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Posts by Beth Routledge

Secret Dogs

Once upon a time, a young doctor was going about her daily business on the ward when she became aware of a noise of an unusual nature coming from one of the side rooms. In that room was a person of whom it was thought unlikely that they would ever again leave the hospital, or see the friends they had left in the outside world. The doctor carried on with her business, but over the next little while she began to hear whispers of a rumour about these unusual sounds.

Eventually, her curiosity took her to the charge nurse.

“O Great Charge Nurse,” said the doctor doubtfully (for the rumour was ludicrous one). “Is it true there’s a dog in Room C?”

“Sssssssh,” she replied. “It’s a secret dog.” And: “It’s wearing a coat and hat.”

For the ward staff had sneaked in the dog, that it and its human might have one last chance to see each other.

And when some time later the doctor found herself having a conversation about therapy animals, she told this story to her new colleagues.

And her consultant said: “Do you know, Beth, I think that if ever I’d heard a story about a secret dog in a hospital dressed in a hat and coat anyway, I wouldn’t actually be surprised to hear that you were somehow involved.”

Answering A White Space Question

At choir practice this week I was minding my own business (and in a very annual leave sort of headspace) when I was asked about white space questions and the Foundation Programme.

And do you know, I was so flustered by being asked that I couldn’t remember what any of my white space questions had been. It is three years ago this week since I applied for my first proper job as a doctor, and those three years feel like a lifetime and then some. Besides, I thought that my FY1 cohort had been the last to do white space questions and that after that they had gone the way of the Dodo and cassette tapes.

A little digging reveals that for the main intake of FY1s, white space questions have indeed gone and have been replaced by something called the Situational Judgement Test – a national multiple-choice exam of professionalism and common sense about which I can offer no advice whatsoever, having sat the pilot exam in 2012 and still been able to make neither heads nor tails of the thing. However, a little further digging reveals that the white space questions still very much form part of the assessment for those applying to the academic Foundation Programme.

A white space question, for the uninitiated, looks something like this (two real examples from 2011/12):

Two essential attributes of a foundation doctor are to deal effectively with challenge and to demonstrate initiative. Describe a clinical case in which you have been involved and use this example to demonstrate how you possess both of these qualities. How will you apply what you have learned from this experience to your work as a foundation doctor?

An understanding of appropriate professional behaviour is an essential requirement for a foundation doctor. You are a foundation doctor based on a busy medical ward. You are reviewing a patient for discharge when your bleep goes off. You excuse yourself to answer your bleep and return to find the patient reading your list of tasks that you have left on the bed. This includes patient names and diagnoses. What would your initial response be? What factors contribute to the pressure of the situation and how would you prioritise further actions? How may this scenario inform your professional behaviour as a foundation doctor?

As you can see, the questions come in two basic forms: the kind that poses a hypothetical scenario for you to answer some questions about, and the kind that asks you to use actual scenarios from your own experience to illustrate an answer to the question(s) that they have asked. Now, I haven’t seen the 2014/15 questions for the AFP and I wouldn’t offer any specific advice even if I had. But let me offer a few bits of general advice:

  • Answer the question.
  • Answer the whole question. You will see that in the two examples I’ve given, each one is actually asking three questions.
  • Focus. The word limit is (still, I think) 200 words per question. This is practically nothing.
  • A well structured answer is shorter to write, easier to read, and demonstrates organised thinking.
  • If you are asked to describe a clinical case that you have been involved in, there are no points for choosing an interesting case. The prudent thing to do is to choose a case that you can then use to effectively answer the rest of the questions. This might be a comparatively dull case, and that’s OK. (My worst score was on that first question, when I got fixated on an interesting thing that happened on my elective and then couldn’t really apply it to FY1.)
  • Officially, there are no buzzwords. Unofficially, you’ll not go far wrong with Good Medical Practice and particularly the GMC’s Duties of a Doctor.
  • If you are given a hypothetical case which is based on some kind of wrongdoing on your part, do at least three things: apologise, admit your wrongdoing, and tell your senior. And then apologise again. In some cases, you should also speak to your defence union.
  • If you are given a hypothetical case in which a patient could be said to have done something wrong, like reading your jobs list or even like refusing to take their medications, do not under any circumstances berate the patient. (I wish that wasn’t based on things I’ve seen actual people write.)
  • Get at least one proof-reader. By the end, you’ll have stared at the thing for so long that you could be reading the St Crispin’s Day speech for all the mistakes you’ll be able to identify.

