Ethyl alcohol, Ethanol. C2H5OH. A colourless flammable liquid, miscible with water, prepared by the fermentation of sugars.
My mother was an experienced breastfeeder. She knew that she could put me down to sleep quickly if she took a glass of sherry half an hour before feeding me. Occasionally she put this knowledge to good use.
At other times, if I would not settle, she gave me a teaspoonful of gripe water. She thought that it helped me when I got colic. It did. At that time Woodward’s Gripe Water was 4.4% alcohol; one teaspoonful given to a one month old baby was equivalent to an adult drinking one third of a glass of claret.
So it was that I fell under the influence of alcohol even before I was weaned.
When I was christened my godfather, Eric, laid down a dozen bottles of vintage port for my twenty-first birthday. Unfortunately he sold them, or drank them, long before I became of age. Such a pity!
Florence, who helped my mother with the housework, did not like to go out too early in the morning - ‘not until the streets have been aired’, she would say.
I often wondered exactly what she meant but I did not like to ask her. Perhaps there were nasty things in the dark that got blown away once the new day started. What sort of things could they be? I imagined wispy ghosts and evil spirits and was glad that I had a nightlight when I went to bed.
Florence used to listen to the wireless on an extension speaker in the kitchen. It could only give you what was on the wireless in the sitting room and then only if this was switched on. It always fascinated me. What was it that travelled down the wires to make the sound come out? The socket on the wall which took the plug from the speaker had two round holes in it. The one next to it was larger and had three round holes, two small and one big, and was where Florence plugged in the small lamp when she needed it. It would be interesting to see what happened if you put the plug from the speaker into the other socket even if you had to bend the pins a little bit to make it fit. I did this one day. There was a loud bang and a blue flash and some smoke. Everyone was very cross with me.
Even allowing for my adventures with the extension speaker there had been an air of anxiety about the house for some weeks now. I was not at all clear what it happening, but undoubtedly it was something quite unusual. The grown-ups had kept telling me ‘to be quiet so that we can listen to the news on the wireless'. It was most peculiar.
One day my father said to me:
‘John, you may not understand what this means but I want you to remember to-day for the rest of your life. To-day is the day that war broke out. Never forget to-day.’
He was silent for a moment as poured himself another glass of whisky. Then he said again
‘Never forget to-day, John. To-day is the day that the war started. Will you always remember that?’
‘Yes, daddy. I will.’
That day is also my earliest memory of my father drinking whisky.
This particular evening we all were tired but content, though Janet and I had terrible chilblains. There was thick snow on the ground and the paraffin stoves in the small cottage had hardly kept the chill at bay; still it had been a good day.
My mother and I had had our butter ration for two weeks at teatime, spread thickly on a freshly baked loaf which I had collected from the bakery down the lane. I had wrapped the loaf in a towel as it came out of the oven and the two of us had ripped it apart as soon as I had got it home, while it was still warm. Delicious!
Janet and Sheila had a different approach to rationing in that they would eke their butter out, a little bit spread thinly on every slice throughout the week.
Janet was nearly twelve now, and a sensible enough girl too, so it did not seem such a bad thing for my mother to leave the three of us on our own in the early evening once a week, for just an hour or two, while she had a bath, and a glass of beer, at the Salway Arms. It was such a joy for her to have running hot water with which to fill a proper sized bath. At the cottage there was a only small tin bath, shaped like a coffin. It could accommodate a sitting child all right, but it was far too small for an adult. In any case the water first had to be drawn from the pump in the garden and then be heated in kettles on an open fire. Such a palaver.
‘I won’t be long, Janet,’ mother said. ‘Will you be all right?’
‘Of course, we will, Mummy. We will be fine.’
We would have been, too, if only I had not mislaid my torch. I knew well enough that I would need it in the morning; it would still be dark when I had to get up in order to catch the train to the school in Ludlow. Where could it have got to?
‘Sheila, help me find my torch. I don’t know where it is. I’ve lost it somewhere.’
‘O.K. We’ll use my torch to look for your torch.’
‘You use it. I’ll get a candle.’
We hunted everywhere. I tried to see under the sofa, but the candle was too tall and I couldn’t get the light from it to shine underneath the seat. I went to the kitchen to get a spill. I liked spills. They were such useful things and were often brightly coloured as well. I was always surprised that the flame from a red spill was the same smoky yellow as the flame from a blue spill; it seemed wrong somehow. I enjoyed the way that the flame flickered in the draught and the smoke swirled about as it rose upwards. ‘Hot air rises,’ Janet had once told me. Well each time you lit a spill it proved she was right. You had to put the spill at the top of the candle flame and when it caught fire the new flame went upwards as well. Also the word ‘spill’ itself was a nice one, even though Mummy said you should not use the word ‘nice’ too often, but should think of another word instead. I was not sure why this should be. ‘Nice’ was a nice word itself! Sheila had been telling me about the special words that sounded just like the thing you were talking about, like ‘squelch’ and ‘crackle’, and to me ‘spill’ had the same fascination though I would not have been able to explain quite why.
I chose a red spill from the packet and lit it from the candle. I was disappointed by the amount of light it gave out, nothing like as good as a candle from which I had lit it. Still it was fun waving it around and peering under the sofa with it. It was like another world under the sofa where spiders and cockroaches, and mice no doubt, pretended that they were the owners of the house rather than the people. Perhaps they were. I had once put on my slipper and had found a mouse inside it.
There were draughts and shadows and dust and fluff under the sofa as well, and drawing pins and hair clips and slippers, but there was no torch. The flame from my spill touched the underside of the sofa for a moment, but I quickly rubbed the place with my finger and it seemed all right.
Eventually Sheila and I gave up the hunt; it seemed a lost cause. The three of us went to bed. We talked in the dark for a while and then I started to worry. I am not sure now whether I was worrying about my torch or about having let the flame touch the sofa.
‘Sheila, lend me your torch. I want to go downstairs and have another look for mine.’
‘All right, but don’t be too long or the battery will go flat.’
Carefully I made my way down the rickety stairs. When I reached the bottom I opened the door to the sitting room. Immediately I could smell smoke. I shone the torch across the room. There was a thin wisp of black smoke trickling out from under the sofa. I stared at it with horror a moment and then I ran upstairs again.
‘Janet, there is smoke coming from the sofa. Come and see. What shall we do.’
‘Smoke? Really? Are you sure?’
‘Yes, Janet, there really is. Come and see. Quickly!’
So we went together down the steep narrow stairs. The smoke was much worse than it had been before. ‘We must fetch some water. Get a bucket or a saucepan and run to the pump as fast as you can.’
‘Sheila, get up quickly,’ Janet shouted up the stairs.
I put on my Wellington boots, found a bucket in the kitchen and looked around for something warm to wear. The first thing I saw was my mother’s fur coat. I put it on. The hem reached the ground. I tried desperately not to step on it as I ran down the path to the pump.
Sheila and Janet ran back and forth from the house to the pump while I filled any receptacle that they managed to find. It was soon clear that our pouring water onto the seat of the sofa was not the answer. The smoke was getting worse by the minute.
‘I’m going for help,’ said Janet.
‘Don’t be long,’ said Sheila.
‘I’ll keep filling the buckets,’ I said.
By the time that Janet got back, bringing with her the man and the woman who lived down the road, there was so much smoke that Sheila and I had given up trying to get into the room. Shortly afterwards another man arrived carrying a stirrup-pump. I saw him tie a wet hanky over his mouth and nose. He looked like a gangster.
The woman took Sheila and me away to her house and gave us a cup of cocoa and a biscuit.
They managed to put the fire out eventually, but not before the walls of the room were blackened by smoke, the ceiling scorched by flames and the wooden floorboards deeply charred where the sofa had been.
An hour later we were taken back home. The sofa, or what was left of it, was standing forlornly in the garden. My mother was not as cross with me as I had expected her to be; I think she was too relieved that no-one had been hurt to be really angry.
Janet’s chilblains got much better after her run through the snow, but mine were terrible the next day. My mother put some Melrose ointment on them and that helped a lot.
It was many weeks before she went to the pub again.
When I arrived home in 1943 it felt wonderful no longer to be an ‘evacuee’. The six of us, that is my father, my mother, Florence and we three children, all used to sleep under the Morrison table in case there should be an air raid and the ceilings fell down. Before my father turned the light out my mother always checked that there was some brandy, some biscuits, a bunch of lavender, and a whistle. Thus equipped she felt confident she could if necessary revive us, sustain us, deal with unpleasant smells and call for help. Luckily her optimism was never put to the test. This remains the only time in my life that I have slept with a bottle of brandy in my bed.
Whitaker was leaning out of the window holding a tube of toothpaste in his right hand. He squeezed out a short length of paste and then flicked the tube so that the paste dropped off.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
Whatever it was Whitaker was so absorbed by it that he didn’t hear - or at least he didn’t answer.
‘Whitaker, Whitaker, what are you doing?’
‘Oh, hello. Look down there and you’ll see.’
I leant out of the window next to Whitaker and peered down. On the sill of the window below and a few feet along there was a large glass bowl with what looked like trifle in it. There was a layer of custard on the top which was gently steaming. Clearly it had been put out so that the custard would cool down more quickly.
‘I’m trying to land some toothpaste on the custard. It needs a little cream for decoration, don’t you think?’
Another blob was sent on its way. This one landed on the sill about six inches from the bowl which was closer than any of the others had been so far. There was clearly a knack involved. Whitaker had to reach out as far as he could and then flick it back towards the house so that it took a curve as it fell. It had to miss the lintel at the top of the window and yet not be falling too vertically or it would miss the sill as well.
‘Practice makes perfect!’ Whitaker cried, as next time the blob fell right onto the custard, not exactly in the middle it was true but near enough for honour to be satisfied.
‘Brilliant, brilliant! Let me have a go. Pleeease, pleeease.’
It took me some time to get the hang of it, but eventually I too managed to get a blob of toothpaste onto the custard. In the attempt I had got several blobs onto the windowsill, which began to look as though it had been visited by sea gulls. I was about to have another go when a hand came into view for a moment and the bowl disappeared back inside the house.
‘Quick, let’s get out of here, before someone comes up.’
We dashed along the corridor and into the dayroom. My chess set was on the table, the pieces already in place for a game.
‘It’s my turn to be white,’ I said. I sat down and moved ‘pawn to king four’. Whitaker did the same. I then moved ‘pawn to king’s bishop four’; the King’s gambit was my very favourite opening. I played it as often as I could, sometimes even when I was playing black. Not that I knew a great many of the standard openings. Mr Bloxham had actually discouraged me from learning them, saying that too much studying chess books would stifle natural flair. Natural flair, eh?
The door opened. It was Mrs Holton-Harrap, looking as though she would explode.
‘Have either of you two been throwing stuff at my trifle?’ she demanded.
‘Stuff?’ I said.
‘At your trifle?’ said Whitaker.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘It wasn’t us,’ said Whitaker.
‘Huh!’ said Mrs Holton-Harrap, and she stormed out of the room slamming the door as she did so.
‘Phew. That was close. Let’s go out and finish building the den.’
We ran down the stairs to the room by the back door where the outdoor shoes were kept. We changed our shoes quickly, remembering to put our indoor ones in the right place (my school number was 191, so my shoes went in locker 191), and ran out into the garden. The house to which the school had been evacuated was a large crumbling mansion, about three miles outside Shrewsbury, with extensive grounds. On Sunday afternoons, after we had been on the official school walk, we were allowed a small measure of freedom for the second half of the afternoon. We could play inside or out, if the weather was fine, though it was laid down very clearly which part of the grounds were ‘in bounds’ and which were not, and there was always a master somewhere in the vicinity.
Our favourite place in the summer was the ‘shrubbery’, a rambling, neglected and overgrown collection of rhododendrons and other less exotic plants. Here we boys would get together in small groups and build dens. Some of these were surprisingly sophisticated with hanging bracken or rushes for doors, floors lined with stones and chairs improvised from old boxes and other bits of scrap wood. One even had a concrete floor as its enterprising owner had found the remnants of a bag of cement in an out-of-bounds garden shed. It was tremendous fun; there were passwords to be chosen, traps to be set against trespassers, and friends to be visited in neighbouring dens. It was common to offer ‘something to drink’ to visitors, the local brew usually being concocted from lemonade crystals or boiled sweets dissolved in water. Sometimes elderberry or blackberry juice was added. If the resulting mixture was of exceptional quality it might not be given away but be sold at a farthing a glass, if takers could be found.
It was my idea to let one of the drinks ferment. I thought it would be very grown up to offer friends ‘a proper drink’. The previous summer I had watched Wilf, my farmer uncle, making cider and had helped chop up the apples and put them in the barrel to ferment. Uncle Wilf had said that he would put a dead rat in it when he had caught one - it would make the cider stronger. Ugh! I had not really believed him, but I wasn’t sure; perhaps he had meant it. Still we wouldn’t add anything like that to the to the drink we were going to make in our den.
‘Let’s put some rose hip syrup in it,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Whitaker , ‘but not cod liver oil!’
We laughed and laughed at the thought. Each week, whether at home or at school, we were given a dose of both of these, for ‘vitamins’ we were told, ‘because of the war’. The oil was revolting but the syrup was delicious. During the summer my sisters and I would go out and collect hips off the wild roses in the hedgerows around Brimfield so that the government could make more syrup for us, and sometimes mother would help us make some for ourselves which was even nicer than the stuff we got from the chemist’s shop.
So we made up a splendid mixture of water and boiled sweets and rose hip syrup together with some elderberries because Uncle Wilf had said you needed something called yeast which was found on the outside of apples and fruit to make cider or wine. We put it in a bottle, stood it in the corner of the den and waited. Nothing happened at first, but after a few days we found the cork had blown out of the top of the bottle and there was white froth bubbling down the sides. It didn’t smell very nice but we knew that it meant that we really were making a ‘proper drink’. After another three days the weather got much cooler and the bubbling slowed down, but not before half of the liquid had been lost from the bottle.
‘Do you think it is nearly ready?’ asked Whitaker.
‘Yes, I think so,’ I replied, pleased to be considered the expert and yet not really sure. It still smelled very unpleasant!
We waited till the following Saturday.
‘We’ll strain it through a hanky,’ I said. So that’s what we did. Then we drank it even though it tasted revolting. Later we were both very sick.
The allies were storming across Europe; the mood everywhere was one of irresistible hope for a better and brighter future. Even the great smog in October could not depress the people’s optimism.
Now that their families were back home in London the four intrepid gamblers, my father, our family doctor, the local vet and the church organist decided to have one last fling. They had got into the habit of going once a week to the dogtrack at Wimbledon where some beer and whisky and good company could make them forget the war. A sort of make or break night. There was a tidy sum in the kitty and plenty of ideas of how to place it. My father thought that backing the second favourite in each race and doubling up till it won was the best way of making their fortune.
‘You get better odds on the second favourite so the winnings are bigger. Of course you have to be prepared to place a lot of money if you don’t win in one of the early races. Still I reckon that it is as good a way as any other.’
They set off in high spirits and arrived home late in the evening very much the worse for strong spirits. They had been celebrating a substantial win. There were beautiful white five pound notes stuffed in all my father’s pockets and some of them fell out onto the ground as he staggered up the driveway. There is no knowing how many he had lost on the way home.
He gave the three of us ten pounds each. I took mine and hurried off to bed before he changed his mind.
I will never forget ‘Victory in Europe night’, or ‘V.E. night’ as it was called. After all those years the war really was over!
‘It will seem funny not to get the news on the wireless anymore, won’t it, Dad?’
‘Not get the news? What do you mean?’
‘Well, now the war is over there won’t be any more news, will there?’
My father laughed.
‘Oh, there will be plenty of news, don’t you worry.’ He paused, and then, laughing again, he asked ‘You didn’t really think that the news would stop, did you?’
I wasn’t sure what I had said that was so funny. I couldn’t remember hearing anything on the news except what was happening in the war, so of course I had thought the news would stop now the war had stopped. I wondered what they would put in it instead.
‘Paddy is coming round for a drink, Ethel, before we all go out,’ my father said to my mother.
A bottle of Irish whisky was opened at a quarter to four in the afternoon and by half past five the two men had finished it. The festivities had hardly begun.
Later we went out to a party and everyone except me had too much to drink. During the evening we listened to the wireless as Zoe Gail sang in Trafalgar Square ‘When the lights go up in London’.
On the way home at one o’clock in the morning my father stopped at any house where the lights were not on and threw gravel at the bedroom windows, shouting out that they were unpatriotic not to be still up celebrating.
When we got home he wanted to drive a detective friend who had walked with us back to his house, but luckily he was dissuaded, though with some difficulty. They both had another whisky instead.
As I entered the kitchen I was greeted by a delicious smell of roasting lamb.
‘That smells good, Mum. How long will it be?’
‘Ten minutes or so, I should think. I have just got the gravy to make.’
My mouth watered at the thought of rich dark gravy. Perhaps I would be allowed to scrape the dish out when she had finished making it.
‘Are we having leeks, Mum? I hope so.’
‘No, but we are having onion sauce, and spring greens and carrots and roast potatoes, so it should be nice.’
