‘Cecil Helman – A Biography’ by Clive Sinclair
Clive Sinclair offers a detailed and personal insight into the life and work of Cecil Helman to accompany clinical and academic reviews of his posthumous book, ‘An Amazing Murmur of the Heart‘.
Cecil Helman (1944-2009) was not your average GP. I never visited his surgery, but his study was a small republic; let’s call it Helmania. On its walls are his credentials: his medical certificates (he qualified as a doctor in his native Cape Town in 1967, leaving for London two years later sickened by apartheid); his many accolades in the field of Medical Anthropology (including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Anthropological Association, and the Lucy Mair Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute); a staff card from Harvard (dated 1984); the ornate seal of his rabbinic grandfather; and – displayed with equal prominence – a Master of Dada Degree.
Beyond immigration control, as it were, the landscape of Helmania awaits, an entire wall of Cecil’s bright paintings, full of visual puns. For verbal puns look to the shelves, and to numerous books he authored. Following the example of Abse, Bulgakov, Chekhov and Doyle, Cecil was a doctor who wrote, or perhaps a writer who doctored. In 2003 he edited an anthology – Doctors and Patients – in which such two-headed medics used one skill to address the other. Cecil was different to the extent that he took a more holistic approach to his twin passions. But were these twins identical – maybe even Siamese – or did they develop separately? Is this the swork-place of a man with multiple personalities, or are all the discrete items I have detailed actually component parts of a larger whole? You can guess the answer: Helmania is no archipelago. So what is it? How was Cecil – Dr Helman – able to combine the two sides of his personality; the scientific and the anarchic?
Well, I believe that there is an unbroken line that runs from his seminal textbook, Culture, Health and Illness (1984), now an essential teaching tool in universities round the world, through Body Myths (1991), a meditation upon the possibilities of the human frame, through surrealistic fables and prose-poems such as The Exploding Newspaper (1980), The Golden Notebooks of Ambrosio P (1990), An Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds (2006), and onto his most celebrated book Suburban Shaman (2006), which demonstrated just how his humanistic method of medical practice emerged from his own experiences. The link between these disparate texts is the entry of the unexpected into the quotidian, either in the form of a bizarre illness or a metaphor made real.
The currency of Cecil’s world – of Helmania – was the story. Cecil argued passionately that the doctor’s duty was to listen to the patient and in that way make sense of their symptoms. Blood work, x-rays, scans were never sufficient, for they failed to take into account the cultural background of the sufferer. It followed from this that cures were not always the end-product of Western science. Such conclusions led Cecil to value the role of traditional healers, most particularly in South Africa and Brazil (where he travelled regularly under the aegis of the British Council).
Indeed, the distinction between curing and healing became paramount for Cecil, and informs all his late work, which he saw as a new beginning, not the concluding chapter it became. When BBC Radio 4 selected Suburban Shaman for broadcast as a Book of the Week, he began to think seriously of a career as a full-time writer. All the more so when the book received further accolades: the Royal College of General Practitioners’ Abercrombie Medal “for an outstanding contribution to the literature of general practice”, and the Book of the Year Award from the Society of Medical Writers. But no sooner had he completed another collection of “tales from medicine’s frontline” (as the Suburban Shaman was subtitled) than his voice was snatched from him – literally so. It was a sadistic twist of fate that verged on the surrealistic. Motor Neurone Disease was diagnosed, and it progressed rapidly, devoid of reason or mercy. But that was not the end. To Cecil goes the last word. His voice – loud and clear – can be heard throughout An Amazing Murmur of the Heart, as he sits in his surgery, awaiting the knock of yet another patient with mysterious symptoms and a story to match.