On Holy Ground

In some parts of the Christian church, there is a tradition of welcoming a person into their church on the night before their funeral is held. It is a short and meditative and very lovely service, and it is a time for them to be with the people who knew and loved them best before all the clamour and intensity of the next day. And afterwards, they remain in the sanctuary, safe and sleeping in the company of God and all His angels.

At the end of one such service, the person’s granddaughter told us how much the church had meant to her grandparent and how pleased she was that they would be able to spend this time in this place that they had loved. I thought that that sentiment expressed a great deal of what we might hope a church can be.

There are occasions in the life of the Church when we are told to remember that we stand on holy ground.

Last night at Evensong, I sat down in an old and well beloved building. I listened to the old stories of Michael and of Moses. I heard the familiar song of Mary. I let the cadence of the words wash over me. As the sun set on a weekend of which the best that might be said of it is that my grumpiness was not without just cause, I became aware of the angels carrying away my troubles.

I wonder what we mean when we remind ourselves that we stand on holy ground.

I think that very (too) often it is meant as a way to tell us that this is a place of “don’t”: don’t touch that, don’t run, don’t bring that person here, don’t ask awkward questions, don’t let children talk too loud, don’t laugh, don’t argue, don’t make a spectacle of yourself.


Nick Page writes an evocative passage about a visitor to Jerusalem emerging from the Lower City into the light and noise of the Temple Mount. About the livestock market and the business deals and the purification places and the chanting and singing and the lively discussions about the finer points of law. A place where all life is to be found.

In that is an idea that I recognise more in the church than the idea of “don’t”.

It is a place where all life is to be found.

Yesterday, as a song was sung about a dragon that once was slain, I found myself thinking about the life that is to be found in this church.

It is a place where I have ceilidhed the night away.

And spirited away six glasses and a bottle of fizz to the sacristy.

And dripped ice cream on the tile.

And cooked sausages on the dying embers of holy fires.

It is a place where I’ve thuribled backwards amid a shower of rose petals.

Where I’ve smiled.

And giggled.

And mourned.

To this holy ground we have welcomed a man who was arrested in Canterbury Cathedral and a bishop who was shunned by the Lambeth Conference.

And a rooster.

And a cat who I had to retrieve from beneath the feet of an organist.

Right in the middle of the sanctuary, we have held AGMs.

And debates and votes and elections and a Parliamentary hustings.

I’ve sat cross-legged on the floor at the high altar wearing rainbow-striped socks and no shoes, and getting silver polish all over everything.

I’ve washed feet and spilled Radox on the floor.

And spilled wax on the floor.

Once, I nearly set the sacristy carpet on fire in the middle of a service.

(It’s a wonder they ever let me back.)

We are the home of musicians and knitters and Tai-Chi and Alcoholics Anonymous.

And, originally, of the LGBT Switchboard.

I’ve had arguments there.

And had my feelings hurt and I’m sure hurt the feelings of others in return.

And loved and I know been loved in return.

I’ve been there in ecstasy and in anger and in joy and in grief, and even when I’ve thought that I’m maybe not quite feeling it.

I’ve been there in the darkness before dawn.

And in the darkness after midnight.

And in the light of day.

It has seen births.

And covenants.

And deaths.

And a resurrection.

A church is not polite society. It isn’t Granny’s front room, where you can’t eat anything sticky or talk about politics or get your shoes on the furniture. For me, it is a place that is loved and lived in and worked in, a little bit battered around the corners, and maybe best described by the Maori idea of turangawaewae: an old word that means our places of being and our places of belonging, the places where we feel empowered and the places that we are connected to, a place of home.

It is the place where we meet Jesus – a Jesus who was fully human and who himself experienced all the wonderful terrible mixed-up spectrum that comes with just being a person. It is where he demands nothing of us other than that we be wholly ourselves, with no masks and no pretences and no need to be someone or feel something that we’re not. It is where we bring the best of us and the worst of us and all the ordinary stuff in the middle too.

Perhaps it isn’t really a wonder that I’m allowed back.

So when you stand on holy ground, remember that. It isn’t an exhortation to mind your company manners, or to keep your shoes off the furniture, or to tie yourself in knots being diplomatic. It isn’t a place where you can do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing or be thought not good enough. It is a place where in the safety of God and all His angels and in the company of the one who knows us best, we can find all of life and call it home.


I got home from work last night and took my knee out for a two mile test run along the river path. The first time I’d had my running shoes on since the Great North Run. It was a gorgeous evening for it and I arrived back at my front door without having crippled myself, which I think is always a good place to start.