‘Is there some redcurrant jelly?’
‘No, but I have got some delicious crab apple jelly, which is just as tasty, and some mint sauce.’
‘I’ll have the jelly. I don’t like mint sauce. Well, not the vinegar, anyway.’
I watched as she opened the oven door and reached inside to lift out the roasting pan. She put the pan onto one of the gas rings, which was burning so low that it was hardly on. With a large carving fork she lifted the joint itself out of the pan and onto the meat plate which was by the side of the cooker. Next she sprinkled a spoonful of flour into the fat in the pan and stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon. Using a jug she transferred some of the water in which the greens were cooking into the pan, stirred it in and followed this with some of the carrot water. Finally she added a drop of gravy browning. It did look good.
She poured the gravy into a small saucepan so that she could keep it hot, and then let me have the roasting pan so that I could scrape it out. Delicious!
‘When you have finished you can put it in the sink with some water and some soap in it.’
Mother kept a small wire cage, about twice the size of a matchbox, with a handle, into which she put the ends of bars of soap. You could swish this back and forth in the washing up water so that it became frothy with soap bubbles and could wash the dirty dishes for you.
As I was putting this back onto its hook by the side of the sink I noticed an eggcup on the windowsill. In this eggcup there were my mother’s diamond ring in what looked like water.
‘What are your rings doing in this water, Mum?’ I asked.
‘That’s not water, dear. It’s gin! I’m trying to get them clean.’
‘Won’t they dissolve away?’
‘No, they won’t do that; diamonds are too hard. I always use gin. It gets the dirt out splendidly. They’ll shine like new when I’ve finished.’
Fancy that! You learn something new every day, don’t you?
My finger was throbbing. There was a small red tender spot where I had pricked it on a thorn in the garden yesterday. I peered closely at it. It looked as though there might be part of the thorn still under the skin.
‘Dad, could you look at my finger. I think there may be a thorn in it.’
‘Let me see.’
‘Yes, I am sure there is something there. Ask Mum for a sewing needle and I’ll try to get it out for you.’
I ran upstairs and got a needle. Back in the surgery I gave it to him.
‘I’ll wipe it with some surgical spirit first,’ he said. ‘That will sterilize it.’
He picked up a glass bottle filled with a thin clear fluid, took the glass stopper out, put some cotton wool on the mouth of the bottle and briefly turned it upside down. Then he wiped the needle with the cotton wool.
‘What is surgical spirit, Dad?’
‘It’s just methylated spirit without the dye in it.’
‘What exactly is methylated spirit, anyway, Dad?’
‘Oh, meths is just ordinary alcohol, John, but they have added a small amount of wood alcohol to it, which is poisonous, so that you can’t drink it. They put a dye in it to warn people.’
Wood alcohol ? That sounded strange.
Soon the thorn was out and the job was done. Dad dabbed some of the spirit on to the spot. It stung sharply for a moment, but I felt certain that it was doing me good.
I was seriously drunk myself for the first time when I was sixteen. It was Janet’s 21st birthday. The party was held at the Richmond Hill Hotel and there was champagne to drink at the end of the evening. While I do not remember much about the evening I do have a clear recollection of swilling down six glasses of champagne just before leaving the hotel. They were on a tray on a table at the end of the room clearly spare and begging to be swallowed. So swallow them I did.
When we got back to Putney the party went on for a couple more hours. I helped pass round decanters full of gin and lime to the guests. The recipe was simple: one part gin, one part lime juice and one part water. At the time I thought that it was rather stingy to add the water but I did not say anything. (I understand now that it was fairly strong stuff, even if it is a whore’s drink!) At twenty past one in the morning Janet caught me crawling up the stairs with a half full decanter in my hand. She gently took it away from me. When I got into my bed the room seemed to swimming around in circles and I felt awful.
Next morning I awoke with my very first hang-over.
I was not a particularly spotty adolescent, but I did have some corkers at times. When I first tried shaving they certainly got in the way, and I cut myself as well, even though it was meant to be a safety razor. Mother tried to get me to put some Eau de Cologne on the spots and cuts but I was resistant to the idea. It was not that the stuff stung, which it did, but I thought it would be cissy to smell of scent, and anyway I did not like perfumes even on girls!
I bought some after shave lotion that hardly smelled at all, and then only of menthol, though it still smarted when you put it on, just like Dad’s surgical spirit had done. It seemed to clear up spots splendidly, especially the little ones that appeared where I had grazed myself with the razor blade.
‘We’ll take the tent on the back of one of the bikes,’ said Anthony.
‘And the cooking things too,’ I said. ‘We’ll need a stove of some sort.’
‘It’ll be great fun,’ said Brian. ‘I’ll write to my cousin in Deauville and see if we can call on her. Her parents run a small hotel there.’
We were planning the great French holiday. We would cross the Channel with our bikes and cycle round Normandy. Anthony had a tent, Brian said he could borrow pots and pans from his mother and I said I would see about a stove.
During the Easter holidays I went exploring. I tried Woolworth’s first but they only had a very small stove which used solid fuel and did not look big enough for the job. I knew there was an ironmonger’s in the Lower Richmond Rd; I would try there. I nearly got myself knocked over by a trolley bus as I crossed the bottom of the High St; they were so quiet that you could easily not hear them coming.
I went into the ironmonger’s shop and asked the man about camping stoves.
‘I’ve got a nice little stove here,’ he said. ‘It would be grand for camping. It works with methylated spirits and it isn’t pressurised so it is safer than using paraffin or petrol.’
He went to a cupboard and lifted a cardboard box off one of the shelves. He put it down on the counter and took the small stove out. It looked very insubstantial to me. In essence it was a small sheet of shiny metal which had been bent into a square box and then turned in on itself leaving an open circle in the middle. The rim of this circular opening had a ring of small holes in it. There were flimsy little legs at the corners of the box to stop the whole thing toppling over.
‘How does it work?’ I asked.
‘You pour meths into the centre here up to the line here and you light it with a match. After a few minutes the meths gets hot enough for it to evaporate and come out through the holes at the top here where it catches fire. Then the flame in the middle goes out because the air cannot get to it any more.
‘Does it really work?’
‘Oh, yes, certainly.’
‘How much does it cost?’
‘One shilling and sixpence including a bottle of meths.’
I had a florin in my pocket, so I bought it. I showed it to Ian, my friend who lived four houses down the road and whose father was our doctor.
We poured some of the meths into the stove and lit it with a match. We watched the pale blue flame dancing like a will o’the wisp over the surface of the meths. After a minute or so tiny flames appeared from the holes on the rim. Gradually they grew into long spiky flames like those on the gas cooker in the kitchen, though smaller. The flame in the middle went out just as the man had had it would.
‘It’s brilliant, isn’t it?,’ I said.
‘Yes, its super. You could boil an egg on that alright.’
Back at school for the summer term we completed our plans and it seemed nothing would stop us. Something nearly did.
After ‘homework’ in the evenings the younger boys would be sent off to bed while we older lads sat around doing our own thing. There was currently a vogue for making hot drinks at this time, usually hot chocolate. A primus stove had been acquired from somewhere but mostly I kept well away from it, till it was lit at least, for I was ill at ease with the whole business of getting it going. I remembered how the man in the shop had said that stoves that you had to pressurize were more dangerous than those that you did not. Still everyone else seemed to have no difficulty with it so why should I? After all I had watched closely how they did it.
This particular evening I decided to have a go myself. I poured the meths into the metal trough that the circled the ring of holes. I struck a match and lit the purple fluid. It burned with a soft blue flame that gently flickered like the brandy on top of a Christmas pudding. I wondered when I should start pumping up the pressure. If I did it too soon the paraffin would not have got hot enough to vapourise properly and if I did it too late the meths would have gone out and there would be no flame to set the paraffin on fire.
I watched the level of the meths getting lower and lower. Now, surely this was the moment. I started to pump the plunger. Too late! The flame in the trough had died away quicker than I had expected and now the paraffin vapour was pouring out of the little holes but was not igniting. Bother!
What was I to do now? Start again, I suppose. It should be OK.
So I took the top off the bottle of meths and standing back as far as I could, with my arm outstretched, I carefully poured some more of it into the trough. There was a whoosh and a bright flash and a ball of flame coming at me like a thunderbolt. I threw my hands up in front of my eyes just before it hit me. God, how it hurt. I screamed with the pain. How was I to have known that the heat of the metal would be enough to ignite the alcohol and that the flame it produced would fire the mixture of hot paraffin vapour and air that was hanging around in the immediate vicinity of the stove? I danced from foot to foot yelling as I did so. It felt as though someone had been scrubbing my face and hands with a wire brush. Then for a moment it was not so bad again, until someone took my elbow and led me outside to take me down to the school sanatorium. As the cold air hit my face it was agony once more. I am told that I shouted terrible obscenities but I do not remember what I said. Perhaps that is a good thing.
The nurse at the ‘san’ was very kind to me. She phoned the doctor, one of the GPs in the town, and I had lotion and lint applied and a bandage round my head and under my chin to keep the dressings in place. I suppose I was lucky that there had been only a limited amount of paraffin vapour in the air or the burns might have been much worse. As it was I lost the skin over my face, except where my hands had covered my eyes, and the backs of my hands were raw, and under my chin. I still carry a scar under my chin from where the dressings rubbed when I opened by mouth.
After a few days I was feeling much more cheerful. I enjoyed the bed bath that the pretty nurse gave me. She started at the top and worked downwards to my lower abdomen and then upwards from my feet to the tops of my legs. Throughout the performance there had been a strategically placed towel covering the bit in between. I thought that she had finished her task, but she began to soap up the flannel again.
I was puzzled.
‘What are you going to wash now?’ I asked.
‘I’m not going to wash anything,’ she said firmly. ‘You are!’
They kept me in the san for three weeks. It never occurred to me that I should not go cycling in France when I got out but my mother was clearly anxious about it.
‘You will be very weak after all this time in bed, ‘ she said, ‘and your skin will be very tender. You will have to careful.’
‘It’ll be fine, Mum, you’ll see. Anyway Anthony and Brian can go on ahead and I will meet them later.’
So that is what happened. They took the boat across the channel and cycled to Paris and I caught a train there two weeks later. The rendezvous at the Gare du Nord went exactly as planned.
We spent a couple of days in Paris seeing the sights - Notre Dame, the Champs Elysee, the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower and best of all Sacre Coeur. I loved its white stone, its pinnacles and its exciting grandeur.
‘I think we should get out of Paris now,’ said Brian.
‘Yes, let’s go to Versailles. That’s where Marie Antionette was when she said ‘Let them eat cake’’, said Anthony.
‘Yes, let’s go there,’ I said.
And so we left Paris. As we cycled through the outskirts and on to Versailles, I said
‘I wonder if I will ever come back. It was a nice city, wasn’t it?’
‘Too noisy,’ said Brian.
‘Too many cars,’ said Anthony.
‘But lots of pretty girls,’ I added. (Of course, I could not know at that moment that the next time I went to Paris it would be on my honeymoon!)
From Versailles we cycled to Chartres. The road to Chartres was long and flat. We could see the steeples of the cathedral from miles away and though we cycled and cycled they did not seem to be getting any closer. We got there in the end, of course, but it was a frustrating ride nonetheless.
We all loved the cathedral. I took lots of photos of the stained glass windows. Anthony watched a man with a camera on a tripod.
‘He has set the aperture at f4,’ he said. He pulled a stopwatch out of his pocket. ‘I’m going to try to time the exposure he uses.’
The man fiddled around trying to get his shot just as he wanted it. To pass the time we indulged in our favourite sport of talking about people out loud, which was fun. We could only do this because we knew so few of the French people could understand us.
‘His wife looks bored, doesn’t she?’ said Brian. ‘I expect she has to stand around watching him or he gets cross with her.’
‘She’s got an awful hat on, hasn’t she? Looks as if she got it in a jumble sale. I expect he’s too mean to buy her decent clothes.’
‘Quiet now,’ said Anthony. The man clicked the shutter. ‘That was about four seconds, I think,’ Anthony continued peering at his watch in the darkness.
The man looked up.
‘It was only three and a half seconds, actually,’ he said in perfect English. How were we supposed to have known that he was not a Frenchman?
Next day we took the train to Rennes. I sent a card home, which said ‘Having a good time. Training hard!’
Would they guess what I meant?
From Rennes we cycled to Mont St Michel where we spent an exciting day following and photographing a pickpocket with my box ‘Brownie’. We gave the film to the gendarmerie but we never heard what happened. I wish that I had kept it.
It was late before we found somewhere to camp that evening and we went to ask at the nearby farm if we could buy some eggs. The old lady who answered the door would not sell us any, not, that is, until she discovered we were English. Then she insisted on giving us some eggs for nothing. I did not understand what she was saying but Brian told me afterwards she had lost her father in the first world war and her husband and sons in the second. It was the British who had liberated her country on both occasions.
As planned we stayed in Deauville with Brian’s cousin, Monique. We pitched our tent in the back garden of her parents’ hotel. We were entertained royally. Before lunch we had ‘aperitifs’. I drank my very first sweet Martini, and my second as well. At the table we had lobster salad and a bottle of red wine. We slept all afternoon in the tent before waking up in time for more aperitifs before supper and some more red wine with it.
The following morning I awoke with my first French hangover. It was better by the time we reached Le Havre, but then, unfortunately, I was sick all the way across the channel.
It was wonderful to be in Cambridge. Clare Old Court was especially enchanting, as was Clare bridge and the gardens too. My room was in New Court and I found it friendly and welcoming, which was a good thing as I was really very nervous of being at university.
I soon got the hang of things and revelled in sitting up late smoking cigarettes with the college crest on them and drinking sherry which had been ‘selected and bottled especially for Clare College, Cambridge.’
We went out drinking several nights a week; usually it was just a few halves of bitter, followed by a mixed grill at The Waffle or a curry at the restaurant next to the Polish barber’s where you could still get your hair cut for sixpence. Sometimes we put away altogether too many pints in an evening.
When the weather was fine we would go to the Mill at lunchtime on a Sunday and drink Merrydown cider, which had the reputation for being the cheapest way that there was to get inebriated. There was a one student who supplemented his income by pretending to be drunk and calling for people to take bets of half a crown with him that he would not jump off the Mill bridge into the Cam. When enough people, perhaps a dozen or more, had fallen into the trap he would stop his pretence, climb calmly onto the parapet of the bridge, jump into the water and swim to the side. The losers usually paid up with good grace, poorer but wiser men.
One memorable night (though the fine details are hazy) Ivor, Trevor, Warwick and I walked along the river to Grantchester to drink long and hard at The Blue Ball Inn. They tell me that I recounted rude stories all the way there and all the way back without repeating myself. We finished off the evening drawing up rules of membership for ‘The Blue Ball Club’ and designing a tie, which in due course we had made for us by one of the local tailoring shops. It was yellow ochre in colour with triangular groups of three blue balls scattered over it.
It was one evening when we were in our cups that we hatched plans for the great sherry party. With us on the medical course was a middle-aged professor of organic chemistry. No-one quite knew why he was there, and for no good reason we rather resented the older generation getting in on the act.
‘Let’s ask lots of people to sherry at his rooms.’
‘Yes, let’s. Who shall we ask?’
‘Oh, other dons and fellows.’
‘And undergrads. And what about people from Oxford? We could say ‘come to sherry on Sunday at noon. Sorry for the short notice; do not bother to reply unless you cannot come’. That way he’ll know that something is afoot but won’t know how many people have been asked.’
‘Let’s ask the editor of the News of the World!’
‘And the editor of Razzle!’
We sent out sixty invitations. When the day came we watched from a nearby window as he answered the door to his unwanted guests. He turned most of them away but a few were asked inside. We would have been in real trouble if he had found out who was responsible. I thought it was very funny at the time but I admit that I am rather ashamed of it now.
Another night a group of us in Clare New Court were idling an evening away drinking beer and betting against one another on our knowledge of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
'Who said I shall not say why or how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven?’ John asked.
‘Who said If I must die, let me die drinking in an inn?’ I countered.
‘Who said There is no drinking after death?’ said John.
Roger came bustling through the door.
‘What’s the cigarette situation?’ he cried.
‘Are you out of fags again, Roger?’ I asked.
‘Yes. As it happens I am.’
‘A pity. We’ve run out as well’ said John.
‘Never mind. I’ll sort something out.’
He was back twenty minutes later. With a studiedly casual gesture he tossed a thousand Player’s Perfectos Finos cigarettes onto the table.
‘Help yourselves, boys.’
‘Who said smoking is a branch of the sin of drunkenness, which is the root of all sins?’ said John.
‘Who said a cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want? ?’ I asked.
‘What’s the beer situation?’ said Roger.
Luckily there was plenty of beer, and cider to follow when that ran out.
While we did drink pretty regularly during term time, it was often in moderation, though occasionally to excess. What sociable stuff is alcohol!
As I was secretary of the squash club I got to stay in college for my second year; most other folk had to go out to digs. My room was on H staircase immediately above Sir Henry, the Master of Clare. My neighbour, who was reading engineering, was an electrical officer in the Navy, and we became great friends, even to the point of sharing a room in the New Building the following year. Through John I met a new circle of people outside medicine, which was an excellent thing.
