24. Dangling from the last helicopter out.


What a lowly position feels like.

Sometimes Depression is a sign that your predicament is poor. Surveys show large numbers of people think about quitting their job, but very few actually do so.

A life-time ago, I can remember spending Monday afternoons in an operating theatre, assisting my boss, who was a vascular surgeon. Every week, at about 4pm, there would be a commotion in the theatre next door, as the very temperamental colo-rectal surgeon working there went slightly berzerk. Sometimes he would hurl items of equipment at the wall. Usually he would announce his resignation and storm out. He was always back next week though.

Remember the last scene in Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callaghan, throws his police badge into a pond?

What symbol of your job would you throw into the water if you decided to quit in disgust, as the camera zooms out and the credits roll?

If you are a gynaecologist, perhaps an laparoscope would do, an old style – rigid model, thrown like a javelin. The butcher could throw his white trilby hat like a frisbee. But what about the Timpson’s shoe repair and key cutting man, who looks increasingly fed up? He’s big, but how far could anyone throw a lathe?

I have just the thing, which is a John Major era ‘Chartermark’ badge. The citizen’s charter was a policy intended to elevate the concerns of ordinary folk, like the increasing numbers of traffic cones. The problem was, there were no ordinary folk left. The baby boomers were all special.

The badge is made of bronze and about the size of a broad bean. I could skim it far out onto the river on a calm day. I’m sure though, if I went to the river there would be a queue of disgruntled workers hurling various emblematic work items.

What expression should one choose for the camera, just before the zoom-out? Sad inevitability? A mixture of guilt and relief? Or – it’s video remember – deadpan? As though all the life has gone out of you?

More and more people are fed up with work and a lot of them have suffered ‘burnout’. Neil Young said ‘its better to burn out than to fade away’, but in a sense the two things are the same, just different types of oxidation reaction.

The phrase burn-out, which was hyphenated in those days, apparently derives from Graham Greene’s book, The Burnt-Out Case, which features an exhausted celebrity architect who goes to work at a leper colony. The parallel is between architecture and leprosy in terms of their effects on people, which is to make them quite interesting and very thin.

The ‘Whitehall’ studies looked at sickness in various groups of workers within the civil service. They seemed to show that the more lowly paid the job, the more stressful it turned out to be, which is the exact opposite of the commonly-touted belief that high-flying jobs are the most vexing.

Nevertheless, even in medicine, which is quite rewarding in many ways, my impression is that an increasing number of people are walking away, sometimes after a dozen or more years of training and dedication.

I tried to research the number of doctors who are qualified but don’t work in medicine, but it is hard to get these statistics.  A sizable number are still registered and licensed by the GMC but will quit as they come up for revalidation (or to give it its proper name, The Cull.) Many more work part time or intermittently, via agencies.

Whatever the number in work, if you look around your locality, ask yourself: are there any more GPs than there were 20 years ago? And: how easy is it nowadays to sign on with a GP?

As far as I can see, the answers are, ‘No’ and ‘as easy as getting through Tintwistle’. I’m not sure where the GPs are going, but its probably the same place as the bumble bees. Studies have shown that GPs have the highest burnout rate of any professional group, up to 40%, at least in Holland.

Not been to Tintwistle? Let me explain:

The giant industrial cities, Manchester and Sheffield sit about 35 miles apart on either side of a small set of hills called the Peak District. Because they are in the north of England, there is no proper road joining them up. Things start well enough, as you leave Manchester on a fine new highway called the M67. After five miles, the M67 ends abruptly and you are frozen in traffic, as though liquid nitrogen had suddenly been sprayed over the road from a giant cartoon airship flown by Mister Freeze.

During my time at Tintwistle, which was longer than many prison sentences, I reflected on the notion of helplessness, and how it affects the nervous system. The most accurate description I can think of is that helplessness hits the human organism like a rubber hammer. There are no wounds, no broken bones, not even ruptured internal organs. Just a sense that something deep inside of you is broken.

I can remember similar effects from going on fairground rides with inappropriately high and sustained circular motion. What initially seem to be expressions of happiness on people’s faces turn out merely to be rictus grins caused by G force.

Getting stuck at Tintwistle has much in common with being in a low paid job in the civil service. You have little control over your destiny. And its too late to wonder what you were doing there in the first place.

The truth is, no-one gives much advice about the really important choices in life. Things like which partner to choose, what career to follow, or which team to support. These often start out like the M67, wide and promising, and then, suddenly, the road just runs out.

It’s easy to see people who have chosen completely the wrong jobs. There’s the lollipop man who attacked someone with his lollipop. There’s the science teacher who battered a pupil with a 3kg dumbbell, shouting ‘die, die, die’. There’s Tony Blair as peace envoy to the middle east. And there’s the man at Tesco who prints the yellow price stickers, who should be a master villain in a Bond movie.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize – winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman reveals that he and his team of experts were quite unable to predict who would succeed as army officers, despite all kinds of aptitude tests. So it seems unlikely that the school careers teacher will succeed in putting everyone on the right path.

Perhaps people are more likely to change job nowadays in mid life, giving a chance of redemption.

Otherwise I think I have a solution, based a bit on Prime Ministers’ cabinet re-shuffles. My idea is to put someone like the town mayor or an official psychologist in charge of employment. He would be able to shuffle people from one job to another if they are looking burned out.

So the Timpson man becomes the science teacher. The butcher becomes the gynaecologist. The science teacher gets to cut keys. And the gynaecologist gets to kill serial killers in San Francisco.

The civil service can be moved to Tintwistle, so that everyone is always late and the activities of the government will be frozen, like in Italy.

There was no scene showing Harry Callaghan with a snorkel and flippers, retrieving his badge for the sequels, but he returned several times. Even worse, none of the sequels allowed him to move to a less bureaucratically-frustrated role, such as running the police pottery workshop, and the body count continued to rise.

Perhaps the GPs will return for a sequel one day, or even turn up at the end of the movie, like the old naval warriors in Battleship.

Or, just as all hope is abandoned, the bumble bees will swarm back over the horizon in giant black clouds. They have made enough honey not only to feed us but to run our cars too.