Conventional medicine could not beat the power of the pelican

I have always loved pelicans, and consider them, at any time, the best company you will find in Australia
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The Independent Online

So we are going to get a complementary and alternative medical council to save us from rogue reflexologists and itchy- fingered acupuncturists and the like. I have two attitudes to this. I am pleased and I am not.

So we are going to get a complementary and alternative medical council to save us from rogue reflexologists and itchy- fingered acupuncturists and the like. I have two attitudes to this. I am pleased and I am not.

There is an argument for governmental meddling in the irrational, for bringing reason to bear where we have chosen to succumb to magic, but I would prefer that we began with literature and film, both given over almost entirely now to what we might call a complementary or alternative understanding of the human intelligence - man's spirit in thrall to witches, wizards, hobbits and hobgoblins, a sort of aroma-herbalism of the mind. How this would be policed I have no idea, but the General Medical Council is a good model, striking off anyone found guilty of malpractice. Thus, you may keep the Oscar but are never allowed to make another film.

Expressing concern about the indignities to which we subject our bodies is an altogether softer option; though here again I accept the case for intervention. Not least in the light of my own experiences of the twilit world of Tolkienian care.

It begins, my story, with a fall. I was selling handbags on Cambridge market as a way of complementing my other career marking student essays for 15 shillings a page, that to include at least one crossing-out per sentence or per thought, critical commentary of the root-and-branch dismissive sort, and heated face-to-face discussion, usually at my market stall. It was after one such session that I fell down the steps to the gentlemen's lavatory in Cambridge market, a particularly nasty tumble on account of the steps being concrete edged with Kryptonite, and because the skinhead behind me (who happened to be the student whose essay I had just interred) decided to go into a slide at exactly the same moment, the difference being that whereas I cushioned his fall, his Doc Martens exacerbated mine. All men will point to one event that triggered the weakness in their lower back - though in truth we are simply ill-designed - and this was mine. Thereafter, though otherwise hale, I was subject to sudden seizures, unannounced muscle spasms which made it impossible for me to move from the position I was in, without sensitive assistance.

Let other pens dwell on the embarrassments incidental to this condition. The cruellest part was realising that conventional medicine could do nothing for me, short of an aspirin and the name of a good corset shop. It was while I was travelling in Australia, driving the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne, that I had recourse to medicine of the other sort. Bringing my car to a halt by the water in Bateman's Bay, I opened the door and discovered I was unable to move my torso. Only by inclining my head in the direction I wanted to leave by, and starting the car in second gear, was I able at last to shake myself out on to what Australians call a nature-strip. There I lay, looking at the sky, trying to work my legs, when I beheld a pelican.

Now I have always loved pelicans, and consider them, at any time, the best company you will find in Australia. But to have one standing over me in these circumstances was truly providential. In medieval theology the pelican was held to be possessed of mystical properties, figuring in art as a symbol of Christ's compassion. And I was in need of some of that today. Little by little, as the pelican's benign yellow gaze met mine, feeling returned to my back. In 10 minutes I was upright and ready to resume my drive. Only then, with the merest nod of its head, did the bird begin its magniloquently lumbering take-off and leave me.

In the next small town, though, my back went again, and this time there was not a pelican in sight. A passer-by pointed the way to the only medical practitioner for a hundred miles, and helped to spill me into his surgery.

He was an osteopath, German, in his 80s, still strong, and very pleased to see me. "Name?" he asked. "Age? Religion?" I wondered what relevance my religion had to my injury. He shrugged. "Jacobson will do to be going on with," he said. Something gave me the impression he had been awaiting my arrival these past 50 years.

To cut a long story short - and I choose the surgical metaphor advisedly - he persuaded me to submit to a pre-war X-ray machine he kept in his cellar, the upshot of which being that in his judgement I had one leg shorter than the other, that I had always had one leg shorter than the other, that the reason I had taken so bad a fall in Cambridge market was that I had one leg shorter than the other, and that he was willing, not to say eager, to perform the necessary operation to make my legs equal the minute I gave him the go-ahead.

It does not fall to every writer to be able to appeal to visual evidence in such a case. Only cast your eye left, reader, and tell me whether you think I have one leg shorter, or even one leg longer, than the other. I believe I do not flatter myself. Other blemishes notwithstanding, I believe I am roughly even, not to say symmetrical, of leg.

How I escaped the wretch's clutches I do not know. I was still half paralysed, unseeing and bent double, like Richard III, Blind Pew, Daniel Quilp and Quasimodo rolled into one. But desperation drove me on. I hurled myself into the car and never stopped until I got to Melbourne.

Did I mention the osteopath's name? Mengele. Dr Josef Mengele. I know, I should have taken note of that earlier. But you don't when you are in pain. This is why we need a regulatory body.

On the other hand, I wouldn't want anyone not to try a pelican once in a while.

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