Clare had some excellent squash players, including three Blues and two Ganders (as the University second team was known). These five were not allowed to play in the ordinary intercollege league games, but they did represent us when it came to the intercollege knock out Cup competition. It was strange to find myself playing number one for the league matches and yet not be good enough to play at all in the Cup matches.
At the start of the season seven of us from Clare went on tour. We arranged to play eleven matches in nine days, which was pretty energetic seeing that none of us was very fit, though as we fielded only a team of five at any one time none of us actually played in all eleven fixtures. During one match, against the Hertfordshire Hornets, my opponent was hooker for the Scottish rugby team. He had been in training for weeks. I disgraced myself: I won the first set by running flat out for every ball and then, as a result of this exertion, I vomited profusely in the middle of the court. I retired as gracefully as I could, but despite buckets of hot soapy water and lots of clean towels they could not get the floor safe enough to play on for the rest of the afternoon. The match had to continue on one court only instead of the two that had been booked. I was not popular!
That evening we went to a party in a barn in the garden of a large house somewhere in the country. I found myself rather smitten by a young lady with a winning smile. The drink filled me with false bravado.
‘Shall we find somewhere quieter where we can talk?’ I said in a suggestive voice that I hardly recognised as my own.
‘All right,’ she replied.
So we went off to the house and found an empty sitting room. She sat on the sofa, looked up at me and smiled encouragingly, motioning with her hand that I should sit beside her. At that moment I became totally overcome with shyness. What should I say or do?
Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a decanter of sherry.
‘Would you like some sherry?’ I asked hesitantly.
‘Just a little. please.’
I poured a sherry glass full and gave it to her.
‘This stuff should be drunk like water, really,’ I said, and I picked up a tumbler rather than a sherry glass. I filled almost to the brim.
‘Bottoms up, ‘ I said.
I do not remember any of the rest of the evening except being lifted onto the back seat of a car and hearing someone say
‘The poor boy will feel terrible in the morning. Do make sure he is all right, won’t you?’.
I was not fit to play in the match the next day. I resolved never again to be so stupid.
This term we were learning about drugs and how they acted. I really enjoyed the pharmacology course because it was fairly short, was crisply taught, and seemed to me to be nearer real medicine than anatomy, or even physiology. As a preclinical student it was often difficult to understand why so much emphasis was laid on some of the things in the curriculum, but this subject was so obviously important. The book we were recommended to read was by Professor Gaddum from Edinburgh, though I also bought a smaller book Lecture Notes on Pharmacology by Professor Burn from Oxford. These two books formed a useful pair as Gaddum was easy to read, while Burn summarised it all in a few sharp lines. I enjoyed reading about vitamins and hormones, diuretics and purgatives, and drugs that affected the heart and respiration, but I especially liked the chapter in Gaddum on narcotics. This started with a discourse on alcohol and went on to discuss general anaesthetic agents:
Alcohol is a narcotic, a disinfectant, a protein precipitant, and a local irritant. It is also, to a limited extent, a food and a useful solvent. A small amount is normally present in the blood and tissues.
Really? What a surprise. It could not be very much or we would be drunk all the time! We were also learning something about biochemistry but so far there had been no mention of alcohol occurring naturally in human metabolism. I turned the page.
When applied in rather high concentration (2 or 3%) alcohol has the typical actions of a narcotic, causing a reversible depression of the heart, nerves, and other tissues.
Well, it was reversible, so that was something to be thankful for.
In the body all other effects are generally overshadowed by its action on the nervous system. In defiance of general opinion, careful analysis shows that this action is a purely depressant one. Experiments with conditioned reflexes have shown that inhibitory reflexes are depressed more easily by alcohol than excitatory reflexes. The effect is particularly marked on the highest centres. These highest centres normally exert an inhibitory influence, enabling the organism to behave sanely and sensibly, weighing crude instincts against one another, and counting the final cost. When these centres are paralysed, the cruder instincts have their way, and behaviour becomes more spontaneous, more childlike, and less critical.
Well, all that was certainly true. I remembered how only last evening none of us could stop Jeffery from peeing onto the coal fire in the middle of the cocktail party. Caused a bit of a rumpus, that had.
Civilized man often suffers from excessive inhibition so that, like Hamlet, he finds it difficult to do anything but think. Alcohol gives him temporary release and temporary self-confidence. The observer who retains his critical faculty does not regard this confidence as justified, and actual tests reveal a loss of efficiency. With increasing inebriation the effects spread down to lower centres, until at last the whole central nervous system is paralysed. The effect on sex was neatly summarized by the porter in Macbeth: ‘It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’
I laughed out aloud. Good old Shakespeare! Hit the nail on the head there.
‘Ivor,’ I shouted, ‘listen to this,’ and I read out the quotation.
Ivor went into peals of laughter, and then
‘I can’t learn all this stuff by to-morrow, you know. I’ll never pass this wretched exam. I couldn’t do the written paper last week and I won’t be able to answer anything to-morrow. I bet Shakespeare had something to say about vivas.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about Shakespeare but someone called Quincy Caleb Colton once said examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer. I’ve written that at the front of my book to keep me sane. Anyway, you just keep at it, Ivor. You’ll be all right. Tell you what, we’ll work till six and then have a break. We’ll start again at nine and work all night if necessary.’
I picked up Gaddum again:
Human alcohol intoxication is commonly divided into four stages.
1). A large whisky (30 ml of alcohol) reduces the average person to the first stage of intoxication, which is the only stage in which he really feels pleased with himself. His loss of efficiency is still so slight that he can hide it from himself, since his critical faculty is dulled. The extra self-confidence may actually increase his efficiency in simple tests, such as the working of an ergometer, but higher accomplishments such as walking straight, standing still with the eyes shut, or saying ‘British Constitution’, are never improved and often impaired. Type-writing is more rapid, but less accurate. Logical thought is difficult and after-dinner speeches are easy. Spinal reflexes are measurably slower and weaker.
2). In the second stage of intoxication the novice loses all self-control, and the drunkard consciously pulls himself together and speaks and moves with exaggerated care.
3). In the third stage he is dead drunk and unconscious, with flushed face, red eyes, and dilated pupils.
4). In the fourth stage he is in danger of death from paralysis of the respiratory and vasomotor centres in the medulla.
To aid the memory these four stages are sometimes called dizzy and delightful, drunk and disorderly, dead drunk, and danger of death.
Brilliant! Quite brilliant! I’ll never forget that, I said to myself.
Dizzy and delightful, drunk and disorderly, dead drunk, and danger of death! 
Brilliant! I read on.
The corresponding concentrations of alcohol in the blood are, very roughly, 1, 2. 3, and 4mg per ml.
That should be easy enough to remember. I skipped the next two paragraphs and turned over the page.
Concentrated, but not dilute, alcohol, taken by the mouth, causes a reflex stimulation of the medulla by irritating the mouth and throat. It may thus cause a temporary rise of blood pressure, and it is sometimes used for this reason to revive those who have fainted. The administration of sal volatile is a better way of producing the same effect.
Alcohol hardens the skin by precipitating proteins and is sometimes used to ward off bedsores. If a 90 per cent. solution is injected into a nerve it causes the nerve to degenerate and to cease to conduct impulses for several months. Such injections are sometimes used to relieve the pain of trigeminal neuralgia. Alcohol is a weak disinfectant, which is maximally active in a concentration of 50-70 per cent. by weight in water.
The chapter went on to discuss chemical tests of drunkenness, and then
From these data one can calculate that if a 10-stone man took a small whisky (1 ounce), his blood alcohol would rise to a maximum of about 0.22 per cent., which would have no obvious effect apart from perhaps increasing the risk if he drove a car. A pint of whisky would raise his blood-alcohol to 0.44 per cent. and would probably produced coma. Such doses have been known to cause death.
That’s enough about alcohol, I thought. I moved through the chapter till I reached the bit on general anaesthesia. I knew already what I would find because I had read it many times before.
Four stages of anaesthesia, corresponding to the four stages of alcohol intoxication, are commonly recognised.
1. Induction. The patient is still conscious and can talk, but he feels rather giddy and sleepy.
2 .Excitement. The patient loses consciousness and control of himself.
3. Surgical anaesthesia. Excitement disappears, the pupils constrict, the pulse slows and the respiration becomes regular.
4. Paralysis of the medulla. If too much anaesthetic is given the medulla is paralysed... death is due to stoppage of the respiration.
On the next page was a diagram showing the effects of anaesthesia on various things such as breathing, eye movements, muscle tone, swallowing and vomiting. I knew I would be able to draw this diagram if they asked me about anaesthesia in the exam but of course I wouldn’t be so lucky.
We stopped swotting at six o’clock as we had promised ourselves we would. We had a pint of beer and a light supper followed by a walk along the backs. The river and the gardens were astoundingly beautiful.
‘Let’s have another pint before we start working again. It’ll calm the nerves.’
‘It will make us sleepy. What we need is more coffee.’
A compromise was reached; we had both. At nine o’clock we settled down again to our reading and we were joined by Trevor and Warwick.
Ivor fell asleep at midnight.
‘Shall we wake him up?’
‘No. He hasn’t a chance of passing anyway, so he might just as well stay asleep.’
‘Perhaps we should read aloud to him. I have heard it said that you can learn a lot while you are asleep. I don’t know if it is true.’
‘I don’t suppose it is, but we could try.’
So on the hour and the half hour, throughout the night, we took turns to read to him as he snored back at us. We chose the first two pages of Lecture Notes On Pharmacology, which were all about adrenaline:
... a powerful stimulant of the rate and the force of the heart. The palpations of which people are conscious during emotion are due to this action. However when adrenaline is injected into the dog, a reflex slowing of the heart rate occurs... when applied locally to blood vessels it has an intense vasoconstrictor action.... Uses: in asthma... with local anaesthetics... in allergy and anaphylactic shock... to revive the heart which has ceased to beat (intracardiac injection).
By four in the morning our enthusiasm was beginning to wane. Between us we had read the chosen piece to Ivor more than twenty times. As we were finally about to give up for the night Ivor awoke suddenly and sat up.
‘What do you know about adrenaline, Ivor?’ I asked.
‘Adrenaline? Adrenaline? What’s adrenaline?’ he replied.
‘Don’t worry about it, old chap. It will only make you feel nervous.’
‘Is there any more beer?’
‘No. I’m afraid not. Anyway, alcohol is bad for your short term memory so you should keep off it at this stage. Let’s get a couple of hours sleep.’
When we got into the exam we found that there was a question about adrenaline in the paper; it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good!
Ivor and Marilyn were throwing a party; who was I to take to it? Would I have the courage to ask the beautiful red-haired nurse who had been in the delivery suite when I had delivered my first baby and about whom I had been thinking constantly? My pulse raced and my knees went weak at the very thought, but I knew I was too shy to ask her.
Ever since my unrequited love for Diane, a sweet and pretty nymphette of a secretary in Cambridge, I had been doubly shy and bashful with the opposite sex - however much I fancied them. My natural shyness was not helped in any way by my total inability to dance, and the dread of ever having to try. Janet and Sheila had both set out to teach me at one time or another and I had had at least two courses of dancing lessons as a teenager. But it was no good. I just did not understand why people danced, how they knew what the rhythm of the music was, nor how they managed to move in time with it. If I did meet a girl it was inevitable that within a few minutes she would be mentioning that there was a good dance on the following Saturday. It was simpler to avoid girls altogether, even if it was very frustrating.
But this was different! The glorious creature that had captivated me was desirable beyond belief. I would screw my courage up and ask her to come to the party!
I took to hanging around the maternity wards over the next few days hoping to get an opportunity to speak to her, but my nerve failed me more than once. Finally Friday came and I knew that it had to be now or never.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘You don’t know me but my name is John Powell. I was wondering if you would like to come to a party with me to-morrow evening.’
I paused, and then before she could answer, added nonchalantly
‘I’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel, but no-one could come, so I thought I would ask you.’
Isabel told me later that she was about to send me packing when she saw the beads of sweat on my upper lip. This young man was not as casual as he was trying to make out!
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I would like that.’
We arranged to meet the following evening in ‘the Park’, as the area of grass in the middle of the hospital was called. I left the ward elated with my success. She was going to come! With me!
It was a good party and Isabel was great company. Before the evening was over I found I was head over heels in love with a girl who managed to get squiffy on just half a glass of sherry. Truly a princess!
‘Let’s go to The George.’
‘Yes, let’s,’ said Keith.
‘OK,’ I said.
Off to The George we went. The morning’s work in the ward had finished early. Unless we were actually helping care for a woman in labour there was not much for the students to do on the maternity wards. A pint or two of beer seemed an excellent idea to we three young students and The George was a splendid tavern. Years ago it had been an coaching inn and it still had a sense of history and excitement about it. The sun was shining and the mood light-hearted and we each downed five pints over the next two hours.
When we got back to the hospital it was clear that I was in no fit state to be let loose on the afternoon ward round. While we were waiting for the obstetric consultant to arrive I began to laugh and laugh at the back of the group. One of the students who had not been to The George guided me to the nearest sanctuary which happened to be the loo used by the ward nursing staff. I slumped onto the seat and promptly fell asleep with the door closed but unlocked. One by one, to their consternation, the nurses found me sitting there snoring gently.
During the afternoon people kept on saying to Isabel
‘Nurse Bedford, that student you went out with last night is asleep on the nurses’s loo!’
Isabel told them firmly that it was nothing to do with her, but she was embarrassed by it all the same. Normally on the wards she felt safely inconspicuous but this was making her a focus for comment.
I recovered in time to meet her as she came off duty at eight o’clock. She laughed when I told her that I had a sore head.
When we visited Isabel’s parents in Coventry her father and I would often go up the road to The Pilot for a glass or two of beer during the evening. Sometimes he would order both ‘a pint and a wee dram, for a chaser, ye ken’; I never did discover whether the beer was chasing the Scotch or the Scotch chasing the beer. I usually had a brown ale, my favourite tipple at that time.
Though Jake Bedford was a quiet man, he hated to be given short measure in his glass. If it was not filled to the brim he would ask the barmaid
‘Could you put a whisky in it for me, lass?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then don’t. Just fill it with beer.’
As we sat in the bar he would tell me tales of the terrible war that had taken him from his home and kept him away for six long years: of how it was so cold in Turkey that they used to dig holes in the ground in which to pitch the tents; of the soldier on guard duty outside these tents who asked three times for a cup of tea and was refused three times, and who said ‘that is the last cup of tea you will refuse anybody, sergeant’ as he lifted his rifle and shot him dead; of the squalor of India despite the beauty of the Taj Mahal; of the heat in the Libyan desert and the flies in the bazaars; of the men, whom he despised, who were prepared to stand in a line of twenty waiting their turn to buy the services of the lone camp follower.
If someone at the bar was bragging excessively he would gently bring them down to size:
‘I broke a record once,’ he would say quietly.
This always produced rapt attention from the company for Jake was known to be an unassuming man.
‘Yes, I broke a record once: it took Moses forty years to cross the desert, and I did it in three months with a pack on my back.’
Sometimes Isabel joined us in the bar but mostly the womenfolk stayed at home. Evenings at the Pilot were largely for the men and their beer.
Isabel and I were married at the Church of the Holy Family in Radford on a bitterly cold, though sunny, day in January. Isabel was quite the most beautiful bride anyone there had ever seen. I was so proud of her.
The wedding reception was held at The Pilot. It was a splendid party and we did not want to leave when it was time for us to go. There was such jollity that even the dancing was fun, and though there was plenty of booze I took care not to drink too much myself. The folk from Dumfries, Jimmy and John, Bessie and May, and their children, Isabel’s cousins, were in particularly fine party spirit and it seemed a shame to leave them all, but we had a train to catch and a hotel room awaiting us close to the West Kensington Air Terminal as we were flying to Paris early the next morning. I knew the bed in the hotel would be comfortable as my best man Ivor, who had booked our room for us, had insisted on testing the bed out before completing the arrangement.
We travelled first class on the train from Coventry to London, settled into our hotel in West Kensington and then took a taxi to the South China restaurant off Leicester Square where we had our favourite meal - sweet and sour pork, chicken with pineapple and beef chop suey. We washed it down with two glasses of dreadful Chinese white wine. How young and unworldly we were!
‘Not another ‘perf’!’ I said to Henry, the surgical registrar.
There seemed to be more perforated duodenal ulcers than ever this year. Certainly there had been more ‘perfs’ than appendicitis in the last month. I was sure of that for I knew exactly what was going on in the hospital now that Arthur was away and I was on call all the time, or nearly all the time - after all I did get a day and a half off every third weekend.
‘Has he got a Ryle’s tube down?’ I asked.
‘Yes, the GP put one down while he was waiting for the ambulance.’
‘Good. Send him up and we’ll get on with it.’
It not take Henry long to sort out a perforated duodenal ulcer - a quick midline incision, a suck round the peritoneal cavity, to get rid of any fluid that had leaked, find the ulcer, oversew it and stick a piece of omentum over the top, cobble the incision together, and there you were. All done in twelve minutes.
It was now three in the morning, but I still could not go home for Eddie was on the phone.
