Reflections on A Fortunate Man
Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for a life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with the inhabitants, are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal. To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it… – John Berger
On Saturday 22 April we launched A Fortunate Man with a group of emerging writers, theatre makers, artists and photographers. New Perspectives have invited myself and photographer Julian Hughes to work with their emerging company to make a show inspired by the book of the same name by John Berger and Jean Mohr. It was an interesting day as we talked about where our work met, somewhere between the paragraph and the photograph. Julian shared a series of images of the book and I read some text written in response to it. We talked about motifs of trees growing, water flowing, the river that runs through the book, the bend in the river that reminds the doctor of his failure. We talked about how to stage the afterword.
We talked about nature and how it informs the landscape in which the book is set. We talked about how to understand a landscape we have to situate ourselves in it. We talked about how to be a storyteller we have to listen. We talked about how the images and text in our project should have a conversation. We talked about how we were detectives following a line of enquiry. We talked about quotes and pictures from the book. One group picked out the line where the doctor says he lives behind his eyes. One group went out of the studio and covered the book in blossom. One group threw their book into the lake and brought it back soaking wet. We talked about how we might bring the book to life and tear it apart, page by page.
I sometimes wonder how much of me is the last of the old traditional country doctors and how much of me is a doctor of the future. Can you be both? – Dr John Sassall
The book that inspired this project – A Fortunate Man – follows Dr John Sassall on his journey around a rural community in the mid-sixties. A loner, an eccentric, a workaholic, a physician strongly driven by a need to cure and hurt by failure to do so. He heals the sick. He makes patients smile. He wrestles with depression. He faces death every day. It makes him work harder. Dr Sassall’s daily life was documented by writer John Berger and photographer Jan Mohr in the 1967 book. 15 years after the book was published Dr Sassall committed suicide.
New Perspectives invited us to retrace Berger’s and Mohr’s footsteps to ask what has changed. How has the NHS evolved to deal with migration to and from these communities? How do doctors balance meeting patients with meeting targets? How do they hold up the old values against the new values of post-Brexit Britain? We will lead a collective of emerging artists from the East Midlands to revisit Berger and Mohr’s seminal work and splice it together with interviews with doctors working today to ask how fortunate are they or how fortunate are we?
Part slide-show, part adaptation, part political manifesto, A Fortunate Man pulls back the curtains in the doctor’s surgery to reveal the state of the nation’s health and take the pulse of the caring profession in the 21st century. It is a tribute to the old traditional country doctor and a plea to doctors of the future. It is a tribute to Berger and Mohr and the 50th anniversary of their landmark book. It is a tribute to a doctor who died. It is a tribute to A Fortunate Man.
Images: Julian Hughes