I doubt that I would ever have bought a King’s College London scarf, sweatshirt or tie even if I had gone to university straight from school. Twelve months of intense life experience as a hospital porter had led me to believe that I was a fully formed adult, and I was positively disdainful of student juvenilia. This particularly applied to the contrived rivalry between undergraduates from KCL and University College.
The vendetta might have been moderately interesting if it had involved mass street brawls or looting, but the main manifestation was tit-for-tat seizure of College mascots. In the case of KCL, this was a hollow metal lion painted bright red that was chained to the wall over the stairway to the Great Hall. According to the KCL student union paper, it was called Reggie, a name that etymologists might suppose was derived from regius, Latin for royal or appertaining to the king. To me, the more obvious reference was to Reg Varney, the star of a popular TV show , “On The Buses”, which featured a bus inspector whose catchphrase was “I hate you, Butler”.
The target at UCL was macabre. It was Jeremy Bentham’s embalmed head. I have no idea why the inventor of utilitarianism wanted to have parts of his body kept in perpetuity at UCL. His head was an irresistible prize for that small group of KCL fanatics who were inflamed by intercollegiate sectarianism. It is probably best not to think about what they did with it whilst it was in their possession. I occasionally heard drunken KCL students suggest having a go at stealing Jeremy Bentham’s head, to which one could only respond “Let’s not bother”.
In 1975, Britain still had a thriving counter-culture, the aftermath of les événements de Mai 1968 and the contemporaneous invention of rock music. It was facilitated by the bulk importation of North African hashish. It cut across class and, unnoticed at the time, political orientation. It had yet to morph into a marketing opportunity for international capital. Germaine Greer, John Peel, Howard Marks and Richard Branson all rose to fame and fortune under its banner. The medical students with whom I formed friendships in the first year tended to have counter-cultural affiliations, which provided us with a starting point.
Chris was one such kindred spirit. I met him in the waiting room at the admissions interviews in the hut in Tooting, and we had chatted whilst we waited. When I spotted him in the crowded registration hall on the first day, I was pleased to find someone to speak to. Later, we trained together in psychiatry at St George’s. We last bumped into each other at a conference about five years ago. We were in the same social group throughout our formative years in medicine.
Chris was completely different to anyone I had met before. He was unequivocally posh. He had a plummy Received Pronunciation accent and a mouse phobia. He was a devout Catholic. He had attended Ampleforth College, a public school for upper class Roman Catholics. Of course, I had never heard of Ampleforth, but he had not heard of the Roan School for Boys either. Chris was close to Basil Hume, a Catholic priest who led the school and who was appointed Archbishop of Westminster in 1976. Later, I used to tell Chris that he should sue the comedian Rik Mayall for stealing his persona. I do not think that Chris knew what I meant. The resemblance mainly related to some mannerisms and the mouse phobia. Chris rented a suitably run down flat near Brixton Water Lane. One night he had a nightmare about a mouse running all over him. In the morning, he found a squashed mouse in his bed.
When I visited with my girlfriend in York that summer, we visited Chris’s family home in Harrogate. His mother cooked us an excellent lasagne, a dish that we had heard of, but had never encountered before. Chris had a serious interest in music. Like me, he liked Bob Dylan. He was a guitarist and an aspiring songwriter. We sometimes played guitar together. Neither of us much cared for prog rock, and we enjoyed the arrival of punk and a new style of bands at the students union gigs. The emerging act that we most strongly agreed about was John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett. I recommend John Otway’s autobiography, which is very entertaining. Otway distributes it from his home in Wimbledon. He is, by his own account, a compulsive show-off who is almost devoid of what might be conventionally regarded as musical talent. He came to fame through a televised mishap. Wildly over-excited at appearing live on the Old Grey Whistle Test, he rushed around the stage, accidentally disconnecting Willy Barrett’s guitar in the process. Then he tried to jump on to the guitar amplifier, which toppled over. He fell hard, straddling a speaker cabinet. Following this, Barrett strangled Otway and quit the band. It takes a particular type of talent to create this type of iconic moment, which captured something of the playful anarchy of the times. Barrett has regularly quit the band ever since.
In the third term, Chris got us tickets for two big gigs a few weeks apart. The first was Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Hammersmith Odeon. Marley had been touring for a few years, and he was about to break through to become a revered global figure, especially in low and middle income countries. He was the most charismatic performer I have ever seen. He sang and skanked whilst smoking a huge spliff, engaging the audience with a stoned soulfulness. At the back of the hall stood a group of unsmiling Rastafarians in dark suits with dreadlocks and shades, at that moment unquestionably the coolest men in London, if not the world.
The benchmark that Bob Marley had set did not flatter the Rolling Stones when we saw them at Earls Court Arena a few weeks later. They seemed listless to me, relying upon large-scale stage stunts rather than the raw energy of their music. The support band was the Meters, the house band of New Orleans funk. They were superb, but the PA was set at half volume and the arena was far from full. They were not going to be allowed to outshine the Stones, who took to the stage accompanied by the deafening sound of Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. It was a lazy choice, as it was already strongly associated with a dreadful prog band, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Once they started playing, the inadequacies of Mick Jagger’s singing were painfully exposed. Everybody knew that Keith Richards had a severe heroin dependency at the time, and its impact on his playing was obvious. They sounded like an inexperienced garage band with a world class rhythm section. When Jagger straddled a giant inflatable penis, I sighed. Beyond the walls of Earls Court Arena, punk seed was falling on fertile soil.