‘John, I have a young lass here, a primip, who needs the forceps put on. Could you come across as soon as possible.’
‘I’m on my way.’
All but the easiest of forceps deliveries were done under general anaesthesia, which kept me busy even when the general surgeons were quiet. I finally got home at six in the morning. I was so tired that I found myself crying with exhaustion.
‘I’ve been asked to start one of the lists as the consultant is going to be late.’
Isabel put her arms around me.
‘You cannot go on like this, John. You’ve been on call for the last seven nights and they still want you to start and finish their lists for them. It won’t do, you know. Sit down quietly and I’ll make you a cup of coffee; then you can go off to bed.’
She got up and left the room for a few minutes. When she came back she gave me the coffee.
‘Just swallow this, darling. It may taste a bit funny but I want you to swallow it all the same, there’s a good lad.’
Hardly aware of what I was doing I swallowed the coffee even though it tasted horribly bitter.
‘Now off to bed,’ she said firmly. ‘Don’t you worry about starting anybody’s list, John. I’ll phone Dr Gavin and tell him that you are not coming in till you are feeling better. They will just have to manage somehow without you.’
I was soon tucked up in bed and fast asleep. I did not know that she had opened two yellow Nembutal capsules and had poured the white powder into my coffee. No wonder it had tasted bitter despite the huge amount of sugar she had put into it.
When she was sure I was properly settled Isabel phoned the consultant in charge.
‘Good morning. It’s Isabel here. I’m phoning to tell you that John arrived home at about six this morning and he was so exhausted that he was in tears. I have given him three grains of Nembutal and he won’t be coming back till I think he is fit to do so. I really don’t know what you are all doing allowing him to be up night after night. And on top of that you expect him to start your theatre lists for you, and finish them too. I think you should all be ashamed of yourselves!’
For a moment there was silence; then
‘I’m sorry, Isabel, if we have been overworking him. Of course he must have a proper rest if he is that tired. I did not realise we were working him so hard.’
‘Well, if you and the other consultants didn’t realise, who on earth did you think would notice something like that? I’ll phone you to-morrow to tell you whether he will be back on Thursday or not.’
She put the phone down.
When she did let me go back to work after two days I was told that in addition to my having every third weekend off (from Saturday lunchtime to Monday morning) I was also to have eight hours off every Friday afternoon (from 2 pm to 10 pm) - though I would have to come back to cover the night, of course. They said also that they were trying hard to get a replacement for the missing registrar so that I would then only have to do alternate nights instead of every night. Still, they said, with Friday afternoons off now it should be much easier for me till they did find someone.
The next Friday afternoon I went to the bank to cash a cheque.
‘Good morning, doctor,’ the cashier said. ‘The manager said that if you came in I should ask if you could spare him a few moments.’
My heart sank. I thought that I was not very overdrawn at the moment but I had to admit that things were not moving in the right direction. Last month I had been so short of money that I had had to collect the empty beer bottles after the mess party so that I could get the deposit on them back to buy some cigarettes. But I would not take any nonsense; after all I had only moved my account to the National Provincial in the first place because the Westminster was being awkward.
‘Yes, of course,’ I said, trying to sound as though I was not worried, but then in reality I was not. It simply was not possible to work as hard as I did and still have the energy left to worry about money!
I followed the clerk through the doorway into the office. The manager was sitting solemnly on the other side of his desk. He looked up and smiled welcomingly.
‘I am so glad that you had time to come in,’ he said. ‘You gave my daughter her anaesthetic last Thursday night when she had her baby. I just wanted to thank you. My first grandchild, you know. Would you care for a glass of sherry?’
He poured two glasses of Bristol Cream, and we toasted the health of his daughter and her baby.
The birth of our first child, a fine young boy called Timothy John, was also the first of many ‘champagne days’ in our married life, though at that particular time I could not afford even a bottle of plonk; a flagon of cider from the landlady had to suffice.
When the 12th of June dawned Isabel was already two weeks overdue, though no-one seemed particularly worried. Of course Isabel was getting fed up with the wait but she kept her spirits high nonetheless.
That evening, as I was on call, she spent some time in the residents’ mess at the hospital. Luckily it was an unusually quiet night. As we sat watching the television it became quite obvious that Isabel was getting a lot of strong contractions. ‘Is everything all right?’ I asked her.
‘Fine, thank you; it’s just that the Braxton-Hicks are rather strong to-night.’
She was referring to the normal painless contractions which occur over the last few months of a pregnancy almost as though the womb was flexing its muscle in preparation for its real task.
Later she said
‘I think we should go home, John.’
‘OK, dear. I’ll ask Arthur to stand in for me. He said that would be all right if anything happened.’
We were about to leave the hospital when the paediatric houseman contacted me.
‘John we are desperate for a pint of ‘O negative’ blood for a baby that needs an exchange transfusion and there isn’t any nearer than Bristol. The lab tells me that you are the only suitable donor that they have on their books for an emergency like this. Could you possibly let us have a pint of your blood?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘But I must take Isabel home first as she has things to collect. I’ll come back while she’s packing to give my pint of blood before I bring her into to hospital to have the baby.’
At least that was the idea. Unfortunately in my haste to get home to Isabel I did not lie quietly for twenty minutes after they had taken the blood off me. It was a mistake! I keeled over before I had taken ten steps and it was an hour before I was fit to drive. I kept on phoning Isabel to say that I would soon be on my way, and then phoning her a few minutes later to say that I was not fit to come.
I did manage eventually to get her into hospital just an hour before Timothy was born, but I missed the moment of birth as I was lying down once more recovering! Who said that women were the weaker sex?
It was when I got home in the small hours that I opened a flagon of the landlady’s cider to celebrate my new status as a father.
Catterick Camp, Yorkshire
I had been working really hard for the Part 1 FFARCS examination (Fellow of the Faculty of Anaesthetists of the Royal College of Surgeons). I tried to get home from the hospital as early as possible so that I could see the kids before they went to sleep and have supper with Isabel. About nine o’clock I would shut myself away and study textbooks till one o’clock in the morning. After all the effort I had put into it and all the long hours she had put with not having my company, Isabel was understandably furious when I told her that I had just discovered that I was too late with my application to sit the exam. I should have sent the form to them ten days earlier and the closing date was past. I phoned the examination secretary and explained that I had forgotten the date and asked would they, please, let me let me sit the exam? No, they would not. Six months later I got the form in on time.
I found the written paper to my liking and was full of optimism when I set off one Sunday afternoon to travel to London to take the vivas. Because it was a Sunday there were train diversions in force due to repair work on the lines. I had to catch a small local train to Darlington in order to get on the London train. I was anxious not to miss it, but I need not have worried as it was at the platform waiting for me when I got to Darlington. I settled myself comfortably into a window seat and the train pulled out of the station.
‘Excuse me, what time does this train get to London?’ I asked the guard who was walking past me.
‘It’s not going to London, sir.’
‘Not going to London? Of course, it is going to London.’
‘I’m afraid not, sir. This train is going to Edinburgh.’
Good grief, I had got on the wrong train. I discovered that the next stop was Newcastle and that there would be a slow train sometime during the evening which would end up in London sometime in the small hours. I eventually got to Paddington at a quarter to two. I had to wait half an hour for one of the few night buses to Waterloo where I caught a train as far as Clapham Junction, arriving there at twenty past three in the morning. I had to walk from Clapham to Putney and got there exhausted at half past five. I rang the bell and got Sheila out of her bed to let me in. I had a bath and shaved and cooked myself some bacon and eggs.
I still felt rotten with lack of sleep. What was to be done? Then I remembered that my father had always kept some Benzedrine tablets (benzylamphetamine) in the surgery. That would do the trick. I only needed something to pep me up till lunchtime as both my vivas were in the morning and it would not matter if it wore off in the afternoon. I took just one tablet and set off for Lincoln’s Inn Fields. By the time I got there I was feeling very much better. The benzedrine had certainly made an amazing difference. Incidentally I have never taken an amphetamine before or since that day, unless you count the nasal inhalers that they used to sell in the late forties and early fifties for unblocking stuffed-up noses; these contained wicks impregnated with various aromatics plus 300 mg of Methedrine (methyl amphetamine) which both constricted the lining of your nose and made you feel wonderful when you had a bad cold. The more you sniffed it the better you felt. There was not at that time any real public appreciation of the harm to both individuals and society that could follow the habitual use or abuse of amphetamines. This type of inhaler was eventually withdrawn because someone invented the fashion of breaking them open and chewing the wick inside, which greatly increased the effect!
To my great relief I managed to pass the exam, but I suffered a terrible rebound effect in the afternoon and I took myself off to bed as soon as I got back to Putney.
I travelled back to Catterick the next day where Isabel and I cracked a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
Catterick Camp, Yorkshire
Isabel had been to a hen party at Jean’s where they had had curry and wine. I was not surprised when she went into labour soon after midnight. We got Jean to come round to our house and stay with Timothy while I took Isabel to the hospital. When we got there they took Isabel away and left me sitting in the corridor. The midwife came back after a few minutes and said
‘It will be many hours yet before the baby is born.’
She seemed very confident, but I was not convinced.
‘Are you sure? My wife seemed pretty certain that she was going to have the baby any moment.’
‘Well, I have examined her and I can assure you she has some way to go.’
It seemed rude to argue but Isabel had been so sure about it that I pressed the point.
‘She told me that she thought she was just about to deliver. Could you just go and check it again, please?’
The midwife bridled. She said archly
‘Of course, I will if you insist,’ and she stumped angrily down the corridor.
She was gone less than five minutes. When she came back this time she told me that we had a beautiful daughter and that mother and baby were fine.
So I missed seeing my daughter, Katharine Isabel, being born by less than twenty feet. I was very disappointed but it was too late now, and anyway she was such a lovely baby that it did not really matter. Still I would be there the next time!
Some days later Jean was also admitted; she and Isabel shared a room. In due course she bore Susan.
The following day one of the midwives asked
‘Which of you two has the handsome husband?’
‘I have,’ said Jean without a moment’s hesitation.
Isabel laughed. When she told me about it, I said
‘What made her think it was Derek and not me?’
Isabel laughed again.
‘It couldn’t possibly have been you, dear. You are a very lovely man but no-one could call you good-looking.’
Another illusion shattered! When I got home I poured myself a whisky in consolation.
Friday was a pretty memorable day. At eleven o’clock a message arrived in the operating theatre asking me to send out the car keys, please, as my wife would like to use the car.
‘She’s passed!’ I cried out. ‘She’s passed!’
‘Who has passed what?’ asked Norman, pausing briefly in the middle of the hernia repair and looking more like Tojo than ever.
‘Isabel has passed her driving test. Just fancy that! Not that I thought that she wouldn’t, but I was worried that she would talk herself out of it somehow. You know, say something silly when they asked her about the Highway Code, or get over excited if she managed to overtake a tank. She always thinks she has done something special if she overtakes a tank.’
I sent the keys out to Isabel with a note to tell her that the car probably needed some petrol. I was not to know that she would immediately drive round to the garage and grandly ask for a pint of petrol!
That evening we opened a bottle of cheap hock to celebrate her success.
The written paper had gone well enough in the morning. I had particularly enjoyed the question Discuss metabolic acidosis. What may be its importance in anaesthesia? My systematic reading through the last three years Anaesthesia and the BJA had clearly been a good idea. I remembered nearly all the details of the paper by Brooks and Feldman in last April’s issue of Anaesthesia. Its title had been Metabolic Acidosis - a new approach to neostigmine- resistant curarization. It had seemed such an important paper that I had read and re-read it till I could quote it almost word by word.
Occasionally, at the end of an anaesthetic for a major surgical procedure, some patients exhibit respiratory , circulatory and central nervous system depression...
then something about intestinal obstruction and neostigmine-resistant curarisation ...
... investigated ... we found ... common factor was a metabolic acidosis ... a fall in pH and a deficiency of bicarbonate in the plasma.
It was quite remarkable how much I was able to recall.
It is important therefore that adequate therapy with sodium bicarbonate should be given before this stage is reached. The routine administration of bicarb... after cardiac arrest would also appear to be theoretically advisable.
Yes, surely I had done all right in that one. The other questions had not been too bad either. Why then had I come out of the exam at lunchtime taut as a violin string? I felt wretched. I’m too ill to go on, I thought. Then I saw Derek.
‘Derek, I feel terrible. I’m certainly not well enough for another paper this afternoon. I really don’t think I can go back there.’
Derek could see clearly the signs of acute adrenaline poisoning: the ghastly pallor in my face, the beads of sweat on my brow and upper lip, my eyes wide, pupils dilated, and the pulse in my neck pounding furiously.
‘You’ll be fine, John,’ he said in a reassuring tone, ‘I expect you just need a bit of lunch and you’ll feel much better. Let’s go and have a glass of beer first.’
‘Oh, I couldn’t. It would make me sick.’
‘Of course it won’t. It will do you a power of good.’
He took me by the arm, led me forcibly inside the nearest pub and put a half pint glass of best bitter into my hand.
‘Here you are. Swallow that down. You’ll enjoy that. Settle the nerves a bit. You’ll be fine with that inside you.’
The beer tasted awful but I was grateful for his efforts to calm me; by the time I had got it down I did indeed feel a little better. Next he persuaded me to eat something, though I do not remember what it was. Then he harangued and cajoled me till I found myself walking back to the examination hall, and forcing myself into the hard chair in front of the desk that had my number on it. I wrote for a further three hours, till my fingers were numb and the small muscles in my hands were cramped.
Three weeks later I was back in London for the vivas. Luckily I caught the right train this time, and I was not so nervous as I had been for the written papers. I counted my pulse while I was waiting to be called; it was one hundred and ten beats per minute. Now it was time for me to go in.
The examiner waved vaguely in the direction of the chair.
‘Please sit down. You are sitting at home and the phone rings. It is one of the obstetricians. He has just admitted a lady in early labour, whose baby is showing marked signs of distress, though he does not know why. He has decided to go ahead with immediate Caesarean section. However, there was one problem; one hour before she was admitted she had eaten a large meal.’ He paused, and then added ‘it was probably port and pheasant.’
The two examiners laughed. This was clearly a reference to Viscount Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) who some months earlier had made an unfortunate remark in the House of Commons along the same lines as Marie Antoinette and her ‘let them eat cake’ comment.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘how would you proceed?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I know what I was doing six months ago in a situation like that, and I know what I am doing to-day, but I am not at all sure it is what I will be doing in six months time.’
‘Oh,’ said the examiner, ‘I think you had better explain all that to me.’
So I launched into a discussion about atropine and stomach tubes, following on with the ideas of Hamer Hodges on anaesthesia for Caesarean section and whether you should induce anaesthesia in the head up, flat, head down or lateral position. I was still in full flow when the halftime bell went off. I stopped abruptly.
‘Thank you,’ said the examiner who had asked the question. ‘Now we will never know what you think about gas-oxygen-ether.’
He nodded to the second examiner whose turn it was to ask the questions. He looked at me and said
‘Let’s hear what you do think about gas-oxygen-ether. It seems a pity to cut you short.’
So I ploughed on. I told them about the way that Dr Jones from Minehead did Caesars and discussed the advantages and disadvantages. I also talked about the technique that Dr Inkster from Newcastle had described using amazingly high concentrations of carbon dioxide.
After another five minutes he said:
‘I think we will move on to something else now. What do you think is the place of cyclopropane in modern anaesthetic practice?’
‘Limited, but not obsolete.’
I went on to expand at length on the merits of cyclopropane as an induction agent in children, and also describing my experiences with Dr Bourne’s six litre bag. It seemed only a moment before the final bell went.
A total of forty-nine people passed the examination on that occasion; I was one of them. Of the forty-nine no less than seven were in the army; six of these were doing their National Service or serving a Short Service Commission; one was a regular soldier.
When I got home Isabel and I opened a bottle of ‘pretend champagne’, as my mother calls any sparkling white plonk, and I wrote a letter to my bank manager; signing it with the magic letters FFARCS after my name.
I was there when Charlie was born. It was an exhilarating moment.
‘You are meant to be here to hold my hand,’ Isabel complained. ‘Not just to stare down there as though you had never seen a baby born before.’
What a fine sturdy child. He yelled loudly as soon as he was born, and then peed all over his mother before his cord was cut.
There was thick snow on the ground when Isabel and Charlie went home four days later. I followed the ambulance in the Anglia and we arrived home just as our GP drew up outside. My mother, who had been looking after Katy, came out to meet us. Three year old Katy still inside the house carefully shut the front door.
So there we were: one baby, one mother, one father, one granny and one family doctor all marooned outside in the snow, while Katy was warm and cosy inside but not tall enough to reach the door catch. I had to climb in one of the bedroom windows.
‘What about a cup of tea?’ said Isabel when at last I let them in.
‘I think sherry would be better,’ said Granny firmly.
Clearly wisdom comes with age!
I had got into the routine of giving tutorials to the students at 4pm on Tuesdays and Fridays. By doing this regularly I was able to keep them all under my eye, even though I relied heavily on my NHS colleagues to do the bulk of the teaching in theatre. I guess that a lot of what I said at these gatherings was of little direct use to them, but my main aim was to get them enthusiastic about the subject. After all I was enthusiastic about it so surely they could be as well.
