Miles Kington: Stand-up surgeons and other compensatory activities

'Paediatricians are mostly quiet, tranquil people. Surgeons, on the other hand, tend to roar around on motorbikes and make a lot of noise'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I mentioned yesterday that there is a new exhibition in St Petersburg in honour of the contributions to lepidoptery by Vladimir Nabokov. Nothing wrong with that. If a man takes time off from his novels to study butterflies, and make his mark in the field, we should honour him for it.

What worried me was that Mr Sokolenko, the organiser of the exhibition, aims to show how Nabokov's writing techniques were informed by his scientific studies, and that his meticulous prose style could only have come from a scientifically trained mind.

This worries me, not because I know enough about either Nabokov or butterfly study to disagree, but because it goes absolutely counter to one of my own pet theories, and hell hath no foot-stamping like that of a man whose favourite theory has been gone absolutely counter to. Briefly, I tend to think that when a man has two activities, one tends to be the reverse image of the other, rather than go along with it. My evidence for this is totally anecdotal.

I think it started to form in my mind when I once met a naval officer who was about to retire, and whose main ambition was to paint miniature pictures of wild flowers.

"My idea of bliss," he said, "is to find a sunny spot on a hillside and position myself about two feet from some choice wild flower, then get every detail down in watercolour."

"That is not what I would expect from a seafaring man," I said. "All those years in the wide open spaces, with the big horizons, and you suddenly want to go all miniature?"

"That's why, don't you see!" he said. "I've spent far too much time surrounded by a grey mass of nothingness. What I want now is tiny details in a tiny space."

Later, when I was a member of Instant Sunshine, this was reinforced by a conversation about career patterns I had with the three distinguished doctors who had formed that group. One of them said that you could very often tell what branch of medicine a student was going into, merely from his personality.

"Paediatricians are mostly very quiet, quite tranquil people," he said. "Surgeons, on the other hand, tend to roar around on motor bicycles and make a lot of noise."

The others nodded.

"And if someone has personal problems, he'll be going into psychiatry," added one of them.

"I don't understand the loud noisy surgeon bit," I said. "Surgeons have to be so precise and controlled, don't they?"

"That's why!" they told me. "After six hours bent over a body cavity, being very careful, all you want to do is jump on a motor bike and be very noisy."

It was the naval officer and the wild flowers all over again. If you spend half your life doing something very fiddly, the temptation is not necessarily to spend the other half being equally fussy; it is to put on old clothes and make a mess. Men on holiday who you spy building sandcastles on the beach are more likely to be accountants and librarians than builders and road-menders. A farmer does not go home after work and do some gardening. A boxer does not spend his spare time getting in fights.

(Michael Parkinson once told Henry Cooper that he supposed boxing skills would useful if he ever got in a pub fight or a brawl. Cooper looked at him with kind scorn. "A boxer doesn't get into fights," he said. "It's his job. Why on earth would I want to fight if I wasn't getting paid for it?")

And that, after all, must be why the three doctors formed a comedy musical group in the first place. All day long doctors are serious, and caring, and responsible, and devoted, so when it comes to time off, what many of them most want to do is loon around and be silly. Think of all those doctors who went into comedy. Jonathan Miller, Graham Chapman, Graeme Garden, Beetles and Buckman, Harry Hill, etc, etc...

Mr Kington's Theory of Compensatory Activities will shortly be aired more fully in his forthcoming magnum opus: "Why the Alice books were written by a mathematician", or "Learn to write like D H Lawrence, not paint like him".