During the first year, people thought Franny and I were a couple, but we never were. Like Chris, she had grown up a Catholic, but, unlike him, she was emphatically lapsed. Just as Chris had introduced me to one exotic Italian food, Franny introduced me to another. I first ate pizza at her flat. She had grown up in a road adjacent to Richmond Park but, despite a posh accent, her background was not wealthy. George Orwell described his background as “lower-upper-middle-class” and I thought I recognised this in Franny. Her family home had a pianola and piano rolls, and I have a vivid memory of her pedalling the instrument as it accompanied her singing “Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer”. She was clever, funny and well-read, and I enjoyed her company.
Prior to my interview in Tooting, I had only been to South West London once (a school trip to Kew Gardens), so going to Richmond was an adventure. Franny loved Hawkwind and Led Zeppelin. I did not really like either band at the time, but I changed my mind about both of them in my middle years (a curious age to start appreciating heavy rock, which I attribute to relocation to the North West of England). Franny was savvy and counter-cultural, but she seemed to love studying medicine. She was one of those people who was obviously cleverer than me, which was one of the things that made spending time with her interesting. She sat at the centre of the social life of our cohort of St George’s students and she won academic prizes. She unwittingly provoked my conversion from an occasional smoker of cigars to a chain smoker of roll-up cigarettes. She gave up smoking decades before I did. Every time I used the word “toilet”, she corrected me to say “lavatory”, which permanently altered my everyday vocabulary. We are still in touch, and she can still make me laugh.
There was an American student in our group, Kaplan, a huge laid-back bear of a man with a New York accent and lot of thick curly hair in the style of the time. Kaplan’s physical presence made him stand out in a crowd, and there was often a crowd around him. In 1987, I recognised him from behind as I got off a train at Birmingham New Street Station. I had not seen him for several years, but there was no mistaking that silhouette.
In the USA, medicine is a postgraduate degree, and Kaplan had previously gained a BSc from an American liberal arts university. He was two years older than me and he was something of a polymath on the quiet. He could do magic tricks, he played piano, he read literature voraciously and he was into computer science. He took up rugby on the basis of his American football skills (which mainly consisted of running into people at speed). He was excellent company and if he had any problem about hanging out with students three years younger than him, he never showed it. He was knowledgeable about the counter-culture, but I came to doubt his commitment to it when he told me that he had bought a ticket to go to the Woodstock festival with his friends, but, having sat in a traffic jam for a few hours in upstate New York, they turned around and went home.
Kaplan could make sharp jokes, but never seemed irritable or out-of-sorts. He was quietly kind. In our third year at medical school, a student was knocked off his bicycle and suffered a severe brain injury. His friends visited him in the neurosurgery unit at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital but I do not think that he fully regained consciousness, and visits became less frequent. Kaplan visited regularly until he died a year later.
Early on, I shocked Kaplan. We were in an anatomy lecture. These were conducted by anatomy demonstrators, young surgeons working for their postgraduate examinations. They were held in small lecture rooms in the old style, with tiered benches and blackboards at the front. On the day in question, I was located centrally in the seating, with Kaplan directly behind me. The lecturer was an irritable Australian who was not very tall and seemed to have a problem with that. It was a boring lecture, but all was well until I had a sudden need to pass wind. As someone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which is part of the human condition rather than a disorder, in my opinion), I knew that the price of holding it in would be stomach cramps. I was hemmed in to my right and left on a long bench, and an attempt to leave the room would have disrupted the entire lecture. So I decide to slowly and quietly release the flatus and hope that the aroma was not too offensive. I lifted a buttock and the plan immediately failed. Not only was the release uncontrolled, the fart hit the bench and resonated loudly along the hollow box.
The only person who did not notice the fart was the lecturer and the only person who reacted was Kaplan, who could not stop giggling. He kept muttering “I cannot believe that you do that kind of thing in this country”. The lecturer assumed that the big man’s giggling and muttering was directed at him. Kaplan assumed that the lecturer thought that he was the one who had farted. There was a hostile but inconclusive exchange of misunderstandings between them. Later, as we left the lecture, the short lecturer tried to pugnaciously confront the huge Kaplan, who, typically, smiled and walked away. Kaplan mentioned the incident when he introduced me to his partner at a reunion fifteen years later, by which time we were both consultants.
Kaplan later trained as a thoracic surgeon. My wife (previously the York girlfriend) and I bumped into him in Bromley High Street in the early eighties. We were about to travel to New York to visit my sister, who was studying for a year at Stony Brook University on Long Island. Kaplan had grown up in Amityville, Long Island, and he told us that we had to eat at McCluskey’s Steak House in Bellmore, which he said was local and which his father considered to be the best steak restaurant in the world. We followed his advice. “Local” turned out to mean more than 50 miles from Stony Brook, and it took an hour and half to drive there. The recommendation was good. The steaks were delicious but they were huge, like the dinosaur steaks in the Flintstones. We ground to a halt after eating about a quarter of the meat, and waddled to our car bearing large doggie bags.
When I ran into Kaplan in Birmingham in 1987, we went for a coffee. He was despondent. He was a senior registrar in cardiothoracic surgery at Broadgreen Hospital, Liverpool and he believed his career was over. He had blown the whistle over something and had antagonised one, or possibly all, of the consultants. We next met for a drink when I arrived to take up my consultant post at the Royal Liverpool Hospital a year later. In the interim, he had secured a prestigious post as consultant thoracic surgeon at the Royal Brompton Hospital, London. His career prospects seemed to have improved sharply.
Kaplan eventually moved back to the USA. In 2016, I heard that he had died aged 62. He did not turn up for work one day, so someone went round to his house and found that he had died in his sleep. I had not spoken to Dave Kaplan in 25 years, but I felt a real sense of loss that he was no longer out there, somewhere in the world. It still makes me sad.