And this is what’s next:

brighton registration

I am quite quite mad. Of my madness I have no doubt, but then I never have had any about that.

I registered for the 2015 Brighton Marathon about five months ago and told three people, and decided that I could bottle out of it if the Great North Run did not go according to plan. It was never about getting a specific time or running a perfect race. It was about the fact that if I got to autumn and hadn’t found the time or the motivation to train properly for a half-marathon, it was unrealistic to think that I’d have either of those things for a full marathon. As the start line of that race drew nearer and my miles started to add up, I started to tell a few more people of what I was planning for the spring. And the position I find myself in now is that while the Great North Run did not go according to plan, most of the training for it did and so there will be no bottling out.

It is four years since I ran my first half marathon (when I was a medical student with lies-in and free time and all that jazz). I’m excited to find out what my legs will do when they go beyond thirteen miles.

I have chosen not to run this time for charity. (This is both why I registered so stupidly early and why I wasn’t tempted to try for London.) I’ve been trying to find a less pretentious thing to call this than self-actualisation, but that’s what Maslow would call it. It’s always that, on some level, and that won’t stop me fundraising for the Great North Run next year. But this one is very much for me and for the achievement of a fairly long held was-really-meant-to-be-a-pipe-dream type of dream. It would feel a little weird to try to fundraise for that. I feel that it also gives me a little extra allowance to bore social media with my training woes without feeling so terribly mercenary.

I am also doing it as a bit of a birthday present to myself. I have been told at this point by many people that this is really very mad, more than is normal, but the week between Easter Sunday and Marathon Day will be the occasion of my becoming A Little Bit Old. I am really looking forward to marking my thirtieth birthday with a really long run along Brighton seafront.

In Order To Form A More Perfect Union

The polls in the referendum on Scottish independence open in twelve and a half hours, and I will be at my polling station to vote No.

It has not been a simple decision, and over the last few weeks I have swithered from Definitely No to Undecided to Very Nearly Yes and back to No. I probably owe flowers to the poor pollster from Ipsos-Mori who got paragraph long answers to tick-box questions as I tried to work through my own confusion at her. As a concept, independence is not without its charms. To live in a socialist utopia like the one that I believe an independent Scotland could become? I want that. But what I want more is to be a part of building that utopia for everyone.

I love Scotland. I love her people and her mountains and her towns and her culture. I’ve walked the cobbled streets of Edinburgh and run through the green spaces in Dundee and driven the banks of the Clyde estuary. I’ve stood at the very edge of the Western Isles with nothing between me and North America. I have now worked in every hospital in Scotland west of Stirling, except Oban. And I love Glasgow, too, this beautiful broken city, this dear green place that welcomed me with open arms and that I am now privileged to call home.

“Where are you from?” I am asked.

“Glasgow,” I say promptly. And then there’s a confused silence and then I catch up: “Oh, you mean where did I grow up.”

I dare anyone to tell me that my No vote means that I love this country less than someone who is voting Yes.

I want the utopia. But do I want to abandon Wales and Northern Ireland and the North of England to the right-wing rule of the South East? I don’t want that. Or to share a border with the country that England without the moderating influence of Scotland would almost doubtless become? I don’t want that either. And on a globe that is not shrinking but growing, why in any case would I want to erect any new borders? We vote in this referendum at the end of a summer during which the world has seemed more fragile and yet more bound together than it ever has been. It’s a time to start breaking down barriers, and I’m more interested in world-building than nation-building.

Perhaps we could do wonderful things in an independent Scotland. But perhaps we can also do wonderful things in the United Kingdom as a Scottish nation in which the landscape of political engagement will never again be the same.

Race Report: Great North Run 2014 (I Am Made Of Every Stranger Who Cheered My Name)

Now, get a cup of tea and settle in, because this is a long one (and it comes with a soundtrack).


There was only one word to describe the North East this weekend:


I didn’t think, after nearly a month of distinctly autumnal temperatures, that the thing I’d regret standing on the start line of the Great North Run was that I’d not brought sunscreen. By the afternoon, I had a burnt nose and a tan line where my shorts stopped.

This year would mark the millionth person to cross the finish line at the Great North Run. It is a landmark in mass participation distance running, and it is the first race ever to reach it – long before the same landmark will be reached for the marathons in London and New York. I have to wonder what it must have been like to be Brendan Foster today, to look at what happened in South Shields this afternoon and think: I did that.

