Some Lives Not Done Justice

Issue section: 
(293)

Review of 'Confronting an Ill Society', Patrick Hutt with Iona Heath and Roger Neighbour, Radcliffe £19.95

David Widgery, the subject of this biography, was a socialist GP working in Tower Hamlets, east London. In addition to his day job he was instrumental in setting up Rock Against Racism in the 1970s, and was a campaigner who marched to free the Pentonville Five dockers, defended the NHS and supported the Hackney Empire theatre.

I knew Dave as a comrade first, and later as a colleague in Tower Hamlets. I now work in his old practice - where he worked until his death in 1992 - and was very interested and excited about reading this book. Work colleagues and friends tried to snatch it out of my grasp - everyone wanted to read a book about Dave, and the way that he questioned and inspired people.

Patrick Hutt is a young doctor who read about Widgery and says he was greatly inspired by him. His aim in writing the book is to tackle the difficult issues surrounding doctors' roles, including whether they should embrace or ignore the social causes of illness. In searching for answers to this question Hutt sets out to address a plethora of questions. How can we encourage a more collective outlook on the health problems that ultimately affect everyone? Is healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery, outdated or underrated? How can doctors be happier?

The book has an unusual format, and starts like a play with a list of 'characters'. The reader then listens to a conversation between Iona Heath and Roger Neighbour about doctors' role and doctors as heroes. Hutt's narrative then explains why he came to write the book, then moves on to Widgery and his life, ideas, friendships and political campaigning.

The theme of reader as voyeur continues throughout the book, as Hutt recounts tales of friends and events in Widgery's life. I felt decidedly uncomfortable through much of this, and feel that much of it would be better not written. I could see no relevance to Hutt's list of questions.

The book intends to question the way things are, so I was happy to go along with the unusual structure, and the tendency to leap backwards and forwards from one topic and decade to another. But after a while this became tedious, especially when some of the more routine aspects of general practice, such as hitting government targets for cytology screening, were repeated a third time.

Towards the end of the book Hutt does a 'what if...' looking at what Widgery would have been like if he was alive today. I expected to read that he would have been with the rest of the practice, carrying our health centre banner on the stop the war demos, campaigning against attacks on pensions and arguing that asylum seekers are welcome here. Picture my surprise when I read the suggestion that he could have been a health adviser to the Blair government. The practice meetings where that would have been discussed would have been lively affairs!

Many of the young doctors who come to our practice have been inspired by Widgery's writing, especially his book Some Lives!. They are excited by his vision and language, and by his campaigning. They are also encouraged by the collective vision that has been so strong in Tower Hamlets general practice, whether demonstrated through the collective development of clinical services or through the anti-racist statement displayed by practices across the borough when the fascist BNP had its first councillor elected in the early 1990s.

Hutt's book raises a lot of big questions but, to my mind, gives no answers. Cut out the middle man and read Widgery himself - especially Some Lives! and Preserving Disorder.