Lots of people might be seeking out comfort reads in these strange times, but it seems that I am not one of them. Anyone with anxieties about hospitals, lockdown or politics probably won’t want to look at the books I have been reading recently which include a novel set in a hospital, diaries written by a prisoner at HMP Wandsworth and a survey of modern UK Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Theresa May. On the plus side, all three books contain a fair amount of dark humour.
Bodies by Jed Mercurio is the 2002 novel which forms the basis of the BBC TV drama of the same name which aired from 2004-06 about whistleblowing in hospitals. Best known for creating the TV series Line of Duty and Bodyguard, Mercurio trained as a junior doctor in Birmingham and his knowledge and experience is evident in a grimly realistic account of frontline healthcare. It is clear that his debut novel was very much an early blueprint for the TV series which, in my view, is far more developed in terms of plot and characterisation, both of which are only lightly sketched in the novel. The TV series is set in an obstetrics and gynaecology department with junior doctor Rob Lake suspecting that consultant Roger Hurley is negligent towards his patients. The novel shares the same central theme of whistleblowing and sees an unnamed newly qualified house officer fresh out of medical school starting work in an accident and emergency department. He makes mistakes resulting in injury and death, as do his colleagues, and the central dilemma is neatly summarised towards the end: “Whether as doctors we make an honest mistake or we commit a huge clanging act of incompetence, the system treats us the same” (p. 329). The unnamed protagonist becomes detached and disillusioned as the boundaries between right and wrong become increasingly blurred. I wasn’t sure the dramatic tension on screen would be as effective in the book but I would say both are equally stressful with plenty of black humour and cynicism thrown in for good measure. ‘Bodies’ is engaging and pacy but definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The Secret Barrister showed how the criminal justice system is broken and A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins could be a companion piece about the current state of prisons in the UK with its chronic staff shortages and high reoffending rates. It is an account of the nine months Atkins served in HMP Wandsworth, a Category B prison in south London, at the beginning of his five-year sentence for tax fraud offences. Built in the 1850s, Wandsworth is one of the largest prisons in Europe and well known for its overcrowding problems. As an Oxford-educated documentary-maker, Atkins recognises that his advantages in life meant he was able to secure more privileges in prison, climbing the hierarchical system to move to a Category C wing alongside other “white collar” prisoners. While it’s fair to say that his experience is not a typical one, he trained as a Listener to provide emotional support to other prisoners which brought him into contact with more vulnerable inmates and their stories offer insight into the huge levels of mental illness and illiteracy among the general population at Wandsworth.
Atkins makes strong arguments in favour of serious reforms by focusing on the most absurd and dysfunctional aspects of the Kafkaesque system where it is easier for prisoners to obtain spice or a mobile phone than it is to get paracetamol and teetotal Muslims join AA courses in order to get more time out of their cells. Highly recommended for fans of The Secret Barrister.
The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May by Steve Richards examines the UK Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Theresa May and is based on a series of unscripted lectures the author delivered on BBC Parliament. The format of ‘The Prime Ministers’ allows Richards to offer broader analysis without the extra layers of detail found in 600-page biographies of individual political figures which the general reader can usually do without. Richards makes astute observations about the curious paradox of a presidential culture in a party-based system and he draws interesting parallels between the leadership styles, experiences and traits of the modern Prime Ministers. In chapter-length portraits, he is fair about their strengths and weaknesses as leaders, acknowledging how both good and bad luck has played its part too. He notes that all leaders have to set out policies and strategic positions but very few are good at explaining why, with Thatcher being a rare exception. It is also clear that the origins of a leader’s rise are ultimately what lead to their downfall, particularly in the cases of Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, while both David Cameron and Theresa May failed to deal with their party’s divisions on Europe at the beginning of their leadership which is when they were in the strongest position to address them. This is an insightful book with excellent comparative analysis.