A Sociological Autobiography: 18 – Early Years at The Middlesex

By | October 3, 2013

In 1978 I was appointed full-time lecturer at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, which was to be my base until UCL chewed up and spat out a few bits before swallowing the rest whole in 1987. My office was a dark, dusty, dingy room in, if I recall rightly, Hanson Street. In my desk I found a series of union leaflets from which I discovered that I had replaced a colleague, John Anderson, who had – for whatever reason – not outlasted his probationary years; this did not make me feel good. I had as it turned out joined a team of four behavioural scientists. The other three were psychologists David Mulhall and James Thompson, and fellow sociologist Ray Fitzpatrick. David Mulhall left not long after my arrival to return to the NHS as a clinical psychologist and was replaced by Stanton Newman. Stan’s ambitions showed early. I remember once saying to him ‘You’re ambitious aren’t you?’ ‘What’s wrong with that’, he replied. I could find nothing wrong with it; I was just being Anglo-Saxon. Was I ambitious? I certainly had no institutional goals, quite the contrary: I have never wanted to ‘run’ anything. What I always used to say, and do yet, was that I aspired ‘to write a half-way decent book or two’. Now how Anglo-Saxon is that? The four of us had fun working together.

Amazing though it now seems, our boss, John Hinton, Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Department, had negotiated 120 hours in the second pre-clinical year for our course in behavioural science. He was a shrewd but gentle and benign influence, very much an old-style scholar; he was to be overtaken by events but never lost his calm and dignity. Whether from humility or fear of fatigue we behavioural scientists never claimed our maximum 60 hours per discipline, opting instead for 30-35 hours each.

It would be misleading to describe our teaching as integrated, although we did offer a few joint lectures. The intake of 80 was manageable and, as far as sociology was concerned, permitted two sets of small-group teaching in addition to a standard lecture course, the first around a menu of topics from which students made their choices, and the second incorporating placements in local GPs’ surgeries sandwiched between briefing and de-briefing sessions. As in the Charing Cross days, we relied on a loyal band of expert peripatetic tutors, supplemented over time by the likes of Clive Seale, Sarah Nettleton, Judy Green, James Nazroo and others. Each set of small-group sessions required an essay from the students and these fed into the overall assessment. The course culminated in a two-hour unseen examination shared by psychology and sociology.

James Thompson, it is fair to say, was our star performer as behavioural scientist/teacher/lecturer. But it fell to me to conduct the sociology revision session prior to the exam. My sense was that students should not waste their time revising topics that were not represented, the more so because sociology, though important, was – quite rightly – on the periphery of their curriculum. So how to phrase my clues? It was a wondrous dialectic with a lecture theatre, usually on the third floor of the Windeyer Building, replete or bursting. They probed, I hesitated and stammered. But I never gave away too much, and I always made sure that non-attendees had the same clues as attendees.

When John Hinton retired he was succeeded by Rachel Rosser, whom I already knew, not least for her peremptory treatment of secretaries at Charing Cross. John’s quiet skills had been in treating both faculty and patients (notably with terminal illnesses) with decency and sensitivity; Rachel was fascinated by QALYs. The lecture theatre was bursting at the seams for her inaugural address, not least because we had all been pressed into service as advertisers. In fairness, the Department expanded exponentially under her regime. Chairs abounded. I liked her, but she was a troubled women. On one occasion she stormed into my office, having got the wrong end of an unimportant stick, and told me that I had no future if I neglected to mend my ways. I told her that I was not up for intimidation and that she should ‘sod off’. It was high-risk, but to her credit – in my view at least – having slammed my door and ignored me for a fortnight, she then grinned in the corridor and resumed good, respectful relations. With hindsight I was lucky. Looking back now I have mixed feelings about a ‘vote’ we four behavioural scientists took as to her personal trajectory: two of us predicted that she would continue ‘on the edge’, two that she would ‘fall apart’. Tragically, she died in post. I got it wrong.

Rachel’s successor was Stan. Ray was gone by this time, having landed a prestigious post at Nuffield College, Oxford. By this time a socialist, I had not been tempted to apply for the post Ray landed, but I do recall Mike Bury and I quipping about having badges made for those of us who opted not to apply. All sorts of putatively ‘radical’ colleagues queued up for this one-off opportunity, a few more in hope than expectation. Ray would not have described himself as a socialist or radical (indeed, unlike me, he had argued that Labour should obviously elect Dennis Healey rather than Michael Foot as Callaghan’s successor). I missed him when he left. A very talented sociologist, he turned his hand to health services research and was to shine within an under-appreciative Oxford as a contributor and facilitator of pioneering research. For a few years after he left I confess that I nagged him for exchanging sociology for health services research. He was very patient with me, and I came to my senses: horses for courses. I have been fortunate with my consociates. I still do an annual Oxford lecture for Ray and relish lunch either with him or with Crispin Jenkinson, as well as a sojourn in ‘Blackwells’.


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