Jeremy Laurance: The brilliant medical career this novelist never had

Related Topics

What sort of doctor would J G Ballard have made? The idea of the author of Crash, his novel about the erotic potential of car accidents, providing medical care to the survivors is distinctly surreal.

He went up to Cambridge in 1949 to study medicine and described his two years in the dissecting room as "among the most important of my life and helped to frame a large part of my imagination."

One of his great themes was indifference – shown by the wealthy in pre-war Shanghai to the poor, by the Japanese prison guards in Lunghua detention camp to the inmates (of whom he was one), and by nations to each other (the holocaust, nuclear war)

What is it that enables people to touch each other emotionally, and, conversely, to be indifferent to that touch – whether in the dissecting room, where, like all nascent doctors, he had to neutralise his emotional response, or at the shocking death of his wife on a family holiday in the 1960s, or at the violence presented as entertainment in the late 20th century?

He wanted to be a psychiatrist and declared his first patient would be himself. Instead, after two years exploring anatomy, he gave it up to become a novelist. "In many ways my entire fiction is the exploration of a deep pathology I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world," he wrote.

My guess is he would have made, like Freud, a lousy doctor but a first class thinker, had his imagination been harnessed to a scientific task. Instead the world got a brilliant, humane novelist whose books have provided the consolations of which psychiatry can only dream.

Indifference was also the subject of a remarkable disciplinary case heard by the Nursing and Midwifery Council last week. In a decision that has caused outrage, Margaret Heywood, 58, a nurse with 20 years experience, was struck off the register for secretly filming patients on a hospital ward for a BBC Panorama programme.

The issue she was keen to expose – successfully, as it turned out – was the appalling indifference shown by the hospital's management to elderly patients left crying for help or in pain. But the disciplinary panel that heard her case considered her own indifference to the rules on confidentiality that govern her profession was the greater sin.

Linda Reid, chair of the panel, must have had an uncomfortable weekend after learning of the reaction to the decision over which she presided. Senior members of the profession wrote to protest and the Royal College of Nursing has launched a petition in support of Ms Heywood.

No one is arguing with the verdict – Ms Heywood admitted her guilt in respect of the breach of confidentiality. But the sentence – removal from the register, effectively ending her career – is widely seen as disproportionate. The irony is that none of the managers responsible for the neglect have been disciplined. Instead, Ms Heywood has taken the rap. The panel has been transfixed by one kind of indifference while neglecting another, far graver kind.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...


Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?