I’d had better training and better race prep than when I’d last had a crack at this one in 2012, a month into FY1. I had gone nine and a half miles in a shade under two hours on my last long run ten days beforehand, and I was still upright at the end of that. I had tapered, sort of. I had remembered my running shoes. I had packed porridge, because one never quite knows with England and one especially never quite knows in my mum’s kitchen. I did not severely underestimate how long it would take me to find a baggage bus and then my start pen. The night before the night before, which people keep telling me is the one that counts, I had fallen off the train in Newcastle and I had slept well.

The only potential issue I had was that, a few weeks before, in the middle of a long run, I had had a bit of a niggle in my IT band and it had lingered for a few days. I had trouble with my left IT band years ago and I am distressingly familiar with what it feels like, but this was on the right side where I have never before had so much as a whimper. But it seemed to have settled itself down with a bit of taping and rolling and ice, and I re-taped it on Sunday morning just to be sure.

My plan was to walk only the water stations, to lock onto a 12 minute mile pace and stick with it, and to hope that those things together would get me to the sea in 2:36-ish. That would have been a big PB. (My half-marathon PB is 2:53:52, set at this race in 2012.)


On Sunday, race morning dawned bright and clear and with just a bit of a bite in the air. It was perfect. “If only it doesn’t get too much hotter than this, this is amazing,” I said. I’d be eating those words by the time the start gun went off – by that time, it was so warm I had already ditched the cheap fleece I’d bought the previous day for start line chucking away in favour of standing about in shorts and a vest. My mum and I walked up Claremont Road, soaking in the sunshine and the buzz as I got last minute water and slathered Vaseline across all my moving parts and found my baggage bus, and then we parted ways, me to head off to the start line and her to stand on the bridge for the start before she began the hike to South Shields by public transport.

It seemed like no time at all before Seb Coe fired the gun and Local Hero swept across the crowd. I cried, and I cried all over again when I watched it back on TV later that evening.

(“Oh, but you do cry at things like that, Beth,” said a friend at choir practice this week as I told the story. It’s like they know me.)

It took about forty minutes for my pen to get to the front. The wait included the Red Arrows doing their flypast. There is no sight in the world quite like that one. It is one of the memories of my childhood, watching them on television on the day of the Great North Run – a thing that I, uncoordinated and asthmatic and doing well in everything at school except PE, would never have even entertained the idea of doing, but here I was doing it for the second time, and let me tell you, television’s got nothing on real life. A few minutes later, I was across the start line. I hit my Garmin and started running, and out of the speakers came Lindisfarne singing Run For Home.

“Run for South Shields,” I thought.

The first three miles ticked by quite nicely. They have the high points of the tunnels under the Central Motorway where endless streams of runners shout, “OGGY OGGY OGGY” and then the Tyne Bridge, and after that you’re into Gateshead. I was feeling the heat (so was everyone), but my only real complaint was my sloshing bladder. I couldn’t think beyond the three mile point, where I knew there would be a toilet – one toilet and a queue of about fifteen runners. I would later discover that there were more toilets about two hundred yards up the road, but I didn’t have time to find that out and I wasn’t up for waiting in the queue. I went for the nearest tree and was followed by four more people who seemed to think I had the right idea. I hit three miles at 34 minutes on my Garmin and then didn’t get to the 5K chip mat until 38:20, which will have been the toilet stop.

Relieved, I carried on. The stop had somehow made me aware of just how hot it was and I was glad when I saw the sign for a water station 100 yards ahead. I decided to hang onto my water until my Garmin beeped for 3.5 miles, and that I’d have a little walk while I drank it. When I started running again, my IT band went twang. It wasn’t enough then to make me stop, but I think I knew then that I was in for a long day.

I took Lucozade at the feed station just before five miles. I had misgivings about taking it, I hadn’t trained with sports drink and the mantra of nothing new on race day was ringing in my head. But I was working hard and sweating badly, and I had taken on a lot of water at the start line and more since then and I was going to be taking on more at every single water station, and I needed to replace electrolytes somehow. I took half a bottle, and that plus the decision to take more at the next feed station would turn out to be the smartest decisions I made all day. I was the only one (so far as I knew) experiencing what felt like really awful toothache in my knee, but the heat was getting to everyone and all around people were being taken into medical tents. St John’s Ambulance were worked very hard on Sunday and they were magnificent.

It was turning into the kind of race that, any other day and any other race, I’d have thrown the towel in at six miles. But you don’t do that at the Great North Run unless your leg actually falls off. If you can’t get round, that’s okay, because the wonderful wonderful people of the North East will drag you around.

