My school reports chart uneven academic progress. I lurched between failure and success, often scraping by. I loved science and read about it for fun. During one half-term holiday when I was 13 I read the whole GCE O-level curriculum for physics in the public library. This had a positive impact on my performance for some considerable time thereafter, but unfortunately it wore off as I approached my O-level exams at 16. I would look at my books and think “I know this”, which was sort-of-true, but my knowledge was not so secure that it obviated the need to revise. This pattern, together with dyspraxic handwriting, meant that my exam results were below expectations. Preoccupation with getting to be really good at guitar was an additional success-inhibiting factor. It was another hospital porter, Ben, who finally made me think seriously about how to study for fun and, in a way, made me Dr Robert.
Academic underperformance was common in many of the rock musicians that I admired, such as Robert Plant and Richard Thompson. At my 40th birthday party (a joint celebration with Steve Hammond that included playing with his band), my parents told people that they had been very worried that I would abandon my studies to become a musician. This amazed me. They never said anything to me, just as they said nothing when I insisted on going to a grammar school rather than a comprehensive. I never considered becoming a full-time musician. I wanted to be a doctor, and nothing could deflect me from that. What none of us realised at the time was that a career in a rock band would have been more realistic, healthier and a lot less frustrating, at least in the short run. When I was a bad-tempered and exhausted junior doctor, my mother said that she regretted encouraging my career choice.
My generation grew up during twenty five years of continuous economic growth and social progress that followed the Second World War, when upward social mobility was common. Post-war mobility is often attributed to the availability of grammar school places for working class children, but I doubt that this was a significant factor. Selective schools made academic attainment more difficult for the majority who did not secure grammar school places. Higher education was expanded to meet the labour needs of the booming economy. Social mobility was driven by the demand for skilled labour, not by a plentiful supply of teenagers who knew the difference between a gerund and a gerundive.
London grammar schools existed in a hierarchy that was largely based upon the class mix of its pupils. Although the Roan School for Boys was well-located next to Greenwich Park, it’s pupils were drawn from Catford, Deptford, Bexleyheath and the Docks. It had a predominantly lower middle class or proletarian clientele. As my family lived in the wide tree-lined cul-de-sac of Kidbrooke Grove, I was one of the more privileged pupils. Half of Roan boys left school at 16 and took office jobs. This transition from manual labour would have been just as likely to have occurred if they had attended Crown Woods comprehensive school, a few miles away.
As I grew up, I assumed that I would go to university. Teachers kept on telling me that I was intelligent, which would have been superfluous encouragement for a more consistent scholar. I think that repeatedly hearing this led me to believe that my ability was a given and that effort was the limiting variable. I liked learning, universities were rapidly expanding and students were given grants that covered fees and living costs. Many students were the first in their family to go to university and it seemed natural to assume that I would be too.
I do not know exactly where the idea of being a doctor came from. Lynne Edwards, the primary school teacher who changed everything for me, joked that my handwriting was so bad that I would only find work as a doctor. When I was 12, my Auntie Peg’s first psychotic breakdown really puzzled me and led to precocious reading about psychiatry and psychoanalysis. My sister’s best friend’s father, Dr Spence Galbraith, quietly encouraged my interest. However, what eventually sealed my fate was Inner London Education Authority career advisors, who told me at three consecutive careers interviews that medicine was an unrealistic goal and that there were great opportunities in the computer industry.
The Roan School did not have a tremendous track record of getting pupils into medical school. The only one I knew of was Richard Smith, a charismatic teenager. As a medical student, he was influenced by reading Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis: Limits to Medicine. When I bumped into him and his father in the Plume of Feathers in Greenwich one lunchtime, he assured me that medicine was not a worthwhile pursuit and that it made people ill. I was not ready to embrace a postmodern critique of industrialised healthcare, so I ignored this observation, but I was a bit rattled when our middle-aged and rather burnt-out GP said something similar a few weeks later.
My GCE results met the minimum requirements for medicine but did not convey the impression of a promising young intellect. There were about twelve London medical schools in those days. In the 1970s, they had changed very little since they were founded in the 19th century. Their general atmosphere was captured in Richard Gordon’s 1952 book Doctor In the House. I was advised that London medical schools placed a strong emphasis on ability at rugby union (the Roan played football to a high standard, but I was as useless at sport as I was at handwriting) and had a preference for privately educated pupils from medical families. Consequently, I applied to five provincial universities. I received four consecutive rejections. Then I had notification that the University of Manchester was going to make me a conditional offer of a place, which led to wild excitement amongst my friends and family, until the actual offer arrived. I was required to achieve AAA at A-level, which was almost as dispiriting as the rejections.
AAA or better is not an unusual result today, because the mean IQ of each successive generation rose until 2010 and state schools became much better at coaching pupils for public examinations. Forget about allegations of grade inflation, kids were getting smarter. In 1974, the bar had been set impossibly high for me, and sure enough, I did not clear it. I did not go to Manchester Medical School, and I have held a grudge about that ever since. I got BCC, which was a marked improvement on my O-level results, but only amounted to scraping by for medical school purposes.
