Surgeon's healthy cynicism fascinating

Tomorrow morning, semi-retired neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, author of the best-selling Do No Harm, sits down for a one-on-one chat with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. On the basis of his book festival event, it should be an interesting meeting.

Henry Marsh wants an admission something needs to be done. Picture: Contributed
Henry Marsh wants an admission something needs to be done. Picture: Contributed

NHS spending in England, he said, has slumped from 8-9 per cent of GDP under Labour to 6 per cent now, and the country has proportionately fewer doctors than anywhere in Europe apart from Bulgaria and Romania.

All Marsh wants, he said, is an admission that something needs to be done; instead, “It’s all about ­better management systems, reforms – basically, smoke and mirrors.” A hypothecated health tax is one possibility, ­ending ­no-fault liability ­(­litigation costs 40 per cent of the ­annual NHS ­budget) another. A Royal ­Commission on how we fund health care would, he said, to applause, make a lot of sense.

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One never felt that Marsh was on a ­soapbox, merely answering questions and incapable, as he is in his writing, of being ­anything other than ­honest. The focus of the event was more ­personal: how it feels to ­operate on a tumour that is hard to tell from the brain itself; to be a father whose own son had to have a brain tumour removed as an infant; his fear of becoming too detached from his patients and ­losing a sense of compassion at the same time as not being ­overwhelmed by the amount of human tragedy washing up on his operating table. ­Fascinating man, fascinating event.

But then again, you could say the same about the one launching John Lister-Kaye’s excellent memoir The Dun Cow Rib.

If you ever wondered how he became Scotland’s foremost nature writer, it’s all here, from the wild childhood (not drink and drugs but exploring the local woods and egg-collecting) to being invited to the Highlands by Gavin Maxwell. My favourite story from Lister-Kaye’s privileged, if often ­solitary, childhood, was when, on being expelled from his ­pre-prep school for ­cutting tail feathers off the headmaster’s ­peacocks (a shilling each on the ­seven-year-olds’ black ­market) he was moved to a local ­Somerset village school.

One day a barn owl flew over the playground. “Look, a f***ing owl!” shouted his new classmates. He thought it must be the local name. When the vicar asked him how he was settling in, he told him: “Fine. This afternoon I saw a f***ing owl!” and couldn’t understand why he was ordered to wash his mouth out with soap.