Just before the Black Bull Junction, which is the high point of the course, I went past a woman who was standing alone on the right hand side of the road, most of the spectators being on the other side at that point. “Come on, Beth, you’re doing really well!” she shouted. “You can see the top of the hill now!” And I could and I got there, and soon after that, running when I could and walking when I couldn’t, to the sign on the dual carriageway marking the halfway point. ENJOY THE SECOND HALF! it said.

Apart from the 10K chip mat, which I crossed in 1:22:33, I have very little recollection of the third quarter. I vaguely remember that there are a lot more uphills in that section than there seem to be on the elevation profile. I think it might have been here that I overtook Tony The Fridge.

My next clear memory is of the roundabout just before 9 miles, which I walked around while having a bit of a chat to a man dressed in a very pink and very sequinned ball dress. I suspect I’m accidentally in a lot of peoples’ photos from that roundabout. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he told me. On the other side of that roundabout was the Boost Zone, with more Vaseline (which I didn’t need) and Queen singing Don’t Stop Me Now (which I did).

At the end of that, sitrep:

  • Knee: Shot.
  • Legs: Dead.
  • Tank: Empty.
  • Blisters (a new and unwelcome thing, developing from the biomechanical weirdnesses I was forcing on my body in an attempt to not actually scream at my knee): Oooh, boy.

But I hadn’t come all this way to quit now. I had less than four miles to go, and I knew by then that I would finish. Even if I had to walk it in (and I had no intention of doing that), I was going to finish.

I started running again. A childrens’ choir singing Let It Go acapella at the side of the road gave my legs a much needed boost and made my eyes suspiciously damp. This is the best road race in the world. I ran from 10.2 miles to 11 miles, which was the longest continuous running I’d managed for some time, and then walked with to Elvis for a little while. A mile and a half from the finish, I exchanged a high five for an orange slice from some kids by the side of the road and I started to run again. “You’re doing amazing,” I said to Elvis. “You aren’t doing so bad yourself,” he said. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Running, slowly and really quite painfully by now, I made it to the water station by the Marsden Rock and to the Scout leader manning it who shouted at me, “You’re nearly there, Beth, the sea’s just down that hill!” There is no sight in the world quite like the Red Arrows doing a Great North Run start line flypast, but even that sight isn’t so beautiful as the sight of the billboard just off that roundabout that proclaims: IT’S THE SEA.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 20.46.13I walked to 12 miles before I tried to pick it up again, and from there it was a little run and a little walk and a little run and a little walk and… well, you get the idea. The crowds on South Shields seafront are astonishing. I went past the Kidney Research UK cheering section, who cheered when they saw my shirt. I went past a woman who was on a one woman mission to personally scream to the end every runner who ran by her: “YES, YES, THAT’S IT, GO ON, BETH!” As the finish line came into sight, the millionth finisher, Tracey Cramond, who had been raising money for the Butterwick Hospice, was announced from the stage, and Chariots of Fire swelled through the speakers, bringing me home.

Because in my head I am an Olympian.

“You can’t cry,” I told myself. “No, really, you can’t cry. You need all the bloody oxygen you can get at this point.”

I all but fell across the finish line in 3:06:43 (chip time, my Garmin time rendered almost wholly irrelevant by the detour I took behind that tree at three miles). It wasn’t the race I had planned, but I am very proud of having finished it and I have never worked harder for a medal.

I was greeted at the Kidney Research UK tent by my aunt and a very welcome chair and the best cup of tea in the world and a physio with magic hands who proceeded to work my IT band loose enough for me to walk back to South Shields town centre and loose enough that three days later I can walk on it with only mild discomfort going down stairs. I have made the decision to not look at my running shoes this week. (I ran for the bus yesterday and that was far enough, thank you.) I may, possibly, if I feel like it, go for a very gentle swim at the weekend to try to shake everything loose. But, far from deciding that this was terrible and that I must never do it again, I had decided before I’d even bandaged my feet that I’ll be back next year and for Kidney Research UK again if they’ll have me.


My donations page is open until December, but thank you so much to all the people who donated. I was doing this for this charity for a very personal reason as well as for a shot at a fantastic event, and it means a great deal to me and to them.


Books Lovely Books

There is a thing going around social media at the moment about ten books that have stayed with you. I’ve been asked for mine now by a couple of different people (and it’s a much nicer thing to be hit up for than, f’rexample, throwing a bucket of ice water over one’s head).

