marduck: An Apology’ which would typically read: ‘In last week’s column we described how Mr G H Marduck, a bank manager in Stretchford, rampaged naked down the High Street, forcing his attentions on several female passers-by, before engaging in a shoot-out with members of the Special Patrol Group in which several were killed, all the while shouting, “Up the workers”. We now accept that there is no truth in this assertion and apologise to Mr Marduck.’

R S Viswaswami is a naked Indian hermit employed by the council to live on a lake in ‘lovely, sex-maniac haunted Sadcake Park’, famed ‘iron lung’ of the Stretchford Conurbation.

Jon Glasse-Derkeley, an arts critic and ‘cultural entrepreneur’, was chronicler of the Nerdley Scene during the 1960s.

Len Gollip, general secretary of the Associated Union of Hole-borers, presides over record votes of up to 2,379,801 in ballots, despite the union having only 65,785 members, many now dead.

And of course Dr Heinz Kiosk, the psychoanalyst whose response to any phenomenon is ‘WE ARE ALL GUILTY!’

It’s a source of regret that I never met Wharton, who has made me chuckle more than any other columnist. Telegraph chaps tended to gather in a dismal hole of a pub on Fleet Street called the King and Keys, which made strangers feel singularly unwelcome. I did, however, speak regularly with Colin Welch when he was parliamentary sketchwriter for the Mail and he would ring me every evening at 9pm sharp to check if there were any queries on his copy. There seldom were.

A PS from PG

He trusted neither of them as far as he could spit, and he was a poor spitter, lacking both distance and control.

PG Wodehouse: The Adventures of Sally

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