So it came to pass that I left school with no university place. I wrote to every UK medical school except Oxford and Cambridge (omitted because these elite institutions seemed hopelessly out of reach) and in due course I received a polite no-thanks letter from each one. Clearing (the last minute mechanism to match qualified candidates with vacant university places) was equally barren.
I left my summer job at a supermarket in Catford one Wednesday at the end of September. I thought that finding a job in a hospital might impress medical school admissions panels, so I phoned two to see if they had vacancies for porters. They both offered me a job. The Brook Hospital was closest to home, so I started there the following Monday.
In the porter’s lodge, there was a core group of middle aged men who had settled into a rhythm of employment that would have been undemanding, but for the constant exposure to distress, death and heavy lifting. There was a rather different group of younger porters who came and went. In those days of full employment, portering was a useful stop-gap between more lucrative employments.
The head porter, Bert, organised the daily work with extraordinary efficiency. Officially, every minute of the day was timetabled into a series of circuits of the hospital grounds, travelling on Lansing Bagnall electric trucks pulling trains of wagons to and from the laundry, the kitchen, the medical gases store and the rubbish bins. In reality, we followed an ergonomically sound pattern of a clean round and a dirty round, food and clean laundry trucks linked together in the former, dirty laundry and rubbish in the latter. This saved a good deal of time. A large chunk of the day involved sitting around smoking, drinking tea, reading the paper and waiting for calls to take the dead to the mortuary or to replace oxygen cylinders.
Bert loved to gamble, and he contrived plentiful unstructured time in order to support his card school. His preferred games were four-card brag and draw poker. The card school attracted catering, maintenance and other ancillary staff from across the hospital. Only men played. I never saw a woman participate in the card school. In fact, the only time that I ever saw a woman enter the lodge uninvited was when an angry nurse came to rather publicly complain to a porter that he had got her pregnant.
When he could not raise a game of cards, Bert would play Snakes and Ladders or Ludo for money. I observed the card school for a week or two. I noticed that only a few of the players were particularly skilled. Most could easily be read, and they tended to follow fixed strategies. This made them easy pickings for the good players. I eventually joined in. Some of the porters were surprised when ‘the Boy’ took their money, and I gradually gained kudos as a good player. I gave up after I misjudged the probabilities on a hand and lost a whole week’s wages. I have rarely gambled since.
On the day I started, one of the older porters was given the task of showing me the job. He warned me not to work with Ben The Professor, if I could avoid it, because he was too old to lift heavy loads and he rarely engaged in conversation. Ben was Hungarian. It was true that he seemed oblivious to the card school and the sweary banter. Instead, he sat alone reading history books, making pencilled annotations in the margins. It was also true that he struggled with heavy lifting. The Brook had been built as a Victorian fever hospital. Lifts were not installed to all of the upper storey wards, which meant that patients sometimes had to be strapped to a stretcher and carried up or down several flights of stairs. Ben was willing to attempt this, but it was pointless to let him. The fear that he would drop the patient made it easier to get someone stronger to help.
Ben’s wife was a domestic on one of the wards. She was also Hungarian, a matronly woman, somewhat younger than him. On a sunny day they could be seen strolling arm-in-arm around the grounds at lunch time, quietly chatting but rarely smiling, like a Budapest couple in a pre-War movie. I often ended up doing the rounds with Ben. One day, we were silently travelling along one of the canopied walkways when he suddenly said “What are you doing here? You are not one of these. You are an educated man.” I asked him what made him think so. “Vocabulary” he replied. I explained my situation. Slowly, over a few days, Ben opened up. He told me that before the war he had been a university lecturer in Hungary, a historian. He had to go into hiding when the Nazis invaded, and then things were no better when the Communists came. He had escaped to Australia, where he worked in a chicken factory, and eventually made his way to London. Here, his pre-war qualifications were recognised and he looked for work as a teacher. He had had an interview at the Roan, where he was told his accent was too strong for him to teach effectively. He settled for working as a porter. He and his family lived in a flat in Blackheath Village.
Ben and I formed a warm friendship, and we talked a lot. He never doubted that I would go to medical school, and called me “Doctor Robert” in anticipation, which made me sing the Beatles song. He was an interesting commentator on current affairs. He provided measured, non-judgemental observations about the squabbles and small dramas that played out before us. He never criticised my Trotskyist adventure, although, naturally enough, he had no time for Communism. Once he said “You and me, we are not capitalists and we are not communists. We are something else. We are our own men.”
I lost interest in history at school. I ran out of patience when, whilst studying Southern Africa and the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, we were instructed to write an essay setting out arguments for and against apartheid. I objected to being forced to defend racism, so I fell out with the teacher and I dropped the subject. Ben talked about history a lot, and about its relevance to the present. He got me interested and helped me to think about the past systemically. He also made me think about revision for exams as a revisiting of past pleasures rather than a chore.