I picked them quickly, as I was instructed to do so, and then I rambled a lot about them. Really, hands up anyone who’s surprised that I talk too much to keep this on Facebook? Nobody? Okay, then.


1. The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coehlo

Paulo Coehlo is better known for The Alchemist, but this slightly lesser known book is a novel with a worthwhile story and an interesting structure, meandering as it does among the point of view of its protagonist and the various characters who pass through her life, none of whom, including Anthea, have the whole story.

But actually it stays with me for one section, told in the voice of her Catholic priest shortly after Anthea has divorced her husband:

One day, all that will matter is love and Christ’s words: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I’ve devoted my entire life to the priesthood and I don’t regret my decision for one second. However, there are times, like that Sunday, when, although I didn’t doubt my faith, I did doubt men.

I like to imagine that, when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms, asking him to explain why she was being excluded just because of a piece of paper she’d signed, something of no importance on the spiritual plane, and which was of interest only to registry offices and the tax man. And, looking at Athena, Jesus might have replied: “My child, I’ve been excluded too. It’s a very long time since they’ve allowed me in there.”

2. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

I think that the Harry Potter phenomenon sometimes makes it easy to forget what these books were all about: about courage and friendship and loyalty; about that there are some things you can’t accomplish without ending up liking each other and that one of them is knocking out a twelve foot mountain troll; about all the people, Remus Lupin and Alastor Moody and George Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks and Cedric Diggory, all of them, who were honest and brave and true right to the very end; about unlikely heroes and people who can change; and about good and evil, and the victory of light over darkness and the shades of grey in the middle.


3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Saffran Foer

The story of a boy whose father was killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

I don’t know objectively how good of a book Extremely Loud is. My memory is that it’s a bit heavy-handed and mawkish in its sentimentality, and I’ve never been moved to re-read it to find out if I was right. But I read this in New York in the same week I saw for the first time the still-smoking crater of the World Trade Center and that’s the sort of thing that stays with you.


4. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

I have a friend who claims that my mother is Mrs Durrell, and the thing is that she’s probably right.

I am not allowed to read this in public. We read it in English lessons when I was in Year 8, and on many occasions the reading had to be paused while the class gazed, bewildered, as I screamed with laughter and wept tears of pure hilarity.

“Why keep in touch with them; that’s what I want to know,” asked Larry despairingly. “What satisfaction does it give you? They’re all either fossilized or mental.” 

“Indeed, they’re not mental,” said Mother indignantly.

“Nonsense, Mother… Look at Aunt Bertha, keeping flocks of imaginary cats… and there’s Great Uncle Patrick, who wanders about in the nude and tells complete strangers how he killed whales with a pen-knife… They’re all bats. 

“Well, they’re queer; but they’re all very old, and so they’re bound to be. But they’re not mental,” explained Mother, adding candidly, “Anyway, not enough to be put away.”

 5. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind by Roy Porter

I have an A-level in British and European History, which, when you take the content of it as a whole, probably says a frightening amount about the person I am.

The syllabus was framed in such a way that it mostly means I have an A-level in the history of the Protestant churches of Europe and the Church of England, but there was a divergent part to it which allowed students to choose their own subject for their upper sixth coursework. The question I set for myself was: “The years 1901 to 1948 were a golden age for public health medicine in the United Kingdom. Discuss.” I covered the development of sanitation and the Public Health Act, the influence of triage medicine and war medicine during the First and Second World Wars, and the advent of the NHS. (I would find plenty of holes in it to poke now, I’m sure, but it is the thing I most regret losing when that laptop went blue-screen-of-death.) Roy Porter’s book covers, in broad strokes, the whole history of medicine starting, I recollect, from the ancient people of Greek and Egypt, and I hope one day to get hold of a copy of my own, but the chapters on the early twentieth century informed the bulk of my background reading when I started answering that question.


6. The Wrong Messiah by Nick Page 

This is my go-to book in Holy Week, and I associate it with reading the last chapter while sitting on the freezing cold tiles at the back of church during the Vigil. It’s a historical examination of the life of the son of a carpenter, about why he would have been the very last person anyone would have chosen to make Messianic claims to front a new religion/cult/political movement and why that means that we know he was for real. It’s also a beautifully painted and intricate portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, of the life he led and the mission he had and, ultimately, the death he died.


7. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I would read a shopping list if it was written by Sebastian Faulks. When I was at Durham, I had a long-standing friendly disagreement with my College principal about our respective preferences for Birdsong and for Charlotte Grey. This was the first time I’d read Faulks. I think it was the first time as an adult that I’d read any war literature at all — coming at it with a teenager’s memory of being struck, deeply and immuteably, even now, by a school visit to the battlefields of France and Belgium. I finished it at 4am, sprawled out on the bed of my first year room in halls, snotty and weeping, the sun rising over the Tees out the window as my mind struggled to climb out of the trenches. My experience of reading Birdsong was not unlike my experience of seeing War Horse, one night that hit me so deeply in the gut I’ve been reluctant to go back to it for fear that it couldn’t possibly be so perfect the second time around.

Stephen looked down at the floor of the German trench. He could not grasp what had happened. Four years that had lasted so long it seemed that time had stopped. All the men he had seen killed, their bodies, their wounds. Michael. His pale face emerging from his burrow underground. Byrne. The tens of thousands who had gone down with him that summer morning. He did not know what to do. He did not know how to reclaim his life.

8. Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg

This is a coming-of-age story. It is about growing up and falling in love and poetry and making mistakes and New York in the fall. It’s like Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, except that (1) the protagonist is a woman, (2) the protagonist is a lesbian, and (3) the story is, fabulously, not actually about either of those things. It is wonderfully well written. It wasn’t marketed as LGBT fiction and at that time of my life I probably wouldn’t have bought it if it had been.

If you want to believe in serendipidity: I picked it almost entirely at random in the WHSmiths in Newcastle Central at 5am, when I realised that I had no book and an eight hour round trip ahead of me to a medical school interview. And for a seventeen-year-old who didn’t know what to think about her own sexuality and wasn’t used to seeing people like me in the books I read or the television I watched or the films I saw, it was an incredibly important book.

I plan to learn enough to read you like a book.
I plan to give this book to you and know you’ll read it,
so our minds may meet across these pages,
in the colourful country of another writer’s language,
where we can flourish in the knowledge
that we are learning how to speak to one another.

9. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

This is simply a proper good read, for people who like to curl up on wet Saturdays with a decent pot of coffee and a couple of cats and a massive story.

It has Victorian London and intrigue and a prostitute called Sugar and the Church (and Charles Darwin setting it all of a flap, and you do know how I like to set the Church all of a flap). I read it years before the BBC series was even thought of and I find that I don’t want to see it, ever, none of it, no matter how good everyone tells me it is, because there are some books so fantastic that I refuse to allow someone else’s imagination in.


10. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

 You’ve heard of magic realism (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for reference, and The Green Mile, a bit). I think that this is what science fiction realism would look like if that were a genre, but don’t let that put you off.

I’m going to torture a metaphor for a little bit, via being an enormous nerd: the Doctor once told Amy and Rory Pond about a thing that has been there for as long as there’s been something in the corner of your eye or creaking in your house or breathing under your bed or voices under a wall. That’s how I remember the secret in Never Let Me Go. You will know from the beginning of Chapter 1 that there is something going on that you don’t know about, something that isn’t quite right, something simmering under the surface, something right there in the corner of your eye. And then you will find out what it is. And it will break your heart.

Tales Of Clinic

I have in the decade-and-a-bit since I left the city in which I was born been mistaken for Irish (a lot), Indian (casual racism in the general direction of call centre staff, which was my old job), “from New England” (by a Canadian), and Scandinavian (yesterday).

Occasionally, someone gets it right. For example, when, as is usual for me these days, we have been talking at some length about their cancer.

 Beth: Your bloods all look quite good, and…

Patient: *develops fit of giggles*

Beth: Um?

Patient: Oh, gosh, I am sorry, but it’s like I’m talking to Sarah Millican.


In which I am minding my own business as I dictate letters and inhale coffee.

Nurse: Oh, excellent! Oh, I just saw you there, Doctor, and I was reminded of sputum!

The Great North Run — Again

In a little over two weeks time, I’ll be on the start line of the Great North Run.

(Or, if I choose to be accurate, I’ll be standing about a mile back from Seb Coe and his starting gun. My number is forty-five thousand and something.)

If you have been around that long, you may recall that I ran a bit when I was a medical student. You may also recall that my last race was this same race in 2012, a month into FY1. It was peppered with disasters, like, for one thing, my training plan, such as it was, and also like leaving my shoes behind a photocopier in Stirling and so spending the first part of the weekend trawling Newcastle for an identical pair. Nevertheless, it was an incredible experience (I high-fived Mo Farah!) and I swore then that I’d be back, one day, for the Red Arrows and the Tyne Bridge and Local Hero and that amazing final straight along the South Shields seafront.

