Liam Farrell: Just call me Ishmael

His wooden leg was causing him considerable distress, he said; it was constantly painful and restricted his mobility, making him irritable all the time.

I referred him to prosthetics; he was fitted with the latest plastic gizmo, and, liberated from the chronic discomfort, his demeanour was transformed. In no time he was scampering around the village, playing football with the kids and goosing the old ladies. He got married, settled down, opened up a barber-shop, and forgot all about his sworn vengeance on the Great White Whale.

I had not only removed his wooden leg, I had removed his motivation; less driven, less compelling, though much happier, Captain Ahab’s gain was great literature’s loss.

Word soon got out to the other famous literary characters; our role as doctors is to care for everyone, young and old, rich and poor, native and alien, real people and those who are not. The next day the waiting room was packed, heaving with heaving bosoms and irresolvable moral dilemmas.

And also, notably, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. I called in the source, a young knight with a lily on his brow, referred him to the respirologists, and advised an online dating service.

‘La belle dame sans merci no longer hath thee in thrall,’ I said.

Then a Ms Louise Alcott came in. ‘Wipe that smile off your face, joy-boy,’ she snarled, in a distinctly unladylike manner. 'Beth Marsh was here, wasn’t she?’

I pointed out that medical confidentiality was all-encompassing, which included imaginary people.

‘She had scarlet fever, and you just had to give her antibiotics,’ she said. ‘Thus preventing her from developing rheumatic fever and suffering a life of disability and an early death. My whole Little Women gestalt is superfluous; no self-sacrifice, no lifetime of selflessly caring for Beth. How are their characters expected to grow? Years of hard work up the Swanee, thanks to you and your antibiotics.’

Unfortunately happy, healthy people do not make interesting characters. To develop and grow, we need a challenge, a conflict. Everything worthwhile that will ever happen to us will involve pain and distress and cognitive dissonance.

As Harry Lime said in The Third Man: in Italy under the Borgias they had terror and bloodshed, yet also Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, 500 years of peace resulted in the cuckoo clock.

  • Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell

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