Doctor Cecil Helman: Medical anthropologist, GP and writer who found fame with his book 'Suburban Shaman'

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The Independent Online

In the summer of 1973, I made a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem home of the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai. Later that same year Cecil Helman. It is possible that Amichai liked neither of us and decided we deserved one another, though we preferred to think the opposite. Either way, he gave Cecil my telephone number, thereby creating a constant friendship that was broken only by Cecil's death at the age of 65.

Of course he had numerous other friends beside me. After the funeral, a number of us reconvened in his house. Although it was now Hamlet without the Prince, his presence remained, especially in his study, where the contents conjured the person. Here were his medical certificates (he qualified as a doctor in his native Cape Town in 1967, leaving for London two years later on account of apartheid), his many accolades in the field of medical anthropology (including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Anthropological Association and the Lucy Mair Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute), a staff card from Harvard, and, no less prominently displayed, a Master of Dada degree.

It goes without saying that Helman did not prescribe surrealistic remedies for his patients (he was a GP in North-west London for a quarter of a century), but he was able to combine the two sides of his personality, the scientific and the anarchic, in his painting and his writing. There is an unbroken line that runs from his seminal textbook Culture, Health and Illness (1984), now an essential teaching tool in universities around the world, through Body Myths (1991), a meditation upon the possibilities of the human frame; surrealistic fables and prose-poems such as The Exploding Newspaper (1980), The Golden Toenails of Ambrosio P (1990) and Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds (2006); and on to his most celebrated book, Suburban Shaman (2006), which demonstrated just how his humanistic method of medical practice emerged from his own experiences.

The link between these disparate texts is the entry of the unexpected into the quotidian, either in the form of a bizarre illness or a metaphor made real. The currency of this world – Helmania, to coin a word – was the story.

Helman argued passionately that the doctor's duty was to listen to the patient and in that way make sense of their symptoms. Blood work, X-rays, scans were never sufficient, for they failed to take into account the cultural background of the sufferer. It followed from this that cures were not always the end product of Western science. Such conclusions led Helman to value the role of traditional healers, most particularly in South Africa and Brazil (where he travelled regularly under the aegis of the British Council). As in Israel, so in Brazil, he sought out sympathetic writers, especially Moacyr Scliar, also a Jew, a doctor and a surrealist.

When BBC Radio 4 selected Suburban Shaman for broadcast as a Book of the Week, Cecil telephoned me and said, "Something quite wonderful has happened." His big hope was that his life would change as a result, that he would at last know the warmth and security of universal acclaim. Perhaps he would even return to Cape Town – the one place on earth he felt truly at home – in triumph. No such luck.

What did change his life, alas, was motor neurone disease. The diagnosis came out of the blue, though (Cecil being Cecil) the blow was not entirely unexpected. For every piece of good fortune he expected a heshbon (as his ancestors would have called it) or a bill to be thrust at him. Many of those old Lithuanian Jews remain visible presences on his study walls in old photographs. On his mother's side, they were distinguished rabbis (his grandfather was Cape Town's first); on his father's, there were doctors ad nauseam. Since neither rabbis nor doctors are famous for their optimism, Helman obviously received a double dose of pessimism in his DNA.

As it turned out, neither medicine nor prayer had much to offer as the disease seized Cecil by the throat, robbed him of his voice, and began to squeeze the life out of him. It was a small mercy that his limbs remained unaffected, so that we were able for some while to continue our weekly hikes at Gorhambury, near St. Albans. Without Cecil's voice, it soon became apparent how much of our conversation depended upon it. Every few yards he would stop and scribble the words: "Say something". I did my best, but it was like a duet for one, sans Cecil's metaphysical riffs and contentious political opinions.

Like Jacob he had spent his life (metaphorically speaking), wrestling with the angel. In his last days he looked as if he were doing it for real. Constant in his corner were his ex-wife, Vetta, and their daughter, Zoe. Although Cecil's voice has been stilled, the rest will not be silence, for he was able to present his publisher with the completed manuscript of the sequel to Suburban Shaman – An Extraordinary Murmur of the Heart.

In one of his poems, Amichai writes: "Never again will I find rest for my soul." I wish my old friend some rest, of course, but I also hope that his questing spirit will somehow be able to cash in his 11,443 outstanding air miles and take some trips on Dada Air (flying Duchamp Class, naturally).

Clive Sinclair

C ecil Gerald Helman, writer, general practitioner, medical anthropologist, university lecturer, surrealist: born Cape Town 4 January; married (one daughter); died London 15 June 2009.