One day, after we had had a long discussion on the management of massive blood transfusions, it seemed a good idea to offer my students a glass of Bristol Cream before they went home. I knew that it was rather decadent of me to drink sherry at a quarter to five but it amused me to be thought mildly eccentric. Perhaps I was reliving my own student days for my physiology tutor at Clare used to give us sherry and I had always thought it very civilized.
Finally it was time to go home. I packed my things together, locked the doors of the office, walked down the stairs, across the lobby and out through the heavy glass swing doors. It was a cool evening with a swirling mist hanging over the field in front of the building. The daylight was almost gone but there was a bright moon though it was heavily cloaked by a sheet of cloud. The moonlight outlined the cloud so that it looked like the Horse's Head Nebula in the constellation Orion.
Suddenly my attention was caught by something in the sky far away to the left, something unusual that was moving erratically and seemed to be flickering somehow. It was very strange. I could not make what it was. It was certainly something most peculiar.
If I were a policeman or a publican, I said to myself, or a lawyer or a cook, then I would already be running back into the building shouting "I've seen a flying saucer". But I was not one of those, was I? I was a scientist. I would stay watching whatever it was till I found out what it really was. It moved slowly across the sky. One moment it was dark, then it was light, then dark again, looking like a giant wheel in the sky. It was quite amazing. It seemed to be made of cantilever struts, something like a giant piece of Meccano in the shape of a wheel. No, not a wheel for the struts were not placed like spokes but more like parallel oblique lines across it.
In retrospect I suppose that the way that it changed from a dark structure to a light one each time it changed direction should have given me a clue, but it was not until it came closer to me, and the cloud suddenly lifted from the face of the moon, that I saw what it was - a flock of pigeons. Just a flock of pigeons. It seemed incredible to me now that it could have looked so fantastic just a few seconds earlier. No wonder that people claim to have seen flying saucers; if I had not been such an obstinate sceptic I might well have believed that I had seen one myself.
At least I could console myself that I had not been seeing pink elephants!
I had been a heavy smoker for twenty years now. Too many for too long, I thought.
After one particularly riotous party early in December I stopped off at the lab on my way home and took a blood sample from myself. I switched on the IL Co-Oximeter, gave it time to warm up, and injected the sample into the machine.
Although I knew that I had got through almost three packets of Senior Service that day I was still not prepared for the result. Carboxyhaemoglobin 17%! Good God, even a Tokyo traffic cop in the rush hour rarely exceeded 10%, and now we had Astrup only last month saying that hardening of the arteries was due to carboxyhaemoglobin stopping oxygen from getting to the inner layers of the vessel walls. I really would have to give the wretched things up. The New Year would be the time to do it.
Next day I arranged an appointment at the dentists for the 14th of January. That would give me an incentive to keep off the cigarettes for at least two weeks; the last time that I had gone to him I had been ashamed of the smell of tobacco on my breath, and of the stains on my teeth.
The New Year's Eve party was held at the home of one of the paediatricians. It was tremendous fun. As midnight approached I quite deliberately made an exhibition of myself: I lit four cigarettes and placed them one by one between the fingers of my left hand, and then I lit four cigars which I put between the fingers of my right hand. As the clock struck the hour I put all eight of them to my lips and inhaled. Slowly I let the smoke trickle out of my mouth and nose.
"That's it then," I said, and I threw all of them into the fireplace. "I shall never smoke again."
"Bullshit," said Jo.
"What are you going to do now that you have given up the fags?" someone asked me.
"Oh, that's easy. I'm going to poison myself with alcohol instead."
I was surprised, delighted and intrigued to receive an invitation to attend a one and a half day conference on "Molecular Mechanisms in General Anaesthesia", at the Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. It was sponsored by Glaxo Laboratories, who were the manufacturers and suppliers of the new intravenous steroid anaesthetic, Althesin.
There were to be three separate half-day sessions: one on structure-activity relationships, another on neurophysiological and membrane effects, and the last on anaesthetic and organic molecular interaction.
It sounded very high powered and scientific, and in the event it was: there were 23 anaesthetists and 40 or so scientists from other disciplines, including chemistry, physical chemistry, physiology, pharmacology, cell biology and biochemistry. I was told that three of the "real scientists" (as opposed to anaesthetists!) were Fellows of the Royal Society, which I found positively over-awing (Humphry Davy himself had been president of the Royal Society in 1820). I guessed that I was the least scientific of those attending the meeting.
The first paper was by Mike, someone I knew from various meetings of the Anaesthetic Research Society that I had attended. He was a great enthusiast for his subject and a thoroughly friendly boffin. He was talking on Structure-Activity Relationships of Inhalational Anaesthetics.
He began by stating the importance of the relative potencies of the inhaled general anaesthetics to all hypotheses about their site and mode of action; he went on to discuss the usefulness of MAC as an estimate of anaesthetic potency in various animal species, and how there was an astonishing correlation between the potency in man and in other species, or even other phyla.
As far as chemical structure was concerned, it seemed that all gases and volatile compounds were potential anaesthetics, provided they could be transported to the site of action and attain a certain critical concentration at that site without producing any toxic or convulsive activity which might obscure their anaesthetic effects.
"Thus, from the point of view of the mechanism of action of the drugs, hydrogen and nitrogen are just as acceptable as more familiar agents such as halothane and ether."
Well, fancy that! I was very interested in what he was saying, but this was just the first presentation and he was already leaving me behind with some of the things he was talking about.
Next he dealt with the "physiological gases", oxygen and carbon dioxide.
"The anaesthetic partial pressure of oxygen extrapolated from these results would be of the order of 15 atmospheres, which is close to that predicted from its lipid solubility... carbon dioxide is also anaesthetic at high partial pressures but its lipid solubility predicts that the MAC should be approximately 1.7 atmospheres, whereas in practice in dogs or man it is about one third of an atmosphere... it has been suggested that this effect is related to hyperpolarization of the neuronal membrane by hydrogen ions."
He went on with to discuss the "inert gases".
This slide illustrates the 'anaesthetic' effect of the inert gases helium, neon and hydrogen. These gases cannot be studied on their own, but the combination with nitrous oxide has been investigated in mice. At first sight it would appear that hydrogen would be a complete anaesthetic on its own at a partial pressure a little below 200 atmospheres... helium appears to be anti-anaesthetic... however, it must be remembered that pressure itself has an anti-anaesthetic effect which produces the so-called pressure reversal of anaesthesia.
Of course, I already knew about this "pressure reversal of anaesthesia" but what an amazing phenomenon. If you took a bowl of water with tadpoles in it and added enough anaesthetic to send them off to sleep, and then you added about 100 atmospheres of pressure they would wake up again. It was truly remarkable. Suddenly I had a splendid idea. At coffee time I sought Mike out.
"Mike, have you ever thought that it might be possible to make brandy without having to distil wine? If, during fermentation of the wine, you were to wait till the alcohol concentration was beginning to inhibit the yeast all you would have to do would be to pressurize it to 100 atmospheres and you would reverse the anaesthetic effect of the alcohol on the yeast cells. Then you could get another 12% and repeat the process till you got the strength you wanted."
"You could well be right, John. It's a splendid idea."
"I'm too busy at the moment, but I'll try it out one day, perhaps when I've retired. It would be a good project for an old man."
I wonder if I will ever get round to it?
"We have fed the body; now we must feed the soul."
My companion was a young Swedish gynaecologist. We were sitting by the lake at the back of the marble-floored hospital which I was visiting for a couple of weeks. The water's edge lay just a few paces from the dining room. The sun was shining, there was a warm gentle breeze and I was relaxed and content.
"Did you know that every Swedish doctor is entitled to write a prescription once each year for a litre of 70% alcohol? It is for him to use on the skin before he gives injections. I have already had mine but you could write a note for some. If you water it down to 40% alcohol and flavour it with gin essence it is very good to drink; it is so pure that it never gives you a hangover."
"Are you joking?" I asked.
"Not at all. Everybody has their own recipe for 'sprit 70', as it is called. I usually put some dandelion flowers in it. It makes a lovely yellow éakvavité."
He had pronounced dandelion as though it rhymed with chameleon, and for a moment I did not understand what he was talking about.
"Oh, dandelion!" I exclaimed. "But I think that I would feel very uneasy about doing that. Your laws about alcohol are so strange."
"Not so strange really, when you think of the problems that we have in this country; and our the laws about drinking and driving are really very sensible. Many lives have been saved because of them."
It was time for us to go back to the operating theatre. The first patient was waiting for us when we got there. I wiped the skin of her forearm with a swab soaked in 'sprit 70' and thrust a cannula into her vein. No doubt she would have been surprised if I had told her I was using double strength gin!
It was when we began to brew wine from kits that we started occasionally to drink more than one bottle in an evening. It was so cheap and easy. Boots' apple wine, in particular, was pleasant to taste, and not too sulphurous. If necessary, you could drink it three weeks after setting it up, though it was nicer if you left it longer.
"This stuff only costs twenty pence a bottle," I said to Isabel one evening, as I removed a second cork.
She peered at her watch. "Let me see now, " she continued, "twenty minutes past the hour is four o'clock, so 20p is four shillings, or a quarter of a cabbage. That's very good, isn't it? Fill my glass again."
The reference to cabbages was a relic from the previous winter when the price of fresh vegetables had gone through the roof. She had used her watch to work out the true cost, as she saw it, of a cabbage she had wanted to buy.
"80p? That's one hour and twenty minutes, so that's twelve o'clock plus four o'clock. That's sixteen shillings! I'm not going to pay sixteen shillings for a cabbage."
Even though prices fell again in the spring, and stayed low, she never recovered from the shock; despite the price of cabbages being back to normal she used to decide whether to buy a skirt, for example, by first converting it into cabbages.
"£28, eh? A quarter of 28 is 7; 28 plus 7 is 35. I can afford thirty five cabbages, can't I?"
A man should know when he is beaten, and anyway there is always the apple wine to cheer one up.
This was the year that Isabel and I first took a cycling holiday in France. I'm not sure whose idea it was but it was a brilliant one, whosoever. We cycled out of the drive at twenty past five in the morning and the chain fell off my bike before we had reached the post office. I got covered with dirty grease as I put it back.
The ride to Temple Meads station was downhill nearly all the way. We got there in plenty of time but still nearly missed the train because we got stuck in the lift and could not get anyone to hear us shouting. Finally we managed to get ourselves and the bikes onto the train to Plymouth.
Waiting at the ferry port with our bikes we felt so carefree and somehow superior to the poor people waiting in their cars.
The sea was calm and the crossing delightful. We arrived at Roscoff in the early evening and were thrilled by the mixed views of rocks and mist, sun and shadows.
We set out on the bikes to find our hotel. I made a fool of myself by thinking that the "Hotel de Ville" was somewhere to stay.
We had a splendid supper which we rounded off with a glass of Calvados. Neither of us were great brandy drinkers but it seemed only right to have a digestif to celebrate as we had not been to France since our honeymoon twenty two years ago. I could not remember ever having had Calvados before. I thought it was delicious and I have had a strong liking for it ever since that night, even if it does give you a hangover!.
Next morning we set off in brilliant sunshine with our spirits high. Isabel squared the match by thinking that the artichokes in the fields were paeonies.
We reached Morlaix via the coast road by lunchtime, where we both had "un sandwich a saucisson d'ail" and a glass of wine.
It was still sunny when we set out for Huelgoat (how on earth do you pronounce that?). Such beautiful countryside! Such mangy dogs! Such heavy rain! We thought it was only going to be a shower and we were slow to get our waterproofs on. We were soaked through in no time and a lesson had been learnt. We drank a bottle of wine at supper and when we asked for another half bottle; they put a whole one on the table and said we should drink half of it! The weather was generally terrible for the next few days. Our bright yellow waterproof cycling capes, and Isabel's sou'-wester in particular, caused much hilarity. As they sped past Isabel in their warm dry cars they would shout:
"Nous aimez votre chapeau, Madame!"
And two minutes later as they caught up with me:
"Ou est votre chapeau, Monsieur?"
Still "the yellows", as we called them, kept us beautifully dry above the knees and we were very thankful for them.
In Rosporden we bought half a bottle of wine and some charcuterie and ate it in the gutter for lunch. Another first for us! We had never before, and we have never since, had our Sunday lunch sitting in a gutter, drinking wine straight from the bottle. It was delicious!
We had breakfast en chambre after a splendid night’s sleep at the Hotel de France. We cycled out of Cherbourg about ten o’clock in the morning and made our way along the Val de Saire which was delightful. It was pouring with rain by the time we reached Quinneville where we ended up at a humble hotel, not the grand Chateau that I had been searching for. They gave us boeuf à la mode, which I discovered was French for beef stew, and we were glad to round it off with some of our duty free whisky before settling down for the night.
That night we stopped at Isigny where Isabel got terrible diarrhoea and we were kept awake by a honeymoon couple in the next room who were at it all night. Oh, the energy and ectasy of youth! Luckily there was some whisky left so we took some to help get us some sleep.
In the next few days we did the Bayeux tapestry, which was marvellous, and the Normandy landing beaches and the Museum, which were fascinating. We felt touched by the memory of those brave soldiers who had lost their lives in the name of freedom. As Isabel says in her holiday journal:
There were masses and masses of flags out, French, American, Canadian and British. These people are never going to forget that time.
I thought of George Wilmot and Foxy Phair, both of whom had landed there and survived. I wondered if Foxy Phair was still alive. We left the beaches in sombre mood. That afternoon we cycled eastwards along the coast. The wind was behind us, and strong with it. We covered 45 miles effortlessly, hardly needing to turn the pedals. Thank Heavens, we were not trying to go in the opposite direction!
We reached Cabourg, the town designed by Napoleon, in time for supper at L’Oile Qui Fumeé where we dined and wined splendidly, even though we felt we had not really earned it.
Then on through Deauville. I could not remember where Brian’s cousin had lived, but then it was thirty four years ago that I had been there. Next to Honfleur where we had a gite booked for the second week of our holiday.
The gite was an old barn that had been converted. It was very comfortable but unfortunately the weather forecasts were miserable so we stocked up on food and booze and planned to stay in for a week if necessary. We went to bed that night with the wind howling and the heavens weeping.
It was still raining hard when I woke up in the morning. Ah well, I thought, we’ll just have to stay in bed then. Isabel was still sleeping soundly. Funny really that we should be so comfortable in this fragile barn in a foreign land. But cosy we certainly were. I had a good book to read called ‘I Am England’ and I was enjoying it immensely. I had forgotten how pleasant it was to read and relax. Life was always so hectic, particularly for poor Isabel. Still even she would be able to relax on this wet and windy coast. Honfleur, at the bottom of the hill, was a delightful spot. If the weather improved later on we would cycle down to the harbour and sit in the sun. I was always the optimist.
It did stop raining the following afternoon and we cycled out to try to find a village called Isabel that we had seen on the map, but it turned out to be just one house with a vicious dog barking at the gate.
It rained for most of the rest of the week, including the morning of our last day. After lunch it looked a little better and we cycled down the hill to Honfleur. When we got there it turned into a beautiful afternoon. Isabel and I sat against the wall of the small building at the north end of the harbour in the warmth of the sun. Isabel settled down to ‘sunbathe’, which meant that she turned her face to the sun, put her head into the classical ‘sniffing the morning air’ position so beloved by anaesthetists when they intubated their patients, and closed her eyes tightly. I took out my pencil and tried to draw the scene in front of me but the boats refused to look like boats when I put them onto the paper. I gave up in despair when the straight lines ran wobbly and the right angles became obtuse.
‘Let’s find a good fish restaurant for to-night. After all it is the last night of our holiday.’
‘What about that restaurant we passed on the way, you know the one we passed almost before we reached the town. You know, the one with the blue sign outside opposite where they were selling cider from a barrow.’
‘That’s a good idea. We’ll book a table.’
The restaurant was everything we were hoping for. We dined splendidly; the monkfish, or angler fish as they called it, was superb. We washed it down with a nice dry Muscadet. Now we needed something to round it off.
‘Let’s have some calvados,’ I suggested.
Isabel nodded enthusiastically.
‘Deux calvados, s’il vous plait.’
‘Oui, monsieur. Ici la carte.’
I looked with amazement at the ‘carte’ that was put in front of me. There were forty-two different vintages of calvados from which to choose. The cheapest was 40 francs a glass, about £4, and the most expensive, vintage 1916, 920 francs, about £92 a glass.
We chose the cheapest. It was delicious, but I have always wondered what the real stuff was like!
This year Isabel said she had had enough of setting out with just the bikes for transport. She wanted to go further south this time. Could we please take the car and put the bikes on the roof? Yes, of course we could.
So in due course we found ourselves in a pleasant gite on a working farm near a town called Vic Fezensac in the heart of Gascony. On the way there we passed through a small town called Laplume. I insisted on stopping the car and writing in large letters on a sheet of cardboard ‘de ma tante est sur la table’. I held it up next to the road sign and got Isabel to take a photo. I wanted her to take another at the next town, which was Condom, but she refused.
