First published in The Times, Thursday August 16 2018
It was the year that England won the World Cup and swinging London became known as the centre of pop culture. Yet for several months in 1966 John Berger, the iconoclastic writer and cultural critic, opted for a quiet life in the Forest of Dean, documenting the work of a rural GP.
The resulting book, which wove together Berger’s detailed, lyrical observations with stark photography by Jean Mohr, remains a key text for those embarking on a career in medicine. The enduring appeal of A Fortunate Man is intriguing, not least because the range of practice it describes, from kitchen-table operations to person-centred counselling sessions, is unrecognisable from today’s experience of visiting the GP.
Pic: Julian Hughes
In the 70th year of the NHS, the book is ripe for re-examination, and the figure of Dr John Sassall makes for a poignant focal point for this multifaceted piece from New Perspectives, staged by the writer and artist Michael Pinchbeck.
Presented as a lecture with slides by the performers Matthew Brown and Hayley Doherty, alongside dramatic passages and verbatim accounts from contemporary medics, the show goes some way in explaining why the dedicated Sassall (a pseudonym) should have fascinated Berger and Mohr and later generations of doctors. Recreations of Sassall’s interactions with patients reveal a man who really cared, almost to the point of obsession.
Pic: Julian Hughes
The piece is moving and understated if a little too illustrative of the book rather than uncompromisingly theatrical. Sassall’s eventual fate (he committed suicide in 1981) shed a different light on Berger’s observation that the Gloucestershire landscape was “less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.” Pinchbeck and his company attempt to look again at the good doctor in light of this tragic postscript but their subject remains somewhat elusive.