A lone doctor hares down a country lane in his Land Rover, his thumb jammed on the horn to warn the oncoming traffic that he’s not stopping. A woodman’s been pinned to the ground on a remote hillside by a falling tree and every second counts. Even at the start of A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967), we are given an inkling of what makes Dr Sassall an exceptional GP. He had his thumb on the horn partly, he explains, so that the man under the tree might hear it and know he is on his way. Dr Sassall understands that even when the immediate danger is physical, his patients need him to keep their minds in mind. A good doctor treats the whole of his patient, not just his wounds.
We’re in Gloucestershire, in the Forest of Dean in the 1960s, and John Berger has spent three months shadowing his remarkable friend the local GP night and day, to paint a portrait of his life. He has also recruited the Swiss documentary photographer Jean Mohr to take photographs to accompany the text. The grainy black-and-white images start by capturing the landscape against which the human drama is set, or behind which it hides. As the book progresses, they focus in – the doctor in his tweed jacket, with tie and pipe, or shirt sleeves rolled up to perform some minor surgery; his patients, sometimes looking him in the eye and hanging on his words, sometimes sitting alongside him as they spill their woes. And the community – debating, dancing, drinking.
Berger sets the scene with six vignettes. This is an impoverished area of rural England, where few people own passports and not all have ventured as far as London. ‘The windows were overgrown with thick ivy and since there was no plaster ceiling and holes in the rafters, the room scarcely seemed geometric and was more like a hide in a wood.’ It’s Cider with Rosie country a generation or so later. There’s an isolated feel to the people – their cottages are miles along a single trac
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