We had a splendid holiday. To our delight there was a resident hoopoe, and also it was interesting that they grew on the farm the very grapes that made the wine from which Armagnac was distilled. Monsieur gave us a bottle of Armagnac as a leaving present. We treasured it for some months and then we drank it. It was splendid, but we found that like other brandies it was guaranteed to give you a hangover!
We travelled from Poole to Caen overnight. The crossing was wonderfully calm. As we settled down in our cabin Isabel asked
‘John, where are all these places that everyone at home keeps on talking about? You know, where they stop and taste the wine. We’ve been to France each of the last four years and that édegustationé place outside Cahors is the only one we have seen. Do you think they are exaggerating a bit?’
‘No, of course not. It’s just that Brittany and Normandy are not wine producing regions like the rest of France. It was all cider and Calvados till last year, and then it was only prunes in Agen and vineyards producing poor white wines for distillation around Vic. But the Cahors wines were delicious, weren’t they, and the local wines that we bought in Bergerac?’
‘That was only from the supermarket, John! I think we should make a proper visit to a proper vineyard this year. Something with class. So that we can nod wisely when they are talking about wine in Almondsbury.’
‘We’ll do that, I promise. After all we have six whole days to get to Provence so we are sure to have enough time. Now go to sleep.’
We docked at seven o’clock in the morning. Caen was a nightmare to drive around in the rush hour. Isabel stopped me just in time from turning sharp right into a road with four lanes coming in the wrong direction.
We motored throughout the day in brilliant sunshine and by the time we hit the Loire valley in the mid-afternoon we were both weary but content. We found a room at Le Cheval Rouge at Villandry and enjoyed a memorable visit to Le Chateau. Out of season was clearly the best time to visit; this is one of the joys of being able to take a holiday before the schools break up. Isabel was particularly enchanted by the formal herb and vegetable garden and the swirling patterns of the tiny box hedges.
At dinner (Aiguilette Canard au Salad, Coquelet au Sauce Vinaigret et Framboise, Fromage, and Sorbet au Frais, washed down with a sparkling Saumur) we planned our visit to Vouvray to taste wine there.
‘The rough guide to France says that ‘VOUVRAY, 10km east of Tours on the north bank, is the appellation for the most delicious white wine of the Loire.... all the roads leading up the steep valleys are lined with écavesé. The view of the vines from the top of the hill is an outrageous inducement to drunkenness’.’
‘Let’s go to Azay-Le-Rideau on the way.’
So that’s what we did. When we got to Vouvray there was certainly no shortage of écavesé but they were all closed and deserted; typical France between noon and 2pm! So we motored up to the high ground above the valley and were enchanted by the prettiness of the vineyards as they fell away from us down the hillside. We found the residence of Le Haut Lieu Viticulteur. Still this was a proper émanoiré, a lovely old building covered with creepers not just a écaveé. We walked around the house till we found a door marked ‘ENTREE’, but it was locked.
‘Let’s come back here at two o’clock,’ Isabel said eagerly.
‘Yes, let’s. Can we have our baguettes and éporc rotié now?’
‘Certainly. And édes peches et le camemberté.’
‘Is camembert masculine?’ I asked.
‘Sure to be; it smells just like your socks!’
So we sat amongst the vines in the brilliant sunshine, a quarter of a mile down the road, under a peerless blue sky. We ate royally, listening with pleasure to the joyful singing of the skylarks.
We were back at the manor about five past two. A French car which had not been there earlier was parked outside. This time the door was unlocked. I opened it nervously, not quite sure what I would find on the other side. It was a small room with a table in the middle with an opened bottle and some glasses on it. Two elderly men and two women were sitting motionless on chairs against the far walls. They did look up or make any sign that they knew we were there. It was quite uncanny. Who could they be?
‘Do you think this is the family?’ I whispered.
Isabel roared with laughter.
‘They are here to taste the wine, you silly.’
‘Oh! Yes, of course. How stupid of me.’
I looked back at them.
‘Bon jour,’ I said, only to be met with blank stares. ‘Let’s get out of here. It’s giving me the creeps.’
Outside Isabel was convulsed with mirth.
‘Do you think this is the family?’ she mocked me. I did feel foolish.
‘What shall we do now?’ I asked.
The answer came in the shape of a middle-aged lady who appeared from somewhere or other and led us through the house to a very plush room where we sat on velvet-covered chairs feeling entirely out of place in our shorts.
‘She thinks we are important buyers from overseas,’ Isabel said. ‘She’ll be expecting us to buy dozens of bottles.’
‘I’ll put her right,’ I replied, and then in my atrocious French: ‘Madame, nous voyagerons a Provence pour notre vacances et nous voudrais le vin blanc sec...’. I turned to Isabel. ‘What’s ‘to take with us’ in French?’
‘Leave it to me, John,’ and she soon explained what we wanted. Yes, we did want to be able to drink it this year. While we were in Provence on holiday. Yes, we did want it really dry.
Madame (I thought at the time that she must be the boss’s secretary, but my judgement clearly is not reliable) explained that anything less than five years old, or possibly four, would not be ready yet. Would we like to taste the ‘83 which was £4 a bottle and should be drinkable. Yes, we would like to.
She disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a bottle and two glasses, and of course a corkscrew.
‘This is like nectar,’ Isabel said.
‘Yes, it’s delicious. Let’s have six bottles.’
When we said that we would take half a case she disappeared once more.
‘Top my glass up, John.’
‘Do you think we ought to? It’s not as though we have given her a great deal of business.’
‘Yes, of course, I think so. That’s what a édegustationé is all about.’
I poured some more of the wine into her glass.
‘More than that, John. Come on now, I can’t taste it properly if you don’t fill my glass, can I?’
Madame brought us the bottles and I paid her in cash. Isabel was indicating to me that I should fill her glass again but I would not do it. When we got back to the car we laughed and laughed at our naivete. Still we had paid a proper visit to a proper vineyard, had we not? And we had even met the family!
Saturday 3rd December started with brilliant sunshine. By mid morning it was cold wet and windy. I had driven Isabel and Rosie to Broadmead so that they could get on with their Christmas shopping. It wasn’t really my idea of the best way to spend a Saturday but I knew that I must not upset them again like I had last weekend when I had made it obvious that I would rather be doing other things than acting as their chauffeur. Still the centre of Bristol at this time of the year was no place to be looking for somewhere to park when coping with Rosie at the same time.
I dropped the two ladies opposite W.H.Smith’s and drove on only to find the car parks full when I got there. In a way I was glad about it as it made my journey seem worthwhile. Anyway I hated paying parking charges and would rather walk a mile than do so. It amazed me that the world at large did not feel the same way as I did. Perhaps it was just that they had got out of the habit of walking.
The first place that I found without yellow lines was about fifteen minutes on foot from the shopping centre. It would do splendidly. I turned the car round and parked close to the curb, bumping the front wheel nastily as I did so. I had an hour and an half before I was to meet Isabel and Rosie. Luckily the wind had dropped and there was a hint of sun trying to break through the clouds. The walk was a pleasant one and I arrived at the shops feeling on top of the world.
I looked round several of the retail electrical stores and then made for the Ben and Butt. Half a pint of Blackthorn would go down a treat. It certainly did.
That evening we cooked ourselves a splendid curry and drank a couple of bottles of Orvieto Classico. Now it was time for bed.
‘I’ll have a small Scotch, please, to take up with me, dear.’
‘Don’t you think that we have had enough for tonight.’
‘You may have had, but I want a small Scotch before I go to sleep.’
We were about to put the light out when Rosie called. Isabel got up to see what she wanted.
‘Isabel, I forgot to tell that the lady brought your blouse this afternoon. Run down the stairs and get it so that you can try it on.’
Isabel set off down the stairs. The next thing I heard there was an almighty thump and a cry of pain. I got up myself and rushed downstairs. I found Isabel stretched out upon the floor.
‘Are you alright?’
She groaned and sat up gingerly.
‘My jaw aches horribly. I think I may have broken it.’
‘Never mind, dear, I’ll get you two aspirin and some more Scotch and we’ll sort it put in the morning.’
Ever since that night I have got the blame for Isabel’s fractured jaw.
‘If you had not been so stingy and turned out the lights on the stairs, I would never have slipped and fallen like I did.’
Personally, I have always thought that it was the small Scotch that did it, but I have never had the courage to say so!
My nail was still looking hideous.
‘You should do something about that nail, John,’ Isabel said to me.
‘I will, dear. I will.’
‘You’ve said that before now. Why don’t you actually do something this time?’
So I started myself on the anti-fungal drug Griseofulvin; one tablet morning and night. I was fine for about ten days and then one day I awoke with a splitting headache unlike anything I had ever had before. We had had three or four glasses of wine the previous evening and I felt sure it was the effect of the griseofulvin on my ability to handle the alcohol I had drunk.
Strangely there is no mention in the British National Formulary of this particular side effect, though it does list headache in a non-specific way. However the manufacturers of Fulcin, which is a proprietary preparation of griseofulvin, do say in their data sheet ‘patients should be warned that an enhancement of the effects of alcohol have been reported’; it is widely accepted amongst doctors that this is true - perhaps because doctors drink so much! It was the fashion some years ago to give alcoholics a drug called Antabuse, which had the a similar though more drastic effect, in order to discourage them from drinking; it was called ‘aversion therapy’.
The headache I had that morning managed only to give me an aversion to swallowing any more griseofulvin.
As I reached the car park I saw Barry with one of his daughters.
‘Barry, what time are we starting in the morning?’ I asked.
‘Eight thirty, if that’s alright . We have quite a lot to get through.’
I was just about to reply when I noticed Alana looking at my thumbnail.
‘Ugh,’ she said in a loud voice, and she screwed up her nose. I looked at the nail myself. She was quite right, of course. ‘Ugh’ was entirely appropriate.
‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings... ,’ I thought. I decided at that very moment to go back onto the griseofulvin, but I knew I could not face another headache like I had had on the previous occasion that I had tried it. So I gave up alcohol altogether for the next five and a half months. I was relieved to find this was easy to do. Isabel tells me that I was a bit edgy for a week or so, but after that it was almost fun to be teetotal. Isabel too found she was drinking less now that I was not constantly topping up her glass.
I took the griseofulvin tablets regularly, but only one a day. To my delight the ‘yucky’ nail slowly grew out leaving a beautiful new nail. I wondered why I had not done it sooner.
‘Look at my nail, Isabel.’
‘Its lovely , dear. I’m so glad you will be able to have a drink over Christmas.’
Later I showed the new nail to Colin.
‘Tell Catherine there is hope for her yet.’
‘I don’t think she would like to lose such a good topic of conversation, and anyway picking her nail is her only hobby.’
I began my Christmas drinking by cracking a couple of bottles of Freixenet, a delicious Spanish methode champagnoise wine in a black bottle which Katy had brought us.
I was soon back to my old habit of drinking a bottle of wine almost every day.
It was May again - time for the spring meeting of the Society of Anaesthetists of the South West Region. The Danish Society was coming to Bristol for a joint meeting with us. I had missed the previous occasion, some years before, when the South West Society had visited Copenhagen. By all accounts this had been a splendid meeting.
One of the social events this time was a splendid walk around the zoo in the early evening when the masses had gone home, followed by a tasting of port laid on by Harveys. A memorable evening! To my delight I discovered that Bjørn Ibsen was one of the guests from Denmark. It was Ibsen who had pioneered IPPR (Intermittent Positive Pressure Respiration) in the treatment of bulbar poliomyelitis in Copenhagen in 1952. I had always been fascinated by the story of students from the university , over a thousand in all, taking six hour turns to ventilate up to seventy patients at a time by squeezing anaesthetic bags attached to a Waters canisters. I asked someone to point him out to me, and towards the end of the port tasting I went over and introduced myself and told him how interested I was in the history of the '52 epidemic. He and his wife proved to be charming people and he promised to send me a copy of his From Anaesthesia to Anesthaesiology which had been published in 1975 as a supplement to Acta Anaesthesiologica Scandinavia. It fell onto the doormat some two weeks later. What a wonderful collection of stories and reminiscences. If you have not read it you certainly should get hold of a copy.
(See also chapter 9; 1993 which has more about the '52 polio epidemic, together with a picture of Bjørn Ibsen.)
‘It’s time we had a Wine Club meeting at our house. What about choosing some wines to fit various quotations? We could make it a blind tasting. You know, give them a list of quotations and ask them to match various wines to them.’
‘That’s a splendid idea. Why not talk to Campbell about it?’
It was several days before I bumped into Campbell. Liz was with him. She was most enthusiastic about it but he seemed rather doubtful. I decided not to be put off. I thought it would be good to have it this side of Easter, but I was on call the weekend before the holiday so that the Friday of that week would be out of the question. It would have to be the Thursday, which might not be so satisfactory, but it could not be helped.
‘You’ll have to have something from Oscar Wilde,’ Isabel said, when we sat down after supper to talk about it.
‘Yes, I have thought of that.
He did not wear his scarlet coat
For blood and wine are red
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved
And murdered in her bed.
What sort of wine do you think he was drinking?’
‘A cheap claret, I should think. Or perhaps elderberry wine?’
‘Another of Oscar’s sayings was work is the curse of the drinking classes, but that covers every type of drink, so it won’t do. What about Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale?:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep delved earth,
Tasting of flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth.
I wonder what Bottoms Up have got to match that.’
‘Don’t stop there, John. Now how does it go on?
O, for a beaker full of the warmth South,
Full of the true , the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth.
That’ll be a real challenge when you go looking round the wine merchants.’
‘What does Hippocrene mean?’
‘I don’t know. Look it up in Brewer’s.’
So I did.
‘Hippocrene. Its from the Greek hippos, of course, which means horse, and krene which means fountain. It says the fountain of the MUSES on Mount HELICON, produced by a stroke of the hoof of PEGASUS; hence poetic inspiration. So we need a bubbly Greek wine with a purple-stained mouth. That a tall order. What else can we think of? I know, there is a splendid quotation from Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales at the start of the chapter on renal failure in one of my books upstairs. I can’t remember it exactly. I’ll go and get it from the bookcase in my room.’
I ran up the stairs and got Sherwood’s Intensive Care off the shelf.
‘Here it is: What is man, when you come to think on him, but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine. A nice Hunter Valley Shiraz would do splendidly for that.’
‘What about some limericks?
There was a young lady of Kent,
Who said that she knew what it meant
When men asked her to dine
Gave her cocktails and wine -
She knew what it meant, but she went!
Couldn’t you find a nice English wine to confuse them?’
‘That’s another splendid idea. I’ll look through the Sainsbury Book of Wine.’
Oz Clarke’s book was great fun to read. I not only found out about English wines but I came across an Indian Champagne called Omar Khayyam. I was delighted.
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough
A flask of wine, a book of verse - and Thou
Beside me in the Wilderness -
And Wilderness is Paradise enow!
Fitzgerald’s Rubbaiyat has always been one of my favourite pieces of poetry, particularly the first edition with its fine flowing imagery.
When I went to Bottoms Up I found that they sold Omar Khayyam and I bought six bottles, together with a selection of reds from Russia, Turkey, Greece and Israel, and a delicious Gallilean pale dry white. The bible was obviously a good source of quotable material and the Kosher wines between them would cover both the Last Supper and the wedding at Cana. I had never thought about it before but it seemed to me that the water-into-wine miracle must have produced a white wine or the guests would not have been so surprised when they tasted it.
They also had a 1984 Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence (produit d’agriculture biologique) which seemed ideally suited to the Keats’ quotation. When we tried it proved to be delicious.
We took a couple of bottles of the Omar Khayyam with us when we visited Kate and Julian in Darlington the following weekend, but it turned out to be so sulphurous that we reluctantly agreed that we could not possibly use it at the tasting. Such a pity, but at least I managed to persuade Bottoms Up to take the remaining four bottles back. The Russian and Turkish and Greek wines also failed to gain our approval, despite the Greek wine having a bright purple cork seal!
A couple of days later I found time to phone Lamberhurst’s Vineyard in the heart of Kent and explain the situation. They rallied round splendidly even though officially they had already sold out their stock of red wine. They sold me three bottles of their red wine out of the boss’s cellar and sent me two bottles of one of their dry white wines for tasting as well, which was very civil of them.
I spent some time in the library looking through Strauss’s Familiar Medical Quotations. I found some splendid things in it and included many of them on my tasting night hand-out. I particularly enjoyed an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his own doctor.
Despite the effort I had put into it the meeting was poorly attended, which was a shame! It seemed that many people were away from Bristol for the day. In any case it was probably a mistake to have chosen a Thursday. Still those who did come seemed to enjoy it, as did Isabel and I.
David asked for a spitting bowl, as he had to drive home afterwards. I was glad that I only had to stagger upstairs.
I had always wanted to own Hugo Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine but somehow I had never got around to buying it for myself. So I was delighted when the Tim, Katy and Charlie gave me a copy for my birthday. I often browse through it, which gives me immense pleasure, but I enjoy it even more when I want to look up a wine that I have not met before, or want to settle an argument about a wine we are drinking. Thanks, you three.