Afterwards, I mostly hung up my running shoes for a year. I was too exhausted for a lot of FY1 to do much of anything at the end of the day besides collapse into a tiny heap in the middle of my sofa. But eventually I developed some kind of stamina and then, slowly, sometimes painfully, through my FY2 year, I laced up my shoes and began to be a runner again.

And now it’s 18 days until I am indeed back for the Red Arrows and the Tyne Bridge and all the rest of it.

My training this time around has been far from textbook – for example, there is a hole in it that I can identify as my cardiology weekend on call – but it has been an awful lot better than I did last time. The highlights of my training will be the time I’ve spent running along the Clyde, particularly the day when I wasn’t expecting the Commonwealth Games flotilla to suddenly appear over my right shoulder. And, for sheer bullheadedness, the night I accidentally ran nine miles in hammering rain. I feel that I’m more psychologically prepared for it this time, and that is as important as anything.

I am running this year on a charity place that was kindly given to me by Kidney Research UK. They were the first charity I ever fundraised for, twenty years ago, and I’m doing this for them because kidney disease was the thing that brought to an untimely end the life of my dad, Bob, twenty years ago next summer. You can read more about his story and about the work of Kidney Research UK on my fundraising page, and if you feel moved to do so you can also donate there.

18 days.

Two more long runs.

And shoes. I really must remember my shoes.

Dear Vicky

Dear Vicky,

I was quietly checking my Twitter feed before bed last night when I learned that with few fireworks and little fanfare, you had spoken to the Independent about being a gay Christian woman and thus launched what I imagine must have been 24 hours of somewhat of a circus.

In the world in which we live (and which I rejoice in living), there are going to be a lot of folk scratching their head over why what you have done is important, because, after all, being gay (or lesbian or bisexual) isn’t a big deal anymore, right? Alas, not in the Church. Also, for the record, not in professional sports or in Hollywood, thus completing the unlikeliest trifecta since eggs, bunnies, and Jesus. I know you know that. I know, because it’s the history written in your scars and your soul and now across the world in newsprint.

In the church that I now attend, it took me six weeks to sneak up to one of the clergy after Mass and say, “Um, so, about this LGBT Group…” St Mary’s has never been in the closet about its liberalism; on my very first Sunday we prayed during the intercessions for a blessing of a civil partnership, plus, well, there was an LGBT Group, so it’s not like I didn’t know. But, at the time, being out at church felt like a big deal in a way that being out in the rest of the world didn’t. Even now there are plenty of delightful liberal well-intentioned people who presume until told bluntly otherwise that “gay Christian” isn’t a thing. This year at Synod, on the first day, I got up and proposed a motion that was viewed by parts of the establishment as terrifyingly radical and, had it passed, would have put us on a trajectory to allow the marriage of same-sex couples within the Church — and then on the second day I had to actually out myself, because apparently that part hadn’t been clear to everyone.

And all of that was just for me, with no reputation at stake and nothing to lose and quite comfortable in the knowledge that conservative evangelical America has never cared who I am. You have done a big thing and a brave thing, and nobody gets to minimise that. If they try, ask them when the last time was that a Church of England Bishop came out voluntarily and they’ll soon shut up.

Vicky, I hope you have seen the outpouring of goodwill for you on the Internet over the last 24 hours. I pray that that goodwill is reflected by what you encounter out there in the world. I know that it won’t be so everywhere, and so do you.

I talked to a friend last night as your story was breaking. “They’re going to throw rocks at her,” I said. (Metaphorically.) “They are, and she knows it and she’s done it anyway.”

But when they do, I want you to remember this: I want you to remember that for every Scott Lively, there is a young gay man who has thought for years that he is somehow broken and who knows now that he is loved and blessed and perfect just the way he is. I want you to remember that for every Ann Coulter, there is a teenage lesbian who was told that she would be condemned by her God and who knows now that she was made in His image and likeness. I want you to remember that for every Westboro Baptist, there is a family who rejected their gay son or daughter and are now maybe starting to think differently about what God would want for them. For every person who condemns you, there is a person whose life you have just made better by telling them that God loves you and God loves them and God loves all of us anyway.

It is no easy feat, to live the story that you’ve now shared with us and to come up on the other side with grace and faith.

As you move forward in the world, gather in the love and the love and the love that we all offer you, and may God bless you, today and always, in everything that you do and in all that you are.

With prayers and good wishes,