The highly praised novelist, columnist for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Catholic Herald, creator of cookbooks, and Duckworth’s fiction editor, Alice Thomas Ellis was both a smoker and a contrarian. Here, writing in 1993, she writes as both. She expresses skepticism about the expertise of doctors some will feel relevant at the moment.
Cat Among the Pigeons collects some of her Catholic Herald columns. Serpent On the Rock reflects sharply on modern Catholicism. Her novels won several awards, The 27th Kingdom being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A trilogy of novels published together as The Summer House was made into a movie. Under her married name Anna Haycraft, she wrote cookbooks. Her autobiography, of sorts, appeared as A Welsh Childhood. One of her best known lines, characteristic, is “There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don’t love anyone”. She died in 2005.
The article appeared as “A sense of perspective or a lot of hot air?” in the 11 June 1993 issue.
At this time, Dr Forster says that people should guard against colds, and above all, against the contagion of typhus and other fevers, which are apt to prevail in the early spring. “Smoking tobacco,” he observes, “is a very salutary practice in general, as well as being a preventative against infection in particular. The best tobacco is the Turkey, the Persian and what is called Dutch canaster. Smoking is a custom which should be recommended in the cottages of the poor. and in the great populous towns liable to contagion”.
This was written about 1826 and the message I get from it is that doctors are not to be trusted. Half the time they don’t know what they’re talking about and the rest of the time they’re bullying us.
Today we have doctors who are proposing that inveterate smokers should not be treated for illness which they have brought on themselves from persisting in the habit, while other doctors are still suggesting that smoking protects the body from certain afflictions: colitis, schizophrenia and alzheimer’s for instance, if my memory serves me right. (It may not, for I’ve been cutting down recently and this undoubtedly has a deleterious effect on the concentration).
Many people have already inquired indignantly whether the first group of doctors would refuse to treat people for other self-inflicted ailments. What about the bibulous, the promiscuous, and those who don’t look before crossing the road?
I won’t ask this question myself, since it leads down bizarre pathways and you think you’re going mad. What would happen if midwives turned their backs on those in childbirth, maintaining that the lady should have known better than to get herself in this condition?
The trouble is that doctors tend to forget that they are basically plumbers and they put on airs and play God.
I have been told that it was an old Chinese custom to pay the doctor only so long as those of whose health he had charge stayed well. If they fell ill the medical practitioner was either dismissed or put to death. (I won’t be able to remember which until I’ve had another cigarette.) It also raises further questions. How did the Chinese doctor, who must have lived in a constant state of nervous tension, prevail upon his patients to abstain from harmful practices?
Did he rely on them accepting his advice and strictures or did he follow them round, leaping out of the bamboo thicket crying “don’t do that”?
The modern doctor admittedly has to live with the threat of litigation but will only suffer if he makes a positive error. not if his consulting rooms are full of sick people upon whom he relies to make a living.
It all comes down to the regrettable human urge to lay the blame somewhere.
The ailing smoker might sue the tobacco company, saying it’s all its fault. The doctor may blame the patient saying it’s all his fault. The family or the patient might well say it’s all the fault of the doctor for refusing h help and sue him. In the end everyone’s miserable except the lawyer. Now I’ve bought of lawyers I feel more kindly disposed Inwards doctors.
There is something surely sick about a society in which recriminations and the acquisition of large sums of money play such a part. Still I don’t suppose it was much better in 1826. If everyone had listened to the doctor there must have been a terrible fug.
Other “Lessons From the Archives” can be read here.
Photo credit: Actress Vera Vere, circa 1908 (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images).