I am not sure whether it was Roger or I who first suggested that we go to the Old Epsomian annual dinner this year. Neither of us were members O.E. Club; I had not had the money to pay for it when we had left school and Roger had been banned from joining for two years because of all the empty beer bottles that had been found in the roof space above his study. Still it seemed a good idea to join now, and go to the dinner, if we really were planning to have a forty year reunion in 1992. The original notion had been that we should try to get the ‘51-’52 rugger team together again; now it had expanded into a re-union for everybody that left school in ‘52 with a few from ‘51 and ‘53 thrown in for luck.
So we paid our dues for life membership, and also the cost of the dinner, and set out to enjoy ourselves. There were four of us who met up in the flat in Cornwall Gardens - two Rogers and two Johns. Anne had taken herself off for a couple of nights ‘to be out of the way’. We were in festive mood as we climbed into the car Roger had ordered to take us to Epsom. The traffic was atrocious and we were too late to attend the annual general meeting. Still it was fun to wander around the school nostalgically reliving our youth.
By this time Roger desperately wanted to pass water, but he found to his amazement that the old loos at the top of the quad were now only for ladies. How the world had changed in forty years! The school was no longer the monastic institution we had known.
There were not many people from our year at the dinner but we enjoyed ourselves immensely nonetheless. We met Barbie, who was secretary to the Hon. Sec., and thanked her for all the help she had given us, and we even met an Old Girl of the school, who was a thoroughly captivating young lady.
We kept fairly sober till the port was passed around. Then things started to slip a bit. My neighbour at table kept on saying ‘shhhh’ to me while the headmaster was speaking, but I am not sure why. I do not recall being noisy.
When we finally arrived back in Kensington in the small hours, we were (at least I was) altogether too drunk to be allowed into the casino of the Gloucester Hotel, which was probably a good thing, though they were kind enough to let me use their loo.
I shook with uncontrollable laughter all the way up the stairs to bed. I awoke at six the following morning with a splitting headache. Oh, why had I not drunk the prophylactic two pints of water before retiring?
That night at Epsom was the last time I was seriously inebriated. It is unlikely that I will ever be so drunk again.
‘I do think it’s a good thing that they have started putting some colour on the front of The Independent magazine,’ I said to Isabel. ‘It used to be such a dreary publication. I see there is some colour inside too.’
‘So there is. But are the contents any less depressing? I gave up reading it months ago because it was always so gloomy.’
I glanced at the letters.
‘Here’s a letter from the Vice-Provost and Precentor of Coventry Cathedral.’
‘What’s a Precentor?’
‘I don’t know. Anyway this letter is in defence of Basil Spence; apparently last week someone said that he had a ‘damn-you-all’ attitude to architecture. The Vice-Provost reckons that Spence’s notion of building a new cathedral emerging out of the ruins of the old one was ‘nothing short of genius’.’
‘Well, I agree with him.’
‘Yes, so do I. But I wonder what he thinks of Sutherland’s tapestry.’
‘Don’t start that again!’
She was referring to the time nearly thirty years ago when we had first seen the tapestry. I had been so incensed by it that I had harangued the other visitors in the cathedral, calling on them to agree with me that it was ‘blasphemous’ and that it should be removed. Isabel had walked away pretending that she was nothing to do with me, and the verger had threatened to call the police and have me thrown out.
‘I’ve a good mind to write to The Independent and raise the subject. I could head it ‘Travesty of a Tapestry’; that would be snappy enough.’
‘You are all talk, John. You’ll never write it. And anyway I don’t think you should. You were always over the top about that tapestry.’
‘Why do you say that? I thought that you didn’t like it either. It makes God look ridiculous, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes, certainly it does, but as you are not a believer why does it matter so much to you?’
‘Oh, I’m offended on behalf of the people who do believe. Someone has to fight their battles for them.’
Of course, I didn’t write my letter - well, not till the following week anyway. I mentioned it to David during the Thursday morning list.
‘I know it well,’ he said. ‘It’s the one that makes God look like a bumblebee, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, of course, that’s it! I’ve always thought that He was wearing a maternity dress, but now you’ve pointed it out its obvious: he does look just like a bumblebee! And those ridiculous feet. I think I’ll head it ‘Feet of Clay’.’
That night Isabel and I drank some splendid Entre Deux Mers. By the time the second bottle was downed I was in fine form.
‘How’s this then? Christ in Glory, like the great image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, suffers a distressing decline in quality below shoulder level. It should be replaced by something which does not make God look ridiculous.’
‘I like it. Send it off.’
So I did.
It was some days later, when we were sitting in the garden, that the phone went. Luckily I had the cordless phone with me.
‘This is’ (I did not catch the name) ‘from The Independent magazine. We are thinking of using the letter you wrote to us. Please could you explain about the great image that you mention?’
‘Yes, of course. It’s from The Book of Daniel, chapter 2, verse 32: this image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.’
‘I think we should put that quotation in, if you don’t mind. It may be familiar to you but the rest of us aren’t so well educated. Would that be OK?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then we’ll put it in the next issue.’
‘Good. I’m pleased about that. Thank you.’
Even though it was only two in the afternoon I persuaded Isabel that we should open a bottle of champagne.
‘I hope this will get it out of your system,’ she said. ‘And you’ll probably get some hate mail as well. Serve you right if you do. Cheers!’
The letter was published as promised, but they did not print any replies (if there were any) in the following weeks, and I never did hear if the Vice-Provost agreed with me about the tapestry.
I bumped into Peter, an old friend, at The Bristol Anaesthetic Club meeting. We talked about many things including the amount we were drinking.
‘We only drink at the weekends at home,’ said Peter. ‘Jane sees to it that I stick to this unless it is a special occasion. It seems a good way to limit one’s intake.’
I had to agree. When I got home I said to Isabel
‘I think I’ll not drink at all during the week. Just keep booze for the weekends.’
‘As you like, John, but count me out. I’ll do my own thing, thank you.’
‘Of course, my love.’
A man should know when he is beaten.
So I didn’t drink at all till Saturday. I had a little wine that evening, two or three glasses perhaps, and little more on the Sunday.
Isabel was away at a managers’ ‘time-out’ on the Monday night and I debated whether to stick to my plan, but decided in the end that I deserved a glass of wine that night too. I had a couple of glasses of Jurancon Sec during the evening and a decent noggin of whisky to take to bed with me. So much for alcohol-free weekdays. Ah, well, the road to hell and all that.
Now it was Tuesday again. For breakfast I had a large mug of strong tea and an orange. When I had showered and shaved I had a large mug of strong coffee. When I reached the hospital I had another before I changed into theatre clothes.
The surgeon I was working with that morning was another Peter, who incidentally had been at school with me forty years previously. He had a difficult hip operation to do, a ‘slipped femoral epiphysis’ to sort out. Robin and I decided to pop an epidural into the fifteen-year-old patient to keep him comfortable after the operation. There was quite a lot of blood loss and our morning list seemed certain to overrun. Still I managed somehow to put away another two mugs of strong coffee before one o’clock. Then I ran down to the canteen to get sandwiches for us all before leaving Robin to finish off in theatre 1 while I went off to start one of the afternoon lists in the new urology theatre suite.
I got there exactly at one thirty to find that all my rushing had been needless, as there was a quarter of an hour’s delay before the list could start.
‘Well, I’ll just have to have another cup of coffee then,’ I said as cheerfully as I could. I did not really want one, but it was the traditional way to cope with an enforced wait. So I swallowed yet another a strong mugful over the next five minutes and then went to the anaesthetic room to check the machine and draw up the drugs I needed so that I would be ready when the patient finally arrived.
‘Hello, Mr Elliott. I’ll be with you in a minute.’
I drew some local anaesthetic into a syringe. Could you hold the arm for me, please’ I said to the nurse who had come from the ward with the patient. ‘Not too tightly. There that’s grand. Now, just a little needle prick, Mr Elliott. It will sting for a moment and then go numb.’
I raised a small bleb in the skin on the back of his hand. I thrust the larger intravenous cannula through it and on into the vein. I flushed it with some saline and picked up the syringe I had filled with Propofol. But something was wrong. I was aware of a fluttering in my chest as though there was an eel wriggling inside me. It would go away in a moment, surely. It didn’t.
‘Excuse me a moment, Mr Elliott.’
I put the syringe down and went into the corridor. I took a deep breath and waited for the fluttering to disappear. It didn’t. I began to get concerned. I went into the other anaesthetic room and quickly stuck an ECG electrode on my chest and also one on each of my wrists. I connected the leads from the oscilloscope on the anaesthetic machine to the electrodes and glanced anxiously at the screen of the oscilloscope. My heart was beating very rapidly and irregularly, but the ‘QRS’ complexes were normal in shape, which was reassuring. I was looking to see if I could see any ‘P’ waves when Jim walked into the room.
‘Jim, I’ve got some sort of supraventricular tachycardia. Ask Jane if she would come and look at my ECG for me.’
Jane was the young anaesthetist working in the theatre, the other side of the swing doors.
I saw Jim glance at the oscilloscope in amazement.
‘Are you feeling all right?’ he asked.
‘Yes. I’m OK. Just a bit anxious.’
I was now worrying that my heart would soon be beating so fast that it would not have time to fill properly between beats. If this happened I would pass out, though I was not feeling faint at present. My anxiety was worsened by the fact that the mythical eel was no longer just fluttering in my chest; it seemed as though it was trying to work its way through my breast bone! Also there was a banging in my ears, so I guessed that my blood pressure was high rather than low.
The door opened and Jane came in. She left the door ajar so that she could see inside the theatre where her patient was undergoing his operation. Jim was watching the patient carefully for her while she examined my ECG.
‘That’s atrial fibrillation with a fast ventricular response,’ she said. ‘Have you any chest pain?’
‘No, no chest pain. But I think I ought to lie down. I’m not feeling faint at the moment, but I think I might feel faint if I stay upright much longer.’
‘Are you short of breath?’
‘No, not at all.’
‘Good. I’ll get Jim to bring a trolley for you to lie on. We’ll move you to the recovery ward and get someone to come and have a proper look at you.’
She went back into the theatre. Soon I was on the trolley, in the recovery ward, connected to another ECG. Carole, the theatre sister, came in and held my hand.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Who would you like to come and see you?’ she asked.
I knew Colin was across the main corridor in the old theatre suite, but he only had one minor case on his list and there was sure to be a junior anaesthetist who could take the patient over for him.
‘Ask Colin if he would come, would you, please?’
I knew that he would do the sensible thing, whatever it was, and also he was just the right person to resuscitate me if my heart stopped. I was not actually expecting that to happen but it seemed best to be sure.
Colin arrived and looked at me and then the ECG.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Well, I’m not feeling faint or breathless, and I haven’t got any chest pain, but I hate this pounding in my chest. It’s most unpleasant.’
He took my blood pressure.
‘180 over 110,’ he said.
‘I expect that’s due to endogenous adrenaline, ‘ I commented. ‘I’m usually normotensive.’
I began to wonder if I had got a phaeochromocytoma, which is a tumour of the adrenal glands. Probably not, as I had never had any palpitations before this and my pulse was normally so slow. That probably also ruled out thyrotoxicosis, which had put George Bush into atrial fibrillation last year. Nevertheless I certainly had had a major response from my sympathetic nervous system to the situation in which I found myself. I was acutely aware of sweating profusely all over but particularly so on the back of my neck. I guessed I must be soaking the pillow I was lying on. I had a thudding in my head and my face felt cold.
Colin was speaking again.
‘John, you seem to be in a stable state, and though you have a fast ventricular rate there’s nothing to worry about at present as your heart is coping with it quite adequately. I think the best thing would be to get the medical registrar on duty to come and decide what we should do with you. In the meantime we get the girls along to do a 12 lead ECG.’
Carole held my hand again while Colin bleeped the medical registrar. I tried to relax, but now I was starting to worry that all the sweating would make me smelly, but I guessed it would some time before it got unpleasant. After all fresh sweat wasn’t as bad as stale sweat, was it?
The phone rang. Colin picked it up.
‘Hello, is that you, David? Would you come as soon as you can, please, to the recovery ward in the new urology theatres. I want you to look at a colleague of mine who has suddenly gone into atrial fibrillation. His circulation is stable but he has a fast ventricular rate that is very uncomfortable for him. You’ll come in a few minutes, then? Oh, is he? Good, thank you.’
He put the phone down and turned to me
‘Paul is with him and they will both come up.’
Paul was the consultant cardiologist. It was strange that I should have been thinking about phaeochromocytomas a few minutes ago as I had first met Paul when we had been looking after had an obstetric patient who actually had a phaeochromocytoma. That had been years ago now when Paul had still been a senior registrar at the Infirmary.
The two ECG technicians arrived and had just completed recording my 12 lead trace when the physicians walked in. Paul examined me and looked at the ECG.
‘Have you ever had anything like this before?’
‘No, never. The occasional extrasystole, of course, but that’s all. I think I overdid the coffee this morning.’
‘Are you feeling short of breath?’
‘Any chest pain?’
He turned and talked to Colin for a few moments. Then he came back to me and said
‘Well, John, I think we should do a pharmacological cardioversion for you. We’ll give you a loading dose of Amiodarone intravenously. In a couple of hours you will most probably be back in sinus rhythm.’
It seemed too good to be true.
‘It would probably be best if we took you downstairs to the unit so that you could be monitored while it was going in.’
My heart sank. Here in the recovery ward I felt I was on home ground, but ‘downstairs’ (by which he meant the Intensive Care Unit) was quite a different matter. These last few years, since Colin had taken over the ITU work from James and Iain and me, I had become something of a stranger in the unit. Also it seemed to be admitting that there might really be something seriously wrong with me. My eyes filled with tears.
‘Couldn’t I just stay here in the recovery room. They are not very busy and they can watch the oscilloscope. After all if I go back into sinus rhythm in an hour or two I can probably go home, can’t I?’
‘Well, all right. I’ll come back later and see how you are getting on.’
Meanwhile Colin had got things ready for putting a cannula into a vein in my forearm.
‘I always put some local in before a Venflon,’ I said firmly.
Colin gestured to a syringe on a tray.
‘It’s already drawn up,’ he said.
‘Do you think we should contact Isabel?’
‘No, definitely not. She’s out of Bristol at this ‘time out’ that the managers are having and there is nothing she could do except worry. Anyway, I’m going to be fine and I am still hoping to be going home at the end of the afternoon. That’s right isn’t it?’
‘Yes, I agree. There really isn’t any need to disturb her at present. We’ll leave it till we see how you get on.’
Within a few minutes the Amiodarone, 300 mg in 500ml of saline, was running over two hours into the vein that Colin had so expertly cannulated and the nurses, Chris and her crew, were making a fuss of me and being so kind and reassuring that I was soon beginning to feel better. I felt better again as my ventricular rate gradually slowed down. When it reached a mere 100 beats a minute I felt almost normal. I was still aware of the irregularity of my heart rhythm but it was no longer something that was uncomfortable and alarming.
Paul looked in again about forty minutes later to see all was well. He asked me some more questions, including
‘How much do you drink?’
‘Too much, I expect. A bottle of wine a day. Rather less recently. You don’t mean I’ll have to stop drinking, do you? I’m sure it was the coffee.’
‘There’s no association between AF and caffeine,’ he replied. ‘But there is a strong association between AF and alcohol. Of course, you don’t have to stop drinking altogether, but one or two glasses a day is enough.’
Later my bladder began to feel full. I could put up with it for a while but I knew that sooner or later I would have to empty it. Perhaps I would revert to sinus rhythm in a few more minutes; then there would be no problem as I could go to the loo. I knew that I would never be able to use a bottle lying down with all those nurses around. Not with my bashful bladder!
‘Let’s try thinking sinus rhythm more positively,’ I said to Chris.
‘OK. We’ll all do it.’
But it was no good. My pulse remained irregularly irregular.
Colin came back.
‘Still no change?’ he asked.
‘No, I’m afraid not, but I do have another problem,’ and I explained about my full bladder. ‘I’ll have to stand up, and I will need some privacy as well.’
‘I can easily fix that for you, John. As you are the only patient here at the moment we can make special arrangements. A bottle, please, girls, and then all of you out of the room for two minutes while I ran the tap.’
The plan was entirely successful. I stood up behind the bed curtain, and listened to the water running in the basin opposite. I filled the bottle, which amazingly was made of compressed cardboard, almost to overflowing.
‘How much does the bottle hold,’ I asked the nurses when they came back into the room.
No wonder I had been uncomfortable!
At a quarter to five Colin phoned Paul.
‘Everything is all right here except that John is still in AF, though he is quite stable and is comfortable in himself now that his pulse rate is lower, but the recovery ward is closing soon. How shall we play it now?’
He paused and listened to what Paul was saying at the other end of the line.
‘All right, I’ll tell him that. I’m sure he will agree. OK then.’
He put the phone down and walked across the ward to me.
‘Paul says that if it was him he would go down to the unit and finish the loading dose of Amiodarone. Another 600mg over four hours and then another six hundred over six hours. It seems to me, John, that there is no point in asking for his advice unless we are going to follow it, so I think that’s what you should do. Do you agree?’
‘Yes, of course. Anyway I am more resigned to the idea now. We had better phone Isabel.’
‘Would you like me to do it?’
‘No, thank you. I think it is best if I do it myself.’
Isabel had just arrived home when I got through.
‘Isabel, I had a rather funny episode this afternoon. I’m perfectly all right now but what happened was that I went into atrial fibrillation. There is nothing to worry about; just too much coffee, I think, but they want me to stay in the hospital and finish off a course of a special drug they are giving me.’
Isabel reacted strongly.
‘What do you mean, John, nothing to worry about? It sounds quite terrible to me. I am certainly worrying about it. Are you still in AF? Where are you going to be? Tell me more about it.’
‘Really, I’m all right, Isabel. Don’t sound so cross with me.’
‘I’m not cross, just anxious! What are they giving you? Digoxin?’
‘No, it’s a drug called Amiodarone. It’s the latest wonder drug for arrhythmias. They are giving it to me in a drip and Paul says it is best if I go downstairs as the girls there are used to giving it and know what an ECG looks like.’
‘You mean that they are putting you into the Coronary Care Unit?’
‘No, not into the CCU really; the cubicle on the ITU is empty and I am going to go in there, but honestly, Isabel, I am fine. It was not very nice at first as my ventricular rate was rather high, but its much slower now and I feel perfectly grand.’
‘You’ll need some pyjamas. I’ll have to buy some and bring them to you.’
‘Thanks. It’ll be strange to have some pyjamas. The last pair I bought was to go on our honeymoon, and I didn’t wear them then.’
‘Are you really all right, John?’
‘Yes, dear. I’m fine.’
‘Where will I be able to buy pyjamas at this time of day? I’ll try Asda, that’s on the way.’
‘Do they sell pyjamas?’
‘Yes, I think so. If not I’ll go to Makro’s, though I expect they only sell them by the dozen there.’
‘Well, if they do we’ll give them away for Xmas presents.’
‘I’ll see you later then, John. Take care. I love you very much.’
Now it was time to make the journey to the ITU.
‘You don’t need to go on a trolley,’ said Colin. ‘I’ll get a wheelchair from somewhere.’
‘I could walk there, you know.’
‘Yes, I’m sure you could, but we’ll get a chair all the same.’
Paul looked in to see if I was all right.
‘I’m sorry that you have not got back into sinus rhythm yet, but this stuff is sure to work eventually. If it doesn’t do the trick within the first couple of hours it often works in the small hours of the night when you are deeply asleep. I’m sure it will be fine by the morning.’
Now it was off to the ITU.
Linda was there to welcome me. What a calm, professional, gentle girl. I felt instantly reassured. She got me settled and I had a good wash. The ECG leads just reached the basin.
I was offered some food but I did feel like eating it.
‘I’ll have it later,’ I said.
Isabel arrived with some pyjamas. I had a choice of blue with white stripes or brown with spots. I chose the blue. I put only the trousers on, which felt comfortable after the rather tight theatre clothes I had been wearing. I began to relax and agreed to have some to have the salad that they had saved for me.
After I had eaten Isabel went off home to make sure that Rosie was all right.
‘Take care, darling,’ she said, and then added ‘I hope Rosie has had the sense to get herself something to eat. I’m not hungry myself but I guess I’ll have a salad all the same.’
‘I should. Mine was delicious, and I’m sure you’ll be able to make yourself something even better than the NHS can.’
When Isabel had gone they checked my blood pressure again and I tried to settle down but only slept fitfully. I had not realised just how uncomfortable it was to have a drip in one’s arm; not painful, but decidedly uncomfortable.
Just after three o’clock in the morning the alarm on the oscilloscope went off, instantly dragging me from sleep. I sat up and looked anxiously at the scope. What was going on?
There were three sweeps of ECG trace on the scope. Near the beginning of the centre line was the reason the alarm had gone off. I was in sinus rhythm! My pulse was regular once more and those beautiful ‘P’ waves were back exactly where they should be.
My pulse rate was now its normal slow self, somewhere in the mid-forties per minute. I looked more closely at the moment it had gone back to normal. There was a particularly long pause between the end of the atrial fibrillation and the first normal heartbeat. That was why the alarm had gone off in the first place and the continuing slowness of the beat was the reason it was still alarming.
Elaine, an old friend who was on duty for the night, came hurrying into the room.
‘You are back in sinus rhythm,’ she said as she pressed the button on the scope to silence the alarm.
‘Yes, I know. Isn’t it wonderful? I told you that I normally had a slow pulse rate. You will have to reset the alarm or it will keep going off.’
‘I’ll set it at forty.’
Howard, who was the first on-call anaesthetist, happened also to be in the ward at the time and came and chatted with me. I felt as if we should really be opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate, but had to be satisfied with a glass of water! When Howard left I lay awake for ten minutes or so enjoying the exquisite relief of normality before dropping off to sleep again.
The alarm went off twice more during the night, but there was nothing to worry about. My pulse rate is normally very dependent on the phase of my respiration; it slows markedly when I breathe out and speeds up when I breathe in. On a couple of occasions when I yawned deeply the gap between the next two consecutive beats became long enough to make the machine think that my heart was beating slower than the forty that Elaine had set, though this was not really so as the rate speeded up again as soon as the yawn finished. Just to check this was the real state of affairs and that I was not deluding myself I tried it out. Yes, I could make the alarm go off merely by breathing out very slowly and delaying my next breath in.
Paul came to see me in the morning.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Fine, thank you, though I didn’t get a lot of sleep.’
He listened to my chest and felt my pulse.
‘Well, John, you seem to be back to normal.’
He looked at the 12-lead ECG that Tracey had taken earlier.
‘Is it OK?’ I asked.
‘Nothing wrong with it at all. You had better have a couple of days off and then get back to work. We’ll treat this as a ‘one off’ for the present. You’ll be sure to let me know if you have any more problems.’
‘I certainly will.’
‘Then I should get dressed and go home.’
I washed, shaved, dressed, and ripped the name tape off my wrist. This was a symbolic gesture: now I was a member of staff once more and not a patient!
I spent the next two days resting at home. I drank neither coffee nor alcohol, though I did spend some time pricking sloes for sloe gin. We always follow the recipe in ‘Mrs Beeton’ (the one I bought Isabel on our first wedding anniversary in 1960) which uses just a small amount of barley sugar (1oz to one pint of gin) so that the drink ends up refreshingly dry rather than sickly sweet like most liqueurs. I looked forward to sampling it at Christmas.
Ten days later we felt like an evening out and we went to the Swan for supper. I dropped the two ladies at the door, parked the car and joined them in the bar.
‘What will you have?’ I asked them.
‘A schooner of dry sherry, please, and Rosie wants a lemonade with lime in it.’
I got myself half a pint of Dry Blackthorn, my first proper drink since my little episode. I put the glass to my lips and tasted the golden nectar. It was utterly delicious! I decided at that moment on a limit of one unit a night, except for ‘nights out’ when I would allow myself two units. I did not break this rule for at least a month.
Back at work I spent some time in the library reading around the subject of caffeine and the heart.
‘Colin, I’m happy to tell you that at last I’ve found the definitive paper on the effects of caffeine in producing arrhythmias. It’s a rather strange study. They stimulated the atrium electrically in some healthy volunteers and in some patients, and they showed that this can produce atrial flutter/fibrillation in subjects who have been given 200mg of caffeine when it didn’t necessarily do that before they took the caffeine. It has set my mind at rest a bit, because I always did feel that it was caffeine that caused my little problem, not alcohol.’
‘I’m sure that it was. You certainly fulfilled several of Koch’s postulates; if you had not found that paper I would have been obliged to invent it for you.’
‘Thank you, Colin. That’s really very civil of you.’
‘Isabel, they’ve asked me to say something at the Residents’ Mess Christmas dinner.’
‘I hope you said that you would.’
‘Well, I didn’t know how to say ‘no’, so I did say said ‘yes’. I tried to tell John Holloway that it was usual to ask one of the newly appointed consultants, but it was to no avail. Still I’m not so frightened of after dinner speeches as I used to be.’
‘I don’t know why you say that. You gave a very good speech the last time you did it. The only thing wrong was that they wanted you to go on for longer than you did. They certainly enjoyed it, especially the rhyme about Campbell. How did it go?
‘Oh, I remember that -
Then there is Campbell and Liz
Who both live their lives in a tizz
For the name of MacKenzie
Is coupled with frenzy
And always there’s plenty of fizz!
That’s not really very funny unless you’ve had a lot to drink.’
‘That’s true, but you know that wine flows like water at mess dinners. You should do a few more rhymes about some of your other colleagues.’
‘Yes, I think I’ll do it. I quite fancy adapting some of AA Milne’s poems. Do you think that the modern generation is familiar with Now We Are Six?’
‘I doubt it, but it won’t matter if people don’t recognise the verses as long as they are good enough to stand on their own merit.’
‘That’s what Jim said when I asked him what he thought. What about this for starters?
What is the matter with Humphrey White?
He’s complaining again about the light
And its varicose veins on the list to-night
What is the matter with Humphrey White?’
Isabel laughed, which was encouraging.
‘There is a huge number of other possible rhymes with White, but I thought I wouldn’t overdo it.’
‘That’s right. I wouldn’t make any of the verses too long or you’ll lose your audience.’
‘Then, of course, there’s Clive; his andrology list is just asking for a poem. How about this:
Clive G is the saviour of men;
He cares for the cock not the hen
And if yours is bent
Like the young man from Kent
Why he’ll soon have it straightened again!’
‘That’s not AA Milne. That’s Edward Lear!’
‘Ah, yes but Milne collaborated with Lear for the Southmead Hospital edition of Now We Are Six. Didn’t you know that? I’ve got one of his political one’s here called Market Square. You’re sure to recognise it.
I had a Health Service,
A right good Health Service,
I took my Health Service
To the market square
I wanted some profit,
Just a little profit,
And I looked for some profit
For I went to the ward where they nursed old ladies
(‘Only a penny for a bunch of old ladies!’)
‘Have you got a profit, ‘cos I don’t want old ladies?’
But they hadn’t got a profit, not anywhere there.
Then I’m working on something about growth hormone and surfactant, which are both horribly expensive and I thought I might finish with this:
I had some hernias,
Yes, lots of hernias,
So I took my hernias
To the market square;
And I found lots of profit,
Lovely juicy profit,
I found lots of profit
So I’m sorry for the people who nurse old ladies,
And I’m sorry for the clinic that uses growth hormone,
And I’m sorry for the babies who need surfactant,
‘Cos they haven’t got a profit - not anywhere there!’
I paused for breath.
‘That’s splendid,’ Isabel said, ‘but I wouldn’t add any more verses to it. As far as growth hormone and surfactant are concerned I should just let them creep in unannounced in the last verse. It would stop the thing getting out of hand. Have you done one about Barry?’
‘Yes, of course I have. Well, at least I’m working on it. Something about him being ruled by his daughters, I think.’
‘Or cutting his baby’s nappy off with a carving knife, because he didn’t know how to open a ‘safety’ safety pin.’
It was my turn to laugh. Only Barry could have done such a thing!
‘I thought I might end with a prayer to William Waldegrave, if it wouldn’t offend too many people.’
‘It depends what it says.’
‘It goes like this:
Our Master who art in Westminster, Shallow be thy fame. Thy fall will come. You will be done for as soon as there is an election. Give us this day more surgical beds, and forgive the physicians who trespass onto our wards. Lead us not into overspending, but deliver us from underfunding; for thine is the power and the worry, till July at the latest. Ah, well.’
‘I like it. I think we should take a taxi on the night, John. It’ll go better if you have had something to drink, you know. Not too much, of course!’
So that is what we did. I had two sherries before we ate, three glasses of wine during the meal, and two glasses of port before I stood up to do my bit. You never really know how these things have gone because folk will tell you that you were splendid even if you were not. Still, with a few drinks inside you, it doesn’t really matter, does it?
‘Happy New Year, darling! This champagne tastes wonderful, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes. It’s certainly better than a cup of coffee!’
And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass
And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one - turn down an empty Glass!
- Edward Fitzgerald (1809 - 1883)
 Assumes six glasses to a bottle of claret, 12% alcohol by volume, an adult weighing 70 kg and the baby 4.5 kg (the 50 percentile for one month). Until 1990 Woodward’s Gripe Water listed as its active ingredients: Dill Water, Sodium Bicarbonate and Ginger Tincture. Syrup and Alcohol were listed under ‘other ingredients’. Since each 5ml teaspoon of gripe water contained 0.246ml of Alcohol (90%) BP the concentration of alcohol was 4.4%. Though it is claimed that the alcohol was added to act as a preservative, I have always assumed that in reality it was the main active ingredient; given eight times in a day it would have been equivalent to more than two and a half glasses of claret. It would be interesting to know if modern mothers find that gripe water works as well as it did, now that the alcohol has been removed. I bet it doesn’t!
 Butter, together with sugar and bacon, were rationed from January 8th 1941; each person was allowed 2 oz of butter per week, which curiously is more than Isabel and I eat in these affluent times.
 I have been unable to trace this ointment so perhaps I have remembered its name incorrectly; I do know that it was the only thing that used to help my chilblains and that it was faintly yellow, had a mild aromatic or camphorous smell, and contained a nicotinate; I remember clearly reading the label and wondering whether it was something to do with cigarettes.
 Alice would have described ‘smog’ as a ‘portmanteau word’ for it is a combination of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’; it was first used in 1905 to describe the fog in London, which was a mixture of fog and coal soot. Though the smog in October 1944 was bad enough, it was not so horrendous as that of 1952 when 4000 people in Greater London died from its effects. The first of the Clean Air Acts, which created smokeless zones inside our cities, was passed in 1956.
 He was really talking about ‘wood naphtha’, which in the UK must contain not less than 72% methyl alcohol; it also contains acetone and other impurities. Industrial Methyated Spirit (IMS) is ordinary alcohol (of appropriate strength) with 5% wood naphtha added. Surgical spirit is IMS with small amounts of methyl salicylate, diethylphthalate and castor oil added to it. Ordinary ‘meths’ which you can buy over the counter at a hardware or chemist’s shop is properly known as Mineralised Methylated Spirit; it is IMS with other unpleasant things such as crude pyridine and petroleum oil added to it. The dye used is methyl violet.
 I still have a great dislike for perfumes of all kinds, but in particular I loathe the heavy ‘musk’ scents that some women insist on wearing. I wonder why they do it!
 ‘After shaves’ are commonly around 70% alcohol. Surface bacteria on the face number about 200,000 per sq cm of skin; 70% alcohol causes a 50% reduction in the count after 36 seconds. Alcohol kills bacteria by precipitating proteins and dissolving lipid membranes.
 In later years when I have been talking about the stages of anaesthesia I have replaced Gaddum’s fourth stage danger of death with my own dangerously deep, because I have wanted to stress that you can kill yourself in any of the stages of alcoholic intoxication; the medullary vital centre depression of the fourth stage is only yet one more hazard. However, in an article[a] she wrote Isabel replaced all four stages with: aphrodisia, even dizzier, deep and dicey.
[a] Powell I. Recollections of a recovery ward nurse. Anaesthesia Points West, 1973
 Duodenal ulcers are much less common now than they were in 1960. Although this is partly due to newer drugs, such as Cimetidine, which control the secretion of acid in the stomach, the incidence had decreased greatly even before these were introduced in 1977.
 Hodges RJH and Tunstall ME Brit. J. Anaesth. 1961; 33: 572. See also their chapter in Recent Advances in Anaesthesia and Analgesia 9th edition, p. 205-243. London: Churchill, 1963.
 But remarkably I did not refer to Brian Sellick's paper on cricoid pressure even though this had appeared in the BMJ some 14 months earlier. I just had not heard about it. It was several years before it was finally adopted as standard practice.
 Astrup P. Physiological and pathological effects of moderate carbon monoxide exposure. Brit. Med. J. 1972; 4: 447-452.
 Halsey M.J. in Molecular Mechanisms in General Anaesthesia. Edit. by Halsey M, Millar RA and Sutton JA. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1974.
 Ibsen B. (1954) The anaesthetist’s viewpoint on the treatment of respiratory complications in poliomyelitis during the epidemic in Copenhagen, 1952. Proc. Roy. Soc. Med.47:xx.
Bjørn Ibsen. (1975) From Anaesthesia to Anaesthesiology. Acta Anaesth. Scand. Supplementum 61. 1975.
 Dobmeyer DJ, Stine RA, Leier CV, Greenberg R, Schaal SF. The arrhythmogenic effects of caffeine in human beings. New Engl. J. Med., 1983: 81: 4 -6.
 Koch. R (1843-1910), German physician and bacteriologist, published a paper in 1882 on the tubercle bacillus; in this he postulated four criteria required to establish that a particular organism caused a particular disease; these are known as ‘Koch’s postulates’.
 To my amazement the Conservatives won the election; I had been quite sure that they would lose. I believe that the country as a whole was ready for a change, but that John Smith blew it by saying he wanted not just to add 10p on the income tax, which seemed reasonable enough, but also to increase National Insurance contributions. I think the electorate would have accepted the 10p, but 19p seemed downright greedy! The Conservatives did not really win the election; Labour just threw it away